Thinking globally, acting locally: How to respond to climate crisis

By Elisa Campbell

Things we can agree on:

  • The climate crisis is real, and getting worse. 
  • If we want to keep the planet life-sustaining for the species that live on it, including ourselves, we have to stop using fossil fuels  and absorb at least some of the CO2 that has already been put into the atmosphere. 
  • Most of the regions of the world that are currently most affected by the climate crisis have contributed almost nothing to creating the problem.  
  • Fossil fuel industries have fought every proposal to reduce fossil fuel use and have contributed to world-wide delays in taking action.
  • There is no energy source that is impact-free, but we prefer to use methods that create the fewest impacts on the ecosystem and vulnerable humans. 

A recent meeting of the Energy and Climate Action Committee considered the issues confronting Amherst and heard information that may guide us as we wrestle with proposed ground-mounted solar projects.

Steve Roof, a member of the committee and a professor of Earth and Environmental Science at Hampshire College, gave a presentation focusing on electricity generation. State planning documents and Amherst’s own plans lay out the following goals:

  • Phase out 90% or more of all fossil fuel use by 2050.
  • Greatly improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings and set high energy efficiency standards for new buildings. 
  • By 2030 reduce gross emissions by 45% below the 1990 level.
  • Electrify everything possible, because electricity can be generated by non-fossil means.
  • We will also need to dramatically increase intra- and inter-state transfer – high-tension wires and power corridors. 
  • To accommodate current and future electrical demand, we will need to massively expand wind and solar generation.

To meet these goals, Massachusetts will need to build about 1,000 large offshore wind turbines like Vineyard Wind and import large amounts of hydro power from Quebec, which now seems unlikely, given the vote against the siting of the transmission lines in Maine last month. 

Statewide, we will need to expand solar by factor of 10: we need 20 to 23 GW of solar capacity; we now have 3.4 GW. The state reports found that even with maximum rooftop installation, we will need 60,000 acres of land-mounted solar arrays in 30 years. However, ground-mounted solar development will be excluded from or discouraged on:

  • Wetland resource areas
  • Historic places on the Massachusetts Registry
  • Protected open space
  • Areas listed as Core Habitat by Mass Wildlife
  • Areas listed as Priority Habitat by Mass Wildlife 
  • Critical Natural Landscapes that connect habitats or buffer wetlands, etc. 

Roof then looked at what might be considered Amherst’s “share” of the burden for growth in electrical generation, using population size as the determinant. Since Amherst’s population is about 0.56% of the state’s population, that percentage of the total 60,000 acres suggests the town might use` 335 acres. Amherst’s total acreage is 17,765, of which 30% is permanently protected from development. That 335 acres  is 1.9% of our total acreage – less than 2%.

Roof did not suggest where on Amherst land the solar facilities could go. He did point out that one acre of ground-mounted solar reduces C02 emission by about 133 metric tons per year by displacing fossil fuel generated electricity – which is about 100 times greater than the carbon sequestered by an acre of forest.

His suggested a possible “road map” for the town:

  • Greatly improve energy efficiency of existing buildings, including rental properties.
  • Assist with electrification of transportation (electrify vehicle fleets and help increase availability of EV charging stations).
  • Continue to protect natural and working lands in Amherst.
  • Accept expansion of solar power development on about 2% of the land in Amherst.
  • Tolerate increased intra- and interstate electric power transmission corridors in the region.

The committee discussed the need for a solar study to identify where solar projects are technically possible in Amherst. Laura Draucker said it’s important to have such a study before bylaws are passed. Dwayne Berger described what a consultant might accomplish in such a study. The committee agreed they want time on the Town Council’s agenda for a presentation by Roof. Roof suggested that he and Berger do the presentation and ask for a solar study. “We need to shock people into an awareness of what we need to do to reach carbon neutrality,” he said.

While we can all agree that we prefer solar arrays on roofs or above parking lots to ground-mounted arrays, they will not create enough solar generation capacity. And there are complications and costs associated with those projects; that will require another article. 

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