Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --Luereather Mitchell, 77, wanted to put solar panels on her lower ninth ward home but was denied a permit by the HDLC.

Luereather Mitchell, 77, lives on a sunny corner lot in the Holy Cross neighborhood. This time of year, her doors are often open, catching a cool breeze from the nearby Mississippi River. But last month, her electric bill was $160, too much for her fixed income, she said.

So recently, she made arrangements with PosiGen to put solar-power panels on her Burgundy Street house. A Lower 9th Ward neighbor told her that he had brought his own electric bills down from $200 to about $30 a month with leased solar panels, and she hoped to see the same savings.

At the October meeting of the Historic District Landmarks Commission, a photograph of Mitchell’s house was flashed onto the screen at City Hall. Then her application for solar panels was quickly shot down.

“There’s just no way to hide the panels,” Commissioner Calvin Alexander Jr. said as he moved for denial of Mitchell’s application.

While solar power is doing a booming business in New Orleans, its glass and aluminum roof panels don’t yet pass the city’s standards for historic buildings. For homeowners in the 10 historic residential districts governed by the HDLC, solar arrays are barred in “visibly prominent” locations.

“We recognize that our city is a living place,” commission Executive Director Elliott Perkins said. But like satellite dishes, skylights and cellphone antennas, solar panels need to be “as unobtrusive as possible,” he said.

Last fall, the commission held a special meeting to discuss solar panels, which have been appearing regularly on its agenda for a few years. For that meeting, the commission’s staff looked at panel colors, mounting techniques and heights of roofs. They researched laws in other historic cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Charleston and found that most don’t allow the panels to be visible at all from the street.

“We found that our guidelines are some of the most liberal in the country,” Perkins said.

The issue is also being debated elsewhere. The National Park Service, which administers the National Register of Historic Places, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have both released recent fact sheets about compatible placement of solar panels on historic buildings.

From the Park Service guide, it’s clear that it’s often easier to place solar panels out of public view on houses in other cities, with larger backyards and more complicated roofs than those on New Orleans’ historic doubles and shotguns.

That may make some New Orleans installations, like those on corner properties, more difficult, but they’re still possible, said C. Tucker Crawford, head of South Coast Solar, the first local company to install solar arrays in New Orleans in 2008, and to work with the HDLC staff about installations on historic buildings.

“Can we blend these boxy-looking solar panels with a historic home that’s 150 years old? The answer is, Yes, we can, ” Crawford said.

In the future, as solar shingles — small panels within a shingle — are improved, solar power will be even more compatible with historic areas, he predicted.

Most applications approved

In New Orleans over the past year, nearly 90 percent of the 204 applications to the HDLC for solar panels were approved at the staff level, while 27 “visibly prominent” instances were forwarded to the full commission for deliberation.

The types of applications approved administratively were mostly “shotguns midblock, with panels set back on the roof,” said Perkins, who said that few owners of corner houses even apply because they’re likely to be denied.

Roughly half of the HDLC cases forwarded to the commission in recent months came from Mitchell’s neighbors in the Lower 9th Ward.

Mitchell pondered the issue recently as she watched the autumn sun streaming in the windows of the shotgun house she’s owned for 30 years. Because she lives in a historic home on a corner lot, she essentially cannot harness that sunlight, she said.

Mitchell installed new, historically appropriate windows and a door a few years ago after a contractor installed windows that weren’t up to the HDLC’s standards. She is willing to comply with the commission’s guidelines, she said.

“But I don’t see a thing wrong with the solar panels,” she said. “I don’t know why they’re so concerned with them.”

Mitchell said she doesn’t know what to do next, whether to give up or go again to the commission.

McKinley Grant, who lives down the street, said there should be room for both history and new technology, and he recalled television ads from another era that trumpeted the city’s flexibility. “The ads would say, ‘New Orleans, where the old and new stand side by side,’ ” he said.

PosiGen spokesman Morgan Stewart said that company supports its customers and encourages them to resolve issues in advance, when possible. “But sometimes it’s just not possible to make enough alterations to a solar system to please those governing entities,” he wrote in an email.

Alexander, the HDLC commissioner for the Holy Cross neighborhood, thinks there may be a middle ground.

Part of the problem in Mitchell’s case was that a PosiGen representative did not appear at the HDLC meeting, he said, and so there was no discussion about whether it was possible to move the panels away from the morning-sun side of the roof. “In my opinion, if they were simply willing to shift panels to the side of the house away from the street, she’d have a good chance of having it passed,” he said.

Among top 10 cities

Among the hallmarks of post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding in New Orleans, solar panels have become increasingly common in the city, especially in the Lower 9th Ward, where the trend started with Brad Pitt’s Make It Right houses followed by Global Green’s Holy Cross Project, which created five single-family homes and an 18-unit apartment building near the river on Andry Street.

The Lower 9th Ward is now considered one of the densest solar-power neighborhoods in the country, said Crawford, of South Coast Solar. Overall, he said, New Orleans is among the top 10 cities nationally for solar installations, helped partly by generous state and federal tax credits.

Early on, Make It Right homeowners were bragging about their low power bills. For many local homeowners, utility bills are the second-highest payment they make each month, behind their mortgages, so the idea was instantly attractive.

In this hard-hit neighborhood, however, few low-income homeowners who had gutted and rebuilt their flooded homes had a spare $20,000 to purchase their own solar arrays. But people knew that the idea could work here, said Cynthia Smith, 59, who just added panels to her house on Andry Street. “I think that the idea started on the Brad Pitt houses and just spread from there,” she said.

Over the past year or so, panels have become more accessible for low- and moderate-income families. Companies like PosiGen and Joule Solar Energy began leasing solar panels for $50 or $60 a month in a process that allows the homeowner to sign over the tax credits to the solar company and basically enter into a 15- or 20-year rent-to-own agreement for the panels.

Casey DeMoss, head of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, said that while the alliance frowns upon most solar-panel applications that have been rejected by the HDLC, it supports the idea of leasing, which allows low-income people to afford solar power in a state where hot weather can create extremely high electric bills.

“Pretty much anyone in Louisiana can afford solar right now because of the tax credits, net metering and leasing policies,” DeMoss said.

The Lower 9th Ward has been buzzing about the idea for the past several months, residents say, and PosiGen says that the area has a “strong concentration” of its customers.

Varying results

Although some residents still scoff at the idea and worry about shady contractors or overstated promises of lower Entergy bills, the potential of solar has now reached legendary proportions on some blocks.

Alexander has heard it first-hand. “There’s a lot of conversation about it, absolutely,” he said.

Ernest Gabriel, 55, a retired Sheriff’s Office deputy who lives on North Rampart Street in a tidy house bounded by a fleur-de-lis fence, said he was one of the neighborhood’s earliest solar-panel rental customers. He used to pay $385 or $400 for his electricity bill each month, and now he pays about $100, he said.

A new study funded by the Greater New Orleans Foundation found that the energy-efficient Make It Right houses, which all include solar panels, had average monthly electric bills of $42; monthly savings on average were $130, said James Mazzuto, of Make It Right Solar.

Mazzuto, who has partnered with nonprofit groups in Central City and Gentilly to implement solar in newly built homes, noted that solar works best when its meters are monitored regularly for performance and when the installation is combined with other energy-efficiency measures like caulking around windows, attic insulation and better light bulbs.

Results vary widely. Several people interviewed in the Lower 9th Ward said they have seen their electric bills drop by about $100 a month, but they aren’t sure what the long-term effect will be because they have only a few months to gauge it by.

Matthew Roby, 49, said his sister-in-law had a $13 electric bill one month and his father-in-law has gotten a bill with only a credit on it. His solar array on Egania Street, however, has put nary a dent in his bill so far, he said as he stood outside in the bright sunlight, frowning at his idle solar meter.

Dianne Mercadel, 68, a retired sitter for the elderly who now tends for her bedridden brother in her house on Burgundy Street, said she had two months with no drop in her bill but then the company discovered a faulty meter. This past month, her bill dropped about $200. “It’s exciting to me,” she said.

Hidden by a tree

Alonia Riggelton, 68, a retired police officer who lives on Andry Street, considered solar when she was looking for some relief from her power bills, which ranged from $300 to $330 a month this summer. Overwhelmed by the bills, she wondered whether she should put up her house for sale, she said.

The HDLC staff sent Riggelton’s application to the commission because the panels on her 1960s, ranch-style home faced her front driveway. As Riggelton watched the HDLC meeting on television, a staffer introduced her application and recommended denial. Her heart sank.

Then Alexander spoke up on behalf of Riggelton’s proposal. Even though the district is historic, neither the house nor the block is, he said. And the array was black, not silver, so it blended into the roof, he said. In discussion, it was also noted that the array would be somewhat hidden by a tree, rendering it less “visibly prominent.” Her application passed with only two members opposed.

“I thank God for the tree,” said Riggelton, who holds out hope that her utility bill will decline, allowing her to stay on her block in Holy Cross, where she said everybody tends to their house and cuts their grass on time.

Her son in Westwego already has called a solar installer to his house, she said. “And if solar works for us, we’re going to put it on my daughter’s house, too,” she said.