As Tucson ramps up the installation of solar power, we need to consider the consequences for our aesthetic environment.
Three recent solar installations have had a dramatic and adverse impact on three historic buildings, the surrounding neighborhoods,and the character of the central Tucson street scape. Parking ramadas with integrated photovoltaic solar panels have been installed at the Benedictine Sanctuary (800 N. Country Club Road), Temple Emanu-El (225 N. Country Club) and Catalina Methodist Church (2700 E. Speedway).
Of course the implementation of solar power is laudable, and the structures do double duty by providing shade and solar power, both important contributions to making Tucson more livable in the long term.
In all three locations, however, designers made the mistake of installing a ramada that covers two adjacent rows of parking with a steeply sloped shed roof, resulting in structures that are highly visible and exceed 20 feet in height. In a commercial setting that might be acceptable, but these structures now loom over adjacent residential neighborhoods and project into the foreground of these historic properties.
These installations impose an unnecessary visual blight on the community — better design could have produced a far more benign yet equally effective result. The reality is we don’t have to add this visual clutter to produce the solar energy we need.
The steep roof angle and excessive height was implemented ostensibly to maximize energy production. In the past, TEP and some local installers have promoted the installation of fixed solar panels at an angle near perpendicular to the noon sun angle on the equinox to maximize energy production, which in Tucson is 32 degrees. But photovoltaics still provide substantial electrical production at much shallower angles. Had the panels been installed within 5 degrees of horizontal, they would have produced nearly 95 percent as much power, been at least 10 feet shorter, much less expensive, and far less visible, with a profile similar to conventional covered parking. The panels would have also provided 15 percent more shade coverage in the summer, when it is needed most.
The closer to horizontal solar panels are installed, the less impact they have on our aesthetic environment. Placing photovoltaics out of view also provides the greatest flexibility in the future, if panels are damaged or are replaced with mismatched or less attractive panels.
Solar panels installed at or near horizontal also maximize energy production in the summer, which would provide real benefits to TEP and the community. In Tucson, we have an advantage in that peak energy demand coincides with peak insolation in summer. Installing photovoltaics that maximize production during peak energy demand would reduce pressure on TEP to increase power production from nonrenewable resources, and thereby has the potential to reduce consumer electrical rates in the summer when rates can be 10-50 percent higher.
There are times to integrate solar technology into the aesthetics of our environment rather than hide it; when done appropriately, building-integrated photovoltaics can complement contemporary architecture. But historic landmarks like the Benedictine Sanctuary are not the appropriate place for such highly visible installations. And in a setting where views of nearby mountains and desert skies are so valued, we should try to minimize the impact photovoltaics have on our skyline.
Solar installations will become the aesthetic equivalent of power lines or cell towers in the future if we don’t take greater care in how we install them today.