TLDR: on an extended trip to Italy, hotel and business owners told me time and again of the dramatically increasing electricity costs and their struggle to survive and thrive in challenging times. Italy is a country of glorious sunshine, so why isn’t the country embracing solar electricity and installing solar panels on every available roof? The “protected status” of heritage buildings means that getting permission to install PV panels is a challenge, but does this make sense—in Italy and elsewhere—when generating clean energy and getting rid of “dirty” energy is so important for people and the planet?

Sustainability meets heritage: powering heritage buildings with solar electricity is a no-brainer

Recently, my husband and I have been on an adventure. We decided to put our electric car through its paces by testing its usefulness in what turned out to be a 5,000 km trip from Innsbruck, Austria to Sicily, Italy. For anyone unaware of where Innsbruck is in relation to Sicily, it’s about one hour from one of the northern-most borders of Italy, which means that the trip involved driving the length of Italy (about 1,200 km) plus around the coastline of Sicily, which is the southern-most tip of Italy, with numerous excursions into the interior.

I’ve written separately about how impressed we are with Italy’s infrastructure for electric vehicles. What struck us, however, was how few solar photovoltaic  (PV) panels we saw in cities, both historic districts and the newer neighbourhoods. This lack of solar generating capacity seemed absurd given the long days of uninterrupted sunshine, especially given humanity’s urgent need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. When locals in cities across Sicily and throughout southern Italy told us about their surging energy costs—for many, energy costs in June 2022 were at least double the annual costs for 2021, and expected to rise further in the coming months—we couldn’t help but wonder why more cities aren’t embracing and insisting upon the installation of solar panels.

I wanted to learn why this isn’t happening, and aside from budgetary issues, it turns out that a big challenge to clean energy across Italy is an aesthetic one. Like many countries in Europe, Italy has many historic centres, filled with beautiful old buildings, topped with (mostly) terracotta roof tiles. In fact, as of 2021, Italy had 58 sites listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the country with the most listed sites in the world. To give some perspective to this, China comes in second with a mere 56 listed sites. Every tiny village, including those inhabited by a few ageing natives and those that have become ghost towns as the last residents reach the end of their lives, has structures that can be classified as part of the country’s cultural heritage, and when it comes to the protection of cultural heritage, it turns out that Italian Laws are particularly strict.  That means that getting permission for SV panels on even “ordinary” properties, used for residential purposes since the year dot, is likely to be difficult to impossible, and likely expensive in the case of permission being granted. This is a challenge in a country where 31% of buildings across the country are considered heritage (and thus protected) buildings, with 19% being built before 1919 and 12% being built between 1919 and 1945.

Another challenge that comes up is aesthetics. Many Italian cities have terracotta roofs that are both distinctive, and that are simply “pretty”, if you’ll forgive my use of an underwhelming word. There seems to be a reluctance to do anything to destroy the look and feel of the roofscape (is this a word?), which brings us back to the concept of heritage, in which people want to preserve the values and aesthetic features of old properties.

Sustainability meets heritage: powering heritage buildings with solar electricity is a no-brainer

That means that on the one hand, we have unsustainable and every-increasing energy costs that are dependent on fossil fuels, which is particularly problematic in older structures that weren’t designed for energy efficiency, and on the other, we have laws and a general reluctance to install clean energy that will reduce costs and cut down on dirty energy.

What’s striking about this is that few of the heritage structures or atmospheric villages and towns that I have seen in Italy have been untouched by the modern world. Rooftops abound with antennae and satellite dishes. Washing lines adorn balconies and cross streets. “Creatively” installed cables transport electricity to homes. Cars and scooters (of the Vespa variety) and Apes (3-wheeled mini-trucks) abound, zooming along cobbled streets, belching fumes as they go.  Glass windows are the norm, and skylights dot the skyline. Hideous air conditioning units sit like modern-day gargoyles on ancient walls. These have all been deemed necessary for people to live and thrive in a changing world. Many could be described as additions that undermine heritage values and damage the aesthetic features of old properties, as well as their authenticity and original character. And yet, no one complains. In fact, the stinky Ape that rattles down the street and the haphazardly-installed electricity cables and the never-ending view of washing lines is something that adds to the flavour of Italian cities. It’s one of the things that makes them feel like living cities.

Sustainability meets heritage: powering heritage buildings with solar electricity is a no-brainer

My question, then, is why can’t SV panels become part of Italy’s charm? In fact, why can’t solar panels become part of the charge of heritage sites across Europe and the world?

As much as we’d like heritage buildings to remain static and unchanging, they aren’t. Many have changed hands many times in their history, and have been used for a variety of purposes: in Matera, for example, cave dwellings were turned into warehouses and storage rooms, or were converted from churches to residential use, and many are now used as hotels or museums. In the same city, beautiful churches have been de-consecrated and are used as art galleries. Throughout Europe, heritage sites that once had no running water or sewerage facilities or electricity now have all three.  With that in mind, installing SV panels—in a sensitive and thoughtful manner—should be a logical change that heritage professionals, city councils and city residents embrace.

Preserving heritage and implementing sustainable solutions like SV panels don’t have to be in conflict. If heritage structures can generate some or all of the energy that they need to function as homes or museums or offices, the money saved can be invested in their upkeep and maintenance, thus helping to preserve them further. If whole cities do this, then it adds to the local flair that comes from normal people living good lives in a thriving city.

SV panel installation on roofs in Italy, even where sites have heritage value, simply makes good sense. That applies to the rest of the world, too.

After all, if we don’t tackle the energy crisis now, and make radical changes to the way we live, consume, and emit, there is a chance that future generations may not get a chance to enjoy the sites that we are so carefully preserving.

This post originally appeared in the Whitby’s Sustainability blog.