Solarization and its discontents

The wildfires in California demonstrate the urgency of confronting climate change. Officials in my town have responded by proposing solar arrays on two old landfills that would produce electricity for public buildings — and save taxpayers $2.5 million over 20 years.

Unfortunately, a small group of people who live  near one of the old landfills are protesting this forward-looking plan. At a forum Wednesday night, one said she didn’t want to lose “open space.”

Experts now predict that sea levels could rise by 10 feet by 2065, inundating coastal cities and displacing millions of people. But there’s plenty of evidence that climate change is having a major impact now, and not “just” in our grandchildren’s lives:

  • Those California wildfires, caused by drought, have burned hundreds of houses, and one got 70 times bigger in hours, crossing a freeway;
  • London saw the hottest July day ever, at 98 degrees;
  • Abnormal heat in India and Pakistan caused 1,000 people to die and caused pavement to melt;
  • A rainforest in Washington state caught fire for the first time;
  • Temperatures in the northern Pacific Ocean have never been so high for so long, causing marine life to migrate;
  • In the Pacific Northwest, salmon are endangered by warmer waters.
  • Like lobster? A more acidic ocean is causing shellfish to lose their shells.

Amherst taxpayers spend $1.3 million a year on electricity for public buildings, which use seven megawatts of power. The town has cut its power use in streetlights by 60 percent by installing LED bulbs, and now wants to go solar in a big way.

Two former landfills have no development potential because they are “capped” to prevent rainwater from leaching through old waste. One is south of Belchertown Road, and neighbors went to court a few years ago and caused a solar developer to back off. The other is north of Belchertown Road, where a trash and recycling  transfer station is currently located and would remain under the plan.

The northern site would be the site of solar panels generating 3.7 megawatts, The solar array at the southern site would generate 3.3 megawatts on half the acreage of the plan previously proposed. Part of it could be used to provide 250 homes that can’t have their own panels with virtual or “community” solar. The goal is to build the arrays before the end of next year, to take advantage of federal tax credits that are due to expire.

Many residents came to Wednesday’s meeting to support the plan. “It would be a tragedy if we miss this opportunity,” said Julie Marcus, who lives near the southern site. She said she would be “pleased and proud to look at” the solar panels.

But four people living near the southern site spoke against the plan, often prefacing their comments with “I support solar power, but…” Many claimed that the solar panels would damage the cap over the old landfill, causing the leaking of hazardous waste.

I think this is a bogus argument. First, the state Department of Environmental Protection would review the plan and issue a permit, and would not approve it if it could endanger the water supply. Second, it would be stupid for the town and the developer to risk liability by endangering the cap. Third, there are other solar arrays on unlined landfills. Fourth, these same neighbors used to argue that the former landfill could be used only for recreation, meaning soccer games with hundreds of kids and their parents.

Katherine Dorfman, who lives near the site, came closer to the real reason for the opposition. “This would take open space out of circulation,” she said, noting that the old landfill is currently used for “passive recreation,” meaning hiking, walking dogs and cross-country skiing.

No one who has open space near their home wants to see it developed. But this land is owned by all the residents of Amherst, not the privileged few, and we should make a decision about its future based on what’s best for the town as a whole.

And because the neighbors are so concerned about the integrity of the cap, I think town officials should build a chain-link fence around the site, even if the solar plan does not go forward.

Climate change is unfolding around the world. The town of Amherst has another opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint by harnessing the power of the sun. Let’s do it.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of more than 140 past posts, divided into 13 categories, including frugality, simple living, gardening, living without, cooking and climate change.






One thought on “Solarization and its discontents

  1. Pingback: Past posts: A simple living index | Adventures in the good life

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