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Editorial: Idyll Pleasure: Views on a Solar Panel in Norwich

Union Village Road from Norwich to Thetford is a pretty roadway in the Upper Valley, which doesn’t lack for pleasant drives. After leaving the village of Norwich, the road rambles through woodlands and pastures. Northbound drivers get glimpses of mountains to the east, distant and immense.

Pleasing colors abound: a red barn, a silver-topped silo, a splash of orange poppies by the roadside. A poet might comment on the perfection of a red Adirondack chair upon a fresh-cut lawn beside a white farmhouse.

The road curves and rises and falls, unlike the monotone interstates. It’s the sort of route that tempts drivers of certain cars to focus more on driving pleasure than speed limits, but other drivers, the view-huggers, dawdle.

It’s understandable that people feel protective of Union Village Road — a number have called a new roadside solar panel there an invasion of their scenery. That solar panel, according to a Saturday story by staff writer Maggie Cassidy, is a suspension solar tracker panel that rotates in a 20-foot-diameter circle following the sun. Such solar devices are said to produce enough electricity to pay for themselves in about 10 years, and they reduce the need, one home at a time, for electricity generated by distant polluting power plants.

Margery Cantor, owner of the solar panel, said she thinks it is “kind of fabulous looking,’’ and Linda Gray of the Norwich Energy Committee agrees. “Frankly, for me, I can’t look and see a solar installation without feeling very happy and pleased to see it there.”

But letter writers to this newspaper and Listserv posters have questioned whether this spot, near the Meetinghouse Cemetery, is a suitable location. One writer called the solar panel “an insult to the beauty of a favorite community byway.” Fair enough, since matters of taste can always be argued, but it’s also true that the byway’s beauty is already affected by the power lines that march along it — a reminder that nature has already been compromised for the sake of lights, washing machines and iPads.

Vermont has an ambitious goal of attaining 90 percent of its energy needs through renewable sources by 2050. To speed the switch to cleaner energy, streamlined permitting makes installation of small-scale electric generation equipment exempt from local approval, although the regulatory Vermont Public Service Board must take into account a municipality’s town plan.

But are there places, such as historic districts, where this oversight is enough? State Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Williamstown, who is on the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said the committee has considered further regulation of large-scale solar farms, but not of individuals’ solar installations. We believe that merits another look. As welcome and necessary as green energy is, we can imagine locations where installations would not be appropriate. Public notification and a chance for comment would be fair in certain circumstances. Locally, a good place for the discussion to begin is the Norwich Energy Committee meeting scheduled for June 24 — it has invited residents to share their concerns.

Let’s be sure public oversight of such projects is sufficient, since more solar projects are likely coming down the road. If the technology proves itself, even small installations can help toward a momentous goal, but they won’t be welcomed if there’s no way for the public’s voice to be heard.