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The photovoltaic aesthetic

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In the rush to exploit the feed-in tariff, the visual impact of PV panels has been forgotten, writes Andrew Mellor

Photovoltaics have an important role to play in renewable energy provision. However, I have serious concerns about their aesthetic impact both on the buildings on which they are installed, and on the surrounding town or cityscape. In recent months, photovoltaic arrays have proliferated across the country in the rush to beat the reduced feed-in tariff (FiT) which came into effect on 1 April 2012,* and the visual impact of arrays seems to have been forgotten. 

To qualify for the FiT, PV installations must be undertaken by teams accredited under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme. Are these teams trained to consider the aesthetic impacts of large arrays on roofs? The evidence suggests not. There have been many prominent installations in conservation areas where I wonder if consent was needed; the Permitted Development Order includes conditions related to minimising the effect of PVs on the appearance of the building and the area. Companies should be required to advise clients of the potential need for consent.

Orientation and shading are further considerations. I have come across an installation on a north-east-facing roof where the homeowner will not generate much electricity, and will not realise that until they read the export meter or their FiT payment is much smaller than expected. Panels have not been installed in parallel horizontal rows, but rather form two awkward ‘arrowheads’. Will such an array add value or devalue a home? In another example, I recently drove past a farm with large arrays on two sheds, both facing due south. One had a tall row of trees just metres from it. Is this just bad advice, or does the owner intend to fell the trees?

Some large residential stock holders, particularly local authorities and registered providers, have contracted to rent roofs to third parties for photovoltaic arrays. PVs have been fitted to council-owned sheltered housing in the Cambridgeshire village where I live in the last few weeks. Not every home has an array (perhaps because the resident did not agree?), but the PVs were installed in phases, and those with later installations have different panels. The result is adjacent roofs with arrays of different sizes and panels. This is unlikely to affect the income of the third party who is renting the roof, but it does have an aesthetic impact on the urban environment for the next 25 years. Guidance for installers and careful detail planning could easily resolve this problem.   

Although we may see a minor PV rush before the next FiT reduction deadline in July, we are unlikely to see a repeat of the last few months as the financial incentive to install PVs is now reduced. So the damage is done. Reduced urgency provides an opportunity to consider what guidance is required to control the aesthetic impacts of installations.  

How have European countries responded to this problem? Has guidance been provided, are installers considering it or has the impact just been ignored? Perhaps because the financial incentives have been more prolonged and less subject to change than the UK, there has been more time to consider aesthetic impacts. 

This may be only the beginning of a myriad of new issues related to PVs. How long before we see the first legal case related to dazzle from an array affecting a neighbour’s quality of life or traffic on a highway? Or a case relating to daylight access where a proposed development blocks daylight to an existing array? The day may yet come when we see PV panels on internet bidding sites as their resale value is recognised. Might roofs be stripped overnight? In the meantime, improved guidance would ensure that PVs are installed to both maximise their efficiency and minimise their visual impact.

* For any installation not lodged by 3 March 2012

Andrew Mellor is a partner at PRP Architects

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