Historic Kensington Road Harbors Solar Panel Pioneers

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Tuesday, December 17, 2019, 8:30 am
Chris Gray

Pat Barrett looks at a historical map of the Chesterfield Hills neighborhood from 1936. (Photos by Raymond Holt)

Take a pleasant stroll up the snowy sidewalks of Kensington Road, and you may catch an unusual sight for the Chesterfield Hills Historic District — glassy tiles on the south-facing gable of a 1924 house.

The tiles can be easy to miss; while obviously not of a Roaring ’20s vintage, they fit as neatly below the steep-pitched roof of the beige Tudor-style home as the handsome crimson trim.

The glass tiles are solar panels. Not the kind that produces electricity, but of an early generation type that traps heat from the sun to help keep the home toasty and warm.

The homeowners, Pat and Mary Barrett, are green energy pioneers, having installed the panels 40 years ago. The Middle East oil embargo of the 1970s made Americans conscious of the need to conserve fossil fuels for the first time, and before the urgency of climate change had reached the masses. President Carter installed solar panels on the White House, hoping to lead by example.

“I had been interested in solar heating at that time. I’d drawn up plans for my own solar water heater,” said Pat Barrett.

The panels (shown below) produce hot air which can be blown into the house with a fan, helping to offset their natural gas heating bill. They used tax credits to pay for the solar technology, which made the investment worthwhile, even if it has always been an auxiliary energy source.

Chesterfield Hills homeowners since 1963

The Barretts have lived in the house since 1963 and raised a son and two daughters there. Pat worked as a professor of English Language Studies at the university, specializing in English as a second language. They bought the home after returning from an MSU assignment teaching English in Okinawa, Japan. He’s now 90 while she’s 89. They’ve been married 65 years.

As oil prices crashed in the 1980s, political winds changed. President Reagan ripped down the solar panels off the White House that President Carter had installed. But the twin energy and climate crises never really went away. Both President George W. Bush and President Obama put in new, modern solar panels back at the White House.

More modern interest in solar technology in East Lansing has ticked up recently — with six new solar installations permitted in the past year, more than what was recorded in previous years.

The Building Department now has a handy solar checklist to help homeowners meet code, and new rules for the Historic Review Commission will help ease their placement on historic homes like the Barretts’.

“The big push has definitely been on the electric side, not the plumbing or heating,” said Scott Weaver, a building code administrator at the City of East Lansing. “We don’t see much of that anymore,” referring to panels that heat water or air, like the Barretts’. The electric technology could still be used to power electric baseboard heat, but is more focused on reducing the electricity bill rather than the heating bill.

Pat and Mary Barrett have been married for 65 years and have lived in their Kensington Road house since 1963.

Go Green! (Easier said than done)

Michigan’s famous mackerel gray skies have made it a less obvious investment than it might in a sunnier clime like Arizona, but the city of East Lansing is trying to encourage residents to think green.

In January, the East Lansing Solar Park came online with the Lansing Board of Water & Light at Burcham Park with 1,000 solar panels, enough to power 60 homes. About 150 customers signed a 25-year lease with an upfront cost of $399. According to the Lansing State Journal, the biggest investors are the City of East Lansing and the Capital Area Transportation Authority.

East Lansing Info had earlier reported that the 2.7-acre site faced countless delays. After an initial announcement in November 2015, it took more than three years to become operational. The delay did allow for more efficient panels, as the technology rapidly improves. Each solar panel is rated at about 315 watts.

The Barretts’ vintage solar panels are only so useful.

“It’s only effective on sunny days. It’s not efficient when it’s below freezing,” said Pat Barrett.

They’re also showing their age — an automatic switch that turned the fan off and on as needed broke repeatedly. Now, Pat Barrett said he’ll switch it on manually when he remembers.

Few East Lansing residents have followed in the Barretts’ footsteps, leaving solar panels an uncommon sight, on historic homes or otherwise.

“It was a company that was new in the area. We were one of the first customers,” said Mary Barrett. “We were happy to be a guinea pig.”

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