The US is in the midst of a building boom that will dramatically change the skyline of most major American cities. Among the many concerns about sprinkling our cities with supertalls, there’s one issue that’s starting to crop up in legal battles: shadowy urban landscapes could stifle the potential for gathering solar energy.
A great Washington Post article by Emily Badger explores the challenges that many US cities are facing as developers’ quest to build up conflicts with the livelihood of people down below. Although right-to-lighters and people paranoid about earthquakes certainly have their reasons for stopping growth, Badger points out that the real challenges to tall buildings are actually coming from the renewable energy side.
In DC, for example, the city’s zoning commission recently voted on new rules that would prevent buildings from going higher (called pop-ups) if they block already established solar panels:
This last area has become increasingly testy in Washington, where costly rooftop solar panels have spread alongside pop-ups in many residential neighborhoods. This spring, the city’s zoning commission voted to approve new rules on additions, including one that would prohibit them from shading nearby solar panels. If the rules are adopted, D.C. will join several cities that now have zoning laws protecting if not sunshine then at least “solar access.”
DC is definitely a special case as its archaic height restrictions will prevent anything tall from being built, ever. But it’s something to think about if this spreads to more cities. Will we see a kind of eminent domain-esque ruling where someone’s solar cells could prevent a skyscraper from being built? Even if it might only shadow it for an hour or two a day during a month or two a year?
The other big concern, like any claim against density, is that in the wrong hands, this becomes yet another NIMBY-fueled way to stop every new building. “Well, we might build solar in the future, so...”
This issue does open the door for two major changes in the way we collect and store solar energy. We may see more solar cell designs for vertical surfaces, thus incorporating solar into the exteriors of taller buildings themselves. Secondly, we may see a the proliferation in microgrids, essentially localized power plants, that can collect, store, and distribute energy in certain neighborhoods, without each building needing its own panel and closed system. In both of those cases, Tesla’s new battery will be able to help—if it lives up to the hype.
Top image of Midtown Manhattan’s new skyline by the Municipal Art Society of New York