The visual impact of solar panels can be minimized, according to a report presented by the Environmental Sustainability Committee reported at the Oct. 2 City Council meeting.

The committee, tasked by the council to research the availability of minimally obtrusive solar panel energy system for installation on public buildings, consulted with architects and servers. Their research indicated less impactful and less costly systems are on the market.

"We looked into it and put together this report — basically getting away from the idea that solar panels are these big clunky things that always go on the roofs of building," said committee member Michelle Avallone-Noailles.

Pictures of various systems on a variety of structures were included in the report to demonstrate how panels can be integrated into buildings or stand alone, and the different sizes that are available.

"Essentially, you have three options available: traditional poly-crystalline panels — large 4 by 6 panels, the amorphous panels — these are more flexible film that are becoming very popular, but the efficiency is a little bit less, and the bifacial panels that are more similar to the 4 by 6 poly-crystalline panels, but allow more natural light through," said Laguna Beach resident Charlie Williams, an architect for the Third Street Centers.

"We are seeing a lot of their use in sky light situations, a great alternative to provide both solar energy and natural daylight," he added.

Williams said he has been consulting with other cities on solar panel installations, mostly on libraries, community centers and city halls.

State and federal incentives have generated the interest, he said.

"Incentives are becoming less available, but they are still out there," Williams said. "I encourage you to take advantage of them.

"But it is not always about the return on investment. When you look at the return on investment on these products, a lot have long-terms — 15 or 20 years, so sometimes people have difficulty in justifying that," he added.

It's more of a stewardship issue and a civic responsibility to teach the community about the benefits of clean energy, according to Williams, who encouraged others to do the same.

Williams said the community center project was designed to receive a 50-kilowatt system that would have generated 70,000 kilowatt hours, requiring about 200 of the 4 by 6 poly crystalline panels. The system was never installed.

Amorphic panels also could be used, but would be about 50% less efficient, Williams said.

Solar panels are also used on residences — Williams is in the process of looking at alternatives for his home.

Agreements are reached between homeowner and solar power provider on a lease.

"The [provider] maintains and owns the panels," Williams said. "Basically you are leasing the real estate on your roof; the benefit is a reduction in your bills."

However, glare is still a bugaboo.

"Glare is still a concern, amorphous is probably your best bet," Williams said.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson said that as of now, solar panels are better in flat places like Irvine than hilly areas.

"We were hoping to get away from that," Egly said. "Even the shingles?"

Williams said the shingles are amorphous and blend in a little better.

"They are not as reflective as bifacial and poly-crystalline, which are glass, but shingles gather less energy," Williams said.

Recalled to the rostrum, Avallone-Noailles said other engineers contacted said glare is less of a an issue now.

"Solar panels are meant to absorb as much light as possible, and they are doing black matte finishes now," Avallone-Noailles said. "In the past, a lot of glare came from frames, and they are minimizing that with black matte frames as well."

Councilwoman Toni Iseman said the cost of solar panels would be hard to justify in Laguna. Her research indicated that other energy-efficient projects could create savings.

"But in a few years, I suspect we can have this very same meeting and it will be a brand new day," Iseman said. "So we have to be watching."

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