Columnist Johanna Neumann: Solar moratorium is misguided

  • View of an approximately 30-acre solar farm north of Pulpit Hill Road in Amherst in August. Gazette file photo

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Next week, Amherst’s town councilors will consider an 18-month moratorium on ground-mounted solar arrays. They should vote it down.

The sooner we switch over to a society powered entirely by clean renewable energy, the sooner we’ll all have cleaner air to breathe, safer water to drink, and a more liveable climate to pass on to future generations.

When it comes to climate action, time is of the essence. In an address last month, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “The battle to keep the 1.5-degree [Celsius] goal alive will be won or lost in this decade… We must go into emergency mode against the climate crisis. We need an avalanche of action.”

Thankfully, the tools for bold climate action are at our fingertips. As renewable energy adoption has grown over the past decade, the technology has improved and the prices have come down. Data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggest that between 2010 and 2018, the cost of solar systems fell by more than 70% and the solar panel efficiency improved by 37% over a similar timeframe. You see the same pattern for wind turbines. These advances have helped bring renewables from the fringe into the mainstream.

Clean energy’s growth can’t come soon enough, and we need to do what we can to keep it growing.

Yet, several Amherst town councilors proposed freezing the development of ground-mounted solar arrays larger than an acre. The theory is that the delay will give the town time to develop a solar-specific bylaw to guide where to locate large solar arrays to prevent major missteps.

I think this moratorium is misguided for several reasons.

The first is that Amherst already has a bylaw that governs where and how energy projects can be built, including ground mounted solar arrays. That bylaw has served our town well to date, allowing solar arrays like the one near Cherry Hill Golf Course in North Amherst and Atkins Farms Country Market in South Amherst to be built without major problems.

Second, a moratorium runs counter to the town’s stated position on renewable energy. Five years ago, Amherst’s legislative body unanimously approved a resolution calling for Massachusetts to move as quickly as possible to get to 100% renewable energy. As part of that resolution, the town resolved to “avoid taking actions that could increase the use of fossil fuels or delay the transition to 100 percent renewable energy.” It’s hard to interpret a moratorium as anything other than a delay.

Third, I believe Amherst should play an active role in encouraging the growth of clean energy and hastening the transition away from fossil fuels. While I have a special place in my heart for rooftop solar and solar-on-the-built environment, I recognize that we’ll probably need to convert some open space into solar farms. We can’t pass that responsibility to other communities or expect others to lead. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to rapidly decarbonizing our society.

Moratorium or not, I anticipate Amherst to advance a solar bylaw that includes best practices from around the state and country at some point over the coming year. I also anticipate that our town will pursue a solar study that will help us identify just how much solar we need and develop priority areas for solar development. But, we don’t need a moratorium in place to do either of those things. I believe in our ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

If the moratorium moves forward, we send exactly the wrong signal to solar developers, neighboring communities and the people of Amherst about our willingness to lead when it comes to clean energy. It’s a litmus test of what climate action and local clean energy leadership looks like when the rubber hits the road.

The Amherst Town Council is expected to take up the issue on Feb. 28. I, for one, hope they vote it down and get on with the important and urgent business of building the clean energy future so many of us believe in.

Johanna Neumann is a volunteer member of Amherst’s Planning Board. The views expressed in this column are her own and not representative of the Planning Board.