Ground rules for solar arrays

When automobiles first came on the scene, more than a century ago, society was unprepared for this new invention — horseless carriages tearing through towns at frightening speeds of 10 mph or even faster, making noise, giving off smoke, and terrifying the animals.

So, in 1901, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a speed limit law (8 mph in town, 12 mph outside city limits) that also required drivers to slow down or even come to a complete stop to avoid scaring the horses. Eventually there would be posted speed limits, traffic cops, and mandatory driving licenses.

Rules were clearly needed to regulate this new technology, and they came along over time, city by city and state by state.

Today we’re trying to come to terms with another new technology — solar panel arrays. Unlike early cars, they are silent, give off no fumes and scare no horses. In fact, they mark a big step forward in both environmental protection and energy conservation. 

But we don’t yet have clear rules, across the board, for when a homeowner can have ground solar panels, where they can be located, how big they can be, and other questions that may come up.

Enter Southington Town Planner Rob Phillips, who has suggested ground-mounted solar panel regulations that are modeled after other area towns and regional planners. Phillips said the town should consider clarifying the process for installing them.

“We really don’t have a mechanism for this,” he said.

And a mechanism is just what’s needed. With solar power gaining in popularity, and with the costs of solar installations coming down, it’s time to bring some order to the process.

So far, most residential installations have consisted of rooftop panels, which have a relatively minor effect on the “look” of a neighborhood. But Rich Vocke, owner of Evergreen Energy and a solar panel installer, said there aren’t clear rules for when a homeowner can have ground solar panels.

Vocke prompted the town to look at adopting rules that would allow the Planning and Zoning Commission to approve installations with a special permit. The PZC has now voted unanimously in favor of the suggested regulations.

Some of the most permissive towns in the state simply have a box to check on building permits for installing ground-mounted solar. Others require approval from a planning agency.

Southington’s new regulations limit solar panels to no more than 12 feet in height. The array can’t be larger than 50 percent of the square footage of the property’s main building, up to 600 square feet. Arrays can’t be in front yards and the commission could require screening to make the panels less visible to neighbors.

It’s a start. The regulations could evolve as the community gets used to seeing ground solar arrays in residential areas. The aesthetics of these arrays are bound to cause controversy in many cases, but now, fortunately, there are ground rules that all must follow.