Luskin: Roof Envy

Jul 5, 2016

Earlier this year, my next-door neighbor installed solar panels on the south-facing roof of his barn, and my husband turned green with envy – roof envy.

He’s wanted solar panels for years, but our roof faces the wrong way. Since we can’t change the orientation of the house, we’ve doubled-down on energy efficiency in every way possible short of generating our own power. But watching the panels go up on the barn next door was too much for Tim. He called a local solar installer.

We have a long history with this outfit, whose roof-mounted solar hot-water system came with our first house, producing adequate hot water until we had two kids in diapers. Since then, both solar technology and our kids have matured. We already have a hybrid electric water heater; now we want solar electricity.

Time was when we dreamt of building an energy-efficient house, but we bought someone else’s dream house instead. Built in 1990, the house came with traditional state-of-the art energy efficiency for the era, and captures significant passive-solar gain through south-facing windows. But there’s no place on the roof for solar panels short of turning the building ninety-degrees.

But the solar folks came over on a bright winter day and determined that we had two good locations for ground-mounted panels, one on the upper field, in view of the house, the road, and the neighbors. The other location would be visible only to someone standing at the kitchen sink. Me.

I love the concept of small-scale solar generation, but I’m not enamored of turning any prime agricultural land into panels. I’d rather see panels mounted on every suitable roof, like my neighbor’s barn.

At the risk of disappointing my husband, I said, “No” to panels in our field. To my relief, he agreed.

Instead, through a community solar arrangement, we’ve become one of ten owners of panels installed on the roof of a nearby commercial building. This array feeds the power it generates directly into the grid, and our portion is then deducted directly from our electricity bill.

Roof top arrays are nearly invisible. Installing panels on industrial buildings already sited on cleared and developed land would protect Vermont’s rural landscape while increasing our capacity to generate clean power. We could also encourage all new buildings to accommodate solar panels, thereby not only increasing the production of local green energy, but also decreasing outbreaks of painful roof envy.