08/27/2013 12:50 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

Solar Bias

Solar energy is gaining ground in the nation--an essential step in assuring future prosperity--yet is still regarded as an environmental pipedream in all too many quarters. There are people around who consider sun power an impractical non-starter, no matter how attractive its replacement of fossil fuels might seem at first blush.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts provides a glaring example of this dismissive attitude. The Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District contracted to switch its energy usage from fossil fuel to sun power via the installation of roof and ground mounted solar panels. Everything seemed to be on track until the School District was denied a permit by the local zoning board.

What was the Yarmouth Zoning Board thinking? Obviously not about the big picture for the nation's energy future. Lack of foresight aside, there are more immediate reasons to question the Board's judgment. The company that arranged the installation estimated that conversion to solar would save the School District $141,000 in the first year of operation, and that claim has not been disputed. Other drawbacks include the loss of state funded solar subsidies as well as residual reduced electricity rates for the surrounding community.

Solar power's presence would provide important reinforcement for the school children. These kids, after all, are members of the generation who will be charged with implementing renewable energy in earnest if society is to escape climate change's worst effects.

Speaking of student edification, the solar contractor has even agreed to build some kiosks that would display just how many kilowatts the school was deriving from the sun.

Under Massachusetts state law, a solar permit can only be denied if the public's health, safety, or welfare are in jeopardy, so what raised the red flags for the Zoning Board? It appears they were looking for any pretense--no matter how flimsy--to sidetrack a relatively new technology with which they were clearly uncomfortable. In this case, the board maintained that the ground-mounted solar panels were a hazard, because curious school kids could potentially scale the eight foot fence encircling the facility.

Even in the unlikely event that the students could or would clamber over the fence, any trespassers would find the transformers locked and the solar panels cool to the feet. There is simply no threat to safety.

Zoning officials also "grasped at straws" by raising the issue of aesthetics, a concern that tellingly is not shared by the surrounding neighborhood.

The Zoning Board's decision is subject to appeal. Let's hope that one way or another, its ruling is reversed, and the Yarmouth School District is propelled into the 21st Century.