In his July 18 guest opinion, Chris Evans asserts that solar installations at the Benedictine Monastery, Temple Emanu-El and Catalina United Methodist Church are poorly designed and detract aesthetically from the community. As the designer of those systems, I would like to clear up some misunderstanding on Evans’ part, as well as challenge his assertions about the aesthetic impact on the sites and their neighborhoods.
Evans’ proposal that these systems could have been installed at a 5 degree tilt angle, reducing their height, is simply not a viable option given the financial requirements of the three sites in question. The negative financial impact of changing the Temple Emanu-El array to a 5 degree tilt would have been more than $200,000 over the life of the system.
Any design process takes into account multiple factors, including budget, code requirements, performance, client goals and aesthetics. In the aforementioned projects, the solar-energy system had to be installed at 20 degrees, or not at all. Other clients sometimes choose to have the solar project installed at lower tilt angles in order to meet their aesthetic preferences, but it is important to remember that the visual appearance of solar-energy arrays is as appealing to some eyes as it is detracting to Evans’. We work with clients who ask us to hide their arrays, and others who want the world to see them.
This begs the real question raised here: What are the impacts of our energy use, and how do we design future energy generation to improve the character and strength of our community?
Historically, we have prioritized lower-cost energy in exchange for the less favorable aesthetics of overhead power lines. If we look deeper, we have also compromised the long-term health of our community by mining and burning coal, consuming large amounts of water and producing air pollutants associated with cheap power. Solar energy provides a vehicle to improve the quality of life in our community in many ways: shade, financial benefits and environmental benefits.
To say that the Benedictine Sanctuary is not the appropriate place for a highly visible installation is to disregard the will of the sisters who own, live and work there. It is their choice how they contribute to our community and what they do with their property. Both an architect and a builder were on the project’s review committee, and as I understand it, they feel that the solar shade structures add to the character of their building while visibly expressing their values of living in a more sustainable manner.
The notion that a lower tilt angle would result in more shade is correct from a mathematic perspective, but incorrect when the required setback for the drive aisle in the parking lot is taken into consideration. If the arrays were installed at a lower angle, they would have lost a row of modules to avoid encroachment on the minimum drive aisle, which would have resulted in less energy and the same amount of shade.
Additionally, the assertion that installations should not cover two back-to-back parking spaces ignores the cost efficiencies of this design. The lowest cost parking structures have a single post supporting a canopy that covers parking spaces on each side. Single space structures are significantly more expensive.
Rather than viewing solar shade structures as a blight, I encourage people to look at the bigger picture of our energy future and consider the positive impact of renewable energy on future generations. We would be much better served encouraging the city to focus on removing billboards from our streets, increasing the walkability of our communities and designing new buildings to be closer to the street with parking in the rear rather than denouncing the efforts of those in our community who take the bold steps to make a difference in how they create and use energy.