A Historic Home Goes Solar in Richmond, Calif.

atchison village

Historic homes aren’t usually the best candidates for a 21st century makeover. Yet outfitting it with solar is one update that’s been able to happen—and preserve its official designation.

Earlier this month, the city of Richmond, Calif. partnered with nonprofit solar provider Grid Alternatives to install a 1.1 kW system in the city’s historic Atchison Village. The partners estimate that over the system’s lifetime, it will offset over $9,000 of home energy costs and prevent the release of 30 tons of greenhouse gases.

“This is an exciting project in that it opens up solar for a historic development,” said Mara Meaney-Ervin, Grid Alternatives’ development officer in Oakland, Calif. “All the families in this area are affordable housing homeowners and low-income families.”

The cooperative housing community — which includes 140 affordable unit dwellings governed by a board of directors — was originally built in 1941 for Kaiser Shipyard workers.

Grid Alternatives, which has been working in Richmond since 2007 to install solar at low or no cost (thanks to income-based incentives and subsidies from the California Solar Initiative as well as both public and private donations received by the organization) for eligible families, first considered Atchison Village as a potential site for solar four years ago.

But securing the go-ahead wasn’t so easy. According to Adam Lenz, the environmental manager for the city of Richmond, Atchison Village’s board of directors first considered solar a few years ago, but could not come to a consensus on whether the technology was appropriate for their property. But last fall, after a homeowner signed on with Grid Alternatives, the board gave the green light for the 1.1 kW pilot system to be installed for one unit, Lenz said. (It’s currently waiting in PG&E’s queue to be interconnected to the grid, according to Meaney-Ervin).

“From the city perspective, we had to make sure that the installation was consistent with historical preservation [requirements], so we consulted the [city’s] historical preservation committee to make sure it wouldn’t impact the historical characteristics,” Lenz said. “And Grid Alternatives designed a system that had the same slope and angle of the eaves of roof itself.”

Before approving the installation, however, the homeowner had to agree that she would pay for any system maintenance costs.

The entire process took six months to complete, Lenz said. He added that the city and Grid Alternatives would like to install more solar systems in Atchison Village, but will first check back in with the residents before moving forward with more installations.

“We’d like to reengage the community there and provide a report out on what happened first … we’ll probably shoot for May,” he said.

According to Meaney-Ervin, Grid Alternatives has worked with the city to install over 140 solar systems in Richmond to date for low-income families. That bundle of projects represent $2.2 million in community investments, the organization said.

“Installing solar at Atchison Village is an opportunity to preserve history and promote progress,” said Richmond Mayor Tom Butt in a statement. “I hope the entire village participates in the program to demonstrate the importance of both Richmond’s rich history and evolution to green energy.”

Atchison Village photo courtesy of UC Berkeley.

Kristine Wong
Author: Kristine Wong

Kristine Wong is a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food. Her work has been featured in The Guardian (UK / US), The Huffington Post, GreenBiz, and other publications. Before becoming a journalist, she worked in community-based environmental and public health organizations for more than 10 years as a researcher and community organizer. She has degrees in natural resources and journalism from U.C. Berkeley and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Washington. Follow her on Twitter @wongkxt.

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