By JANE KENNEY AUSTIN The effects of climate change are all around us - sweltering days, skies made hazy by distant wildfires, eroding beaches, and tides creeping higher. Deluges alternate with droughts, straining stormwater and drinking water systems.
The effects of climate change are all around us – sweltering days, skies made hazy by distant wildfires, eroding beaches, and tides creeping higher. Deluges alternate with droughts, straining stormwater and drinking water systems. This week’s IPCC report makes clear that climate change is being felt everywhere and that we need to act now to prevent catastrophe.
Warwick’s proposed solar siting ordinance should be an opportunity to optimize renewable energy siting and preserve the city’s dwindling forests and urban tree canopy. Both are needed in the battle against climate change.
Instead, the proposed ordinance takes the risky step of opening the entire city to commercial solar development. The ordinance creates a solar overlay district with an obscure but critical footnote – yes, a footnote, #27 – that opens the door to commercial solar development in residential zones and open space with City Council approval on a case-by-case basis.
Solar energy development is an extremely intensive land use and driven by federal and state incentives intended to counteract climate change. Yet it brings extensive deforestation and destruction of urban tree canopies in communities that do not manage it carefully.
Solar energy production is compatible with a wide range of zoning uses. Think solar arrays on top of new (and old) warehouses and industrial buildings. Imagine acres of solar canopies in a Mall parking lot, over long-term parking at T.F. Green Airport, and along Route 2.
However, if it is cheaper to clear-cut a forest or to use farmland and existing open space, the pressure for solar development will be felt there first. Undeveloped residentially zoned areas that are challenging for residential development will look very different to a solar developer. Bundles of parcels that are poorly configured or difficult to access may be quite tempting for a commercial solar array. A build out of solar energy facilities driven by interested developers could dramatically change the Warwick landscape.
Warwick is likely to lose valuable forested sites and its best preservation options for the future quickly. In fact, two such spots – the Little Rhody Beagle Club and a portion of the Kent County YMCA – could be early candidates for consideration. Solar siting policies must be paired with the protection of forested areas to preserve the many ecosystem services they provide, including carbon capture and storage.
Warwick residents should not accept fatalistic arguments that we can’t stop people from cutting down trees anyway or that solar is a passive use. These arguments ignore climate change altogether and assume that someone else, somewhere else, will preserve the critical natural systems that we and future generations rely on.
The proposed solar ordinance is up for a Public Hearing before the Warwick City Council on the evening of Monday, August 16th, and teed up for first passage later that night. Call your council member or attend to oppose it. Call for a comprehensive solar strategy that 1) pushes solar development to already developed and disturbed areas of the city, 2) prohibits commercial solar arrays in open space and residential zones, 3) creates real incentives for solar canopies and roof panels in commercial and industrial areas, 4) establishes appropriate standards for accessory solar in residential areas, and 5) devotes resources to protecting Warwick’s remaining forested areas and urban tree canopy.
Warwick has a chance to think big on solar. And we can’t afford not to.
Austin, who lives on Warwick Neck, is a former Senior Policy Analyst for Save The Bay and former Chair of the Warwick School Committee.