Valley News

Norwich Home Solar Panel Heats Up Green Energy Conundrum

By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer

Norwich — Some see beauty: a sleek symbol of technological advancement and green living; an understated investment in a cleaner, sustainable future.

Others see an eyesore: an obtrusive metal structure marring the historic landscape; a piece of machinery overshadowing the past.

A new suspension tracker solar panel that rotates in a circle 20 feet in diameter to follow the sun, installed last month on private property along Union Village Road in Norwich, has ignited a debate about the appropriate placement of renewable energy sources.

“Frankly for me, I can’t look and see a solar installation without feeling very happy and pleased to see it there, like, ‘Oh yes, there’s another one,’ ” Norwich Energy Committee member Linda Gray said earlier this week. “We need them, it’s really important. … I look at it and see the broader meaning.”

But Libby Robbie, one of several residents who has posted concerns about the solar panel’s placement on the town’s email listserv, didn’t share Gray’s enthusiasm. 

“I love it when people put the panels on the house roofs and in their backyards; I have no problem with that,” she said in an interview. “But this one I just thought was particularly an unfortunate placement because of the nature of the location.”

Although she supports solar and renewable energy, Robbie said, she regretted the solar panel was erected in front of a historic cemetery and “impacts the entire community that drives by it daily.”

The discussion has shined a spotlight on local municipalities’ authority — or lack thereof — in regulating the construction of renewable energy structures in Vermont.

A s Vermont tries to meet its ambitious goal of attaining 90 percent of its energy needs through renewable sources by 2050, parts of the state permitting process has been streamlined in recent years for small-scale renewable electric generation and transmission facilities, such as solar installations, that are connected to the electrical grid, according to the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

Even before the streamlining, facilities had been required only to receive a Certificate of Public Good from the state’s Public Service Board. These facilities “shall not require the approval of voters of a municipality or the members of a cooperative, as would otherwise be required ,” according to Vermont law.

Public Service Board members must take into account a municipality’s town plan in awarding a certificate, so “having a clear plan is the principal tool for municipalities to influence the development of energy facilities,” according to a 2011 energy planning guidebook from the Natural Resources Council and Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Johanna Miller, the Energy Program director and Vermont Energy & Climate Action Network coordinator for the council, said streamlined permitting is beneficial not only in encouraging renewable energy but also in growing the industry.

“I think the challenge is we’ve had the luxury here in the state of Vermont, with the exception of Vermont Yankee … of not really having to see where our energy comes from, and it just kind of slides into the state and we can turn on our lights and heat our homes,” Miller said. “It’s a whole new world, and there’s some real realities that come with that and some consequences, but also some opportunities.”

The absence of community input has already ruffled feathers when larger solar installations were built in Rutland, Charlotte, Waitsfield, and nearby Woodstock, where Town Planner Michael Brands said solar panels on the Woodstock aqueduct drew mixed reactions.

“People from different spectrums have different views on things,” Brands said via email. When it comes to solar panels, he said, “some love, some hate.”

State Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Williamstown, who sits on the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy and whose district includes parts of the Upper Valley, said his committee has discussed further regulating the construction of larger-scale solar farms, but the issue of local permitting on individuals’ solar installations “hasn’t come up.”

“It would be interesting to me because we have some historic districts in places where there are prohibitions against certain types of construction,” he said. “Someone might suggest that that’s an appropriate place to consider some restrictions.”

In Norwich, Robbie said she is planning to consult state legislators about requiring some kind of waiting period or public notice to give local residents a say on construction of solar panel s tructures.

“I don’t fault Norwich or the neighbor,” she said. “I just think there’s something missing in the process.”

Margery Cantor, the owner of the solar panel along Union Village Road, said she had been considering investing in s olar power “for a long time … because of climate change, and that’s the only reason.” She said conservation and climate change are issues she holds dear.

“I’m too old for it to have any financial (payoff),” she said, chuckling.

Cantor, who says she is in her 60s and moved to town about three years ago, said roughly half of the energy produced by the solar tracker flows back into the grid through net metering, a process wherein owners can get credit off electricity b ills.

Several people have chimed in on opposing sides of the local debate; a letter to the Valley News from a Thetford resident called the solar panel “an insult to the beauty of a favorite community byway” while a listserve poster said she “resent(ed) having it confront” her, while others suggested the concerns were symptomatic of “not in my back yard” hypocrisy.

“If the choices are pollution, sending our sons and daughters to die in some god-forsaken desert halfway around the world (for wars over oil) … or looking at solar panels and wind turbines ‘in our backyard,’ my choice is clear,” wrote another poster.

The Energy Committee has invited concerned residents, several of whom have complained to the town, to attend its next meeting on June 24.

When asked about the reaction to the solar tracker, Cantor said she was reluctant to address t he controversy.

“I guess what’s important is that climate change is a reality and if we make the decision not to make changes in our behavior, the world is not going to be a much better place,” she said. “It’s really serious.”

She said placement was “very considered” and the strip of roadside land where it was built was not her first choice. She declined to elaborate except to say the process “caused a little bit of difficulty.”

She said she understands some concerns about lack of local permitting, especially related to large wind turbines.

“But this is not a huge gizmo,” she said. “I mean, it’s big, but it’s kind of fabulous looking. … I think somebody said something about, ‘Why didn’t I ask my neighbors,’ and I did ask my neighbors, and the question that I had is, ‘What’s a neighbor, how far afield do I have to ask?’ I mean if somebody drives by and sees it … I just don’t know what those parameters are and I don’t know how one decides it …

“What if I was an art collector and I was a bazillionaire and I bought a Jeff Koons and I put it there, is somebody going to say something because they don’t like the same art that I like?”

The tracker is the design of Norwich-based Solaflect Energy, owned by Bill Bender, which has received two separate $1 million grants from the Department of Energy.

Bender said the grants were awarded in part for the innovative design of the Solaflect trackers, which contain 1,200 fewer pounds of steel than other trackers, cutting down on costs.

“We’re quite proud of our design to be honest,” he said. “It’s unique and most of the reaction we get from most people are like, ‘Wow that’s cool,’ and we hear that on a regular basis, and this is the first time we’ve ever had negative reaction. So it’s a surprise to us.”

He said he has been working with Cantor to mitigate some of the concerns; for example, some have said that the white backing on the panels is annoying, so that side will be rotated away from sight after the sun has set.

About 35 to 40 of the trackers have been installed on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley, and one is scheduled for New Hampshire soon, he said. The “net amount of cash” to install a tracker is $12,440, he said, which has a lifespan of 20 years or more. The investment cost pays off in about 10 years.

Bender favors permitting that is streamlined, as one of the challenges of the renewable industry is high upfront costs. Excessive permitting, which costs time and money, can be too much of a deterrent, he said.

He said townspeople don’t have a say in where residents put their propane tanks or furnaces, and questioned why there should be any difference with generators of clean energy.

When asked whether the size of the tracker should play a role in those discussions, he said placement is taken into account but clean energy is the bottom line.

“ ‘Out of sight out of mind,’ ” Bender said of non-renewable energy sources. “Those are sources of energy that are not local but they do something somewhere, so personally I prefer taking local and neighborhood responsibility for what we’re doing to the planet.”