The Fourth River

Holding up the Panels on the Roof: Neighborhoods Fighting Climate Change

By on February 3, 2016

By Stephanie Vega, assistant editor, The Fourth River


I live in an old house. A very old house, built in the 1880s, with a very old slate roof. It’s brittle and breaks easily. It’s difficult to maintain, expensive to fix, and generally more trouble than it’s worth. But I love it. It’s one of the reasons we bought the house. So when I saw the solar panels going up in my neighborhood, I was torn.

It was exciting. The house on the corner had the whole front side of their roof covered in dark glass panels. They were up in just two days. Within weeks, two more houses had them down the block. I saw the little signs everywhere and I was invited to meetings.

Finally, I went to a screening of a Sustainability Pioneers film just down the street and saw smiling video of families as they went through the installation process. I was surprised at just how much prices had dropped, making solar a viable option. Maybe we could even get a solar panel on our roof.

After the film, I asked an installer about the necessary conditions and a ballpark estimates. While it could be done, my house was not the best candidate. Two large centenarian shade trees block the house, and the brittle slate would have to be replaced to install the panels. A new roof alone made the whole enterprise too high a cost for the small return to both my house and the environment.

I don’t want to admit it, but part of me was relieved. I love my trees and I love my ridiculous old slate roof. But I also wanted to be a part of this, of how my neighborhood was mobilizing around climate change. A panel is an individual thing. You either have it or you don’t. It nagged me.

But the films and meetings around going solar in my neighborhood opened up a whole area of local and regional regulations that I hadn’t considered before—the inefficiency of the grid in general, and the political climate that might allow federal tax credits for solar panels to expire soon. I left with a whole new set of petitions to sign and campaigns to join.

While a panel on a roof is a visible sign that someone is taking a personal stand against global climate change, some of the most active campaigners and organizers don’t own a panel themselves. So much comes down to getting involved and learning about local issues before we even have the opportunity to consider solar, and then so much goes into working through glitches and making it politically viable and scalable.

Walking in my neighborhood, seeing them glimmering on the rooftops between tall trees, I think of all the people that hold up the panels.