Breckenridge encourages solar panels for buildings in historic district |

Breckenridge encourages solar panels for buildings in historic district

Robert Allen
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Innovative Energy employees Sean McPherson and Scott Grabham install the second of 30 solar panels on the south facing roof of a new home in Blue River last week. (Eric Drummond/Summit Daily)

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. ” Breckenridge officials are grappling with how to usher eco-friendly solar panels into the town’s historic district while preserving its renowned Victorian charm.

With a new ordinance, the town cautiously is moving toward encouraging solar power in the downtown area, provided that cells are kept mostly out of sight.

In the historic district, property owners may not install solar devices if the town determines them “detrimental to the character” of the vintage buildings.

“That perplexes me,” said Breckenridge author and historian Mary Ellen Gilliland, “because the green side of me says, ‘Yes,’ and the historic side of me says, ‘Don’t change buildings in the historic district.'”

The ordinance, which is expected gain final approval on June 10, creates standards for solar panels and other photovoltaic devices in the town’s development code and includes more flexible guidelines outside the downtown district.

The historic-district code is “one of the toughest sections” said town manager Tim Gagen, and because solar panels “stick out,” they’ve previously been more difficult to accept.

“Technically in the historic district, when you keep up your home, you’re supposed to use the same historic windows ” late 1800s to 1900s, single pane,” Gagen said, adding that this isn’t especially energy efficient.

Newer products that mirror the historic elements are available, he said, and the town has worked for the past several years to make the code more conducive to energy efficiency.

The new ordinance calls for solar devices to be coordinated with the roof’s color and run parallel to the original roofline.

Sean McPherson is a mechanical engineer with Innovative Energy, a Breckenridge company that installs solar panels. He said such guidelines are generally not feasible.

McPherson said solar panels must face south, tilted at an optimal angle of 45 degrees. He said custom-colored panels might be available, but the cost would be “through the roof.”

Breckenridge Mayor Pro-tem Eric Mamula said the town had difficulty determining guidelines pertaining to the historic district.

“It’s sort of the starting point, and we’ll see how it goes,” Mamula said. “If we have to fine tune the thing, I think we will.”

Mayor John Warner supports “adaptive re-use,” which improves a historic building, “making it as energy efficient as possible without changing the character.”

One enticing technology, he said, involves roof-integrated solar systems that use photovoltaic cells in devices similar to shingles.

But McPherson said such cutting-edge systems haven’t been proven to “hold up in alpine environments,” and installers have few high-efficiency options other than the more-traditional panels.

The average home requires about 30 solar panels, which each span about 2-1/2 feet by 5 feet and do not lie flush with the roof, McPherson said.

“What’s the aesthetics of a power substation or lines all over the county?” he said.

Julia Skurski, a town planner, said Breckenridge has approved 16 solar projects, including those yet-to-be installed.

“People are starting to rough-wire for solar panels so they can install them later if they want to,” she said. “We’ve seen a trend toward that, and we’ve really seen panels picking up here.”

The town intends to install solar panels on the Timberline child-care center and the town data center. Town manager Gagen said an audit of buildings is being conducted to determine other sites with potential for solar devices.

Other towns with historic districts, such as Idaho Springs and Black Mountain, N.C., also have begun approving solar panels on old buildings.

But Denver suburb Greenwood Village recently rejected a request from a car-wash operator to install solar panels, citing appearance.

Breckenridge historian Maureen Nicholls said she’s “very surprised” that the town is encouraging solar devices within the historic district.

“I’m glad the town is maybe seeing the light. You do have to change with the times, maybe a little bit,” she said.

Town council member Jeffrey Bergeron supports the move toward solar energy in the historic district, even at the risk of alienating purists.

“In the old days, we could be very rigid about maintaining a precise historical character,” he said. “When you look at it in terms of today’s times, in terms of escalating energy costs and just what’s the right thing to do for the planet, I think you have to be a lot more flexible.”