Solar Shakespeare

Agecroft Hall has been using solar panels for a year now, so how is it going?

“For, being green, there is great hope… “ 

– William Shakespeare in “Henry VI” part two

Shakespeare and solar panels are two seemingly unrelated topics. But the Tudor period and modern solar energy have more in common than one might think – something Richmond’s Agecroft Hall hopes to enlighten visitors about.

The museum’s solar panels are a contemporary tool that uniquely speaks to the spirit of the time. “They’re a 21st-century twist on 16th-century self-sufficiency,” says Anne Kenny-Urban, its executive director.

The solar panels come in light of Agecroft looking at its long-term needs while staying true to its roots as a Tudor museum.

“A Tudor house would have been as self-sufficient as possible – people would grow their own food and raise sheep for wool,” says Kenny-Urban. “We thought, what do we have here that we can use? We have plenty of land and sun so why not install solar.”

The solar panels outside of Agecroft Hall that organizers say are proving a win “both environmentally and financially.” Photo by Scott Elmquist

Located in a small field to the right of the historic mansion, the panels officially went live last summer. Installed by Performance Solar (a local energy company), the estate uses a 146k-watt system. This is constructed with 324 phono monocrystalline, 450-watt panels that produce 190,000 hours of electricity per year. The south-facing panels have a guaranteed 95% efficiency for 20 years but could potentially last longer.

“We believe we are the first cultural institution in Virginia to be net zero for electricity,” says Kenny-Urban.

Agecroft Hall is connected to the grid, which ensures it has enough power year-round. “When we overproduce in the summer, it goes back to the grid and when we underproduce in the winter, we can take some from the grid,” says Kenny-Urban. “It evens out in the year.”

While thoughtful for the environment, the solar panels are also helping the museum guard against rising utility rates. “With SREC [Solar Renewable Energy Credit] in Virginia now it’s a new income stream for us,” says Kenny-Urban. “We’re excited to do all of this. It’s a rare win both environmentally and financially.”

In search of a solar field

The idea to add solar panels started around 2020 and took meticulous planning, especially for the right location. “We weren’t going to put them on this historic roof transported from England,” says Kenny-Urban.

The team initially looked at the estate’s educational room, built in the 1980s, as the roof was flat and the panels wouldn’t be too visible. But after further examination, they figured the roof was too small and wouldn’t generate a lot. “We decided to look more holistically for a solar field rather than hidden on the roof,” says Kenny-Urban. “We’re lucky to have the land to do so.”

Anne Kenny-Urban, executive director of Agecroft Hall, says “we believe we are the first cultural institution in Virginia to be net zero for electricity.” Photo by Scott Elmquist

The museum investigated numerous vendors but ultimately chose Performance Solar thanks to their business model. “They have one specifically designed for nonprofits like Agecroft through a prepaid, power purchase agreement,” says Kenny-Urban. “They could monetize the tax credits which lowered the cost of installation for Agecroft.”

After working with the city planning department and mapping out the best overall design, Agecroft officially signed a contract in 2021 to move ahead with its plans.

With almost a year of running, the solar panels are working well as they absorb rays from the eye of heaven. No maintenance is required apart from occasional inspections by Performance Solar.

A Green Giant award

Built in the 1600s, Agecroft Hall, once situated in Lancashire, England, was bought by local Thomas C. Williams Jr. in 1925. The house was carefully deconstructed and shipped to the River City where it was officially rebuilt in 1928 in the elegant Windsor Farms neighborhood. It served as Williams’ wife Bessie’s residence until 1967 when she moved out. Two years later, it became a public museum.

While the solar panels might be the most visible of Agecroft’s endeavors, they’re just one step this museum is taking to be more eco-friendly. “In recent years, we’ve really tried to be more ecologically sustainable,” says Kenny-Urban. “We’re using fewer chemicals, recycling paper in the office and doing composting for our garden beds.”

A closeup of a solar panel.

These moves are also gaining regional recognition. In December, Sierra Club’s Falls of the James Chapter awarded Agecroft with a Green Giant award which highlights those in the area making vital environmental contributions. “My staff and I are all very honored by this recognition,” says Kenny-Urban.

The museum is content with its current solar field and doesn’t plan to expand. But Agecroft does encourage similar venues to consider installing them if feasible. “Everyone has different operational and logistical needs,” says Kenny-Urban. “But if you can, it’s a wonderful opportunity.”

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