We must act now for the sake of future generations

Think globally, act locally — and do it right away.

We ended an editorial with those words five months ago. Borrowing that grassroots rallying cry for environmentalists, we urged local leaders to focus like a laser on zoning to encourage green energy while preserving the essential and characteristic life of their towns.

In February, an out-of-state company had mailed large landowners in the rural Helderbergs and New Scotland, asking to lease their lands for solar arrays. The town of Knox, we pointed out, had zoning that would allow a large solar array only in the town’s business district, in the hamlet of Knox, where just one parcel might work for a solar farm.

We urged Knox and other towns in our coverage area to make zoning for solar a priority. We’re happy to report this week, in a front-page story by Hilltown reporter Tim Tulloch, that the Knox town board, at its last meeting, adopted just such an ordinance, allowing Borrego Solar to proceed with its plan to build a solar array that will provide electricity for SUNY Poly.

This week, we’ve written a roundup of Albany County municipalities with rural land to inform the public, as well as local leaders, on where each stands. Both Bethlehem and Guilderland, large suburban towns that still have some available open space, have ordinances in place to deal with solar arrays. Rural Coeymans is in the process of drafting such a law and has its first solar farm ready to break ground. New Scotland is in the process, too. Two of the Hilltowns — Berne and Westerlo — may soon establish moratoriums while they consider solar ordinances.

It’s wise for municipalities to take the time to do it right, to draft legislation that will encourage solar projects but that will protect the character and future of the towns. Since solar farms have a life expectancy of just 20 to 30 years, ordinances should include plans to fund decommissioning the arrays so they don’t become eyesores when they are obsolete.

Designating areas where views should be preserved or insisting on buffers or screening to protect neighbors as well as travelers might be called for, too. After all, the phrase “Think globally, act locally” is rooted in the work of Patrick Geddes, a Scottish biologist and town planner. He wrote in his 1915 book, “Cities in Evolution,” that, “local character” is not a matter of mere accident. Rather, he wrote, “It is attained only in course of adequate grasp and treatment of the whole environment, and in active sympathy with the essential and characteristic life of the place concerned.”

The time is ripe to embrace solar technology. We hope the local moratoriums will be used to draft sound legislation, not to postpone a worthwhile endeavor. Solar farms, zoned properly, work well in a rural landscape, keeping farmers in business and preserving open space.

The federal government has extended tax credits for solar energy until 2020. And, in 2015, New York’s Public Service Commission created the Community Distributed Generation Program, which reduced the risks of the former system of power purchase agreements.

Our municipal leaders should promote what is good for the town — residents who lease their land will gain substantial income and the tax base for the municipality will be expanded — and what is good for the world. The Earth’s carbon emissions have been rising ever since the Industrial Revolution, creating what scientists call the greenhouse effect, trapping heat within the planet’s atmosphere, and shifting the normal climate. Most Americans now grasp the immediate need to act before our planet is destroyed.

Human health is already being adversely affected. Due to carbon emissions, people are dying prematurely from respiratory disease, heart attacks, and lung cancer. The journal “Nature Climate Change” published an article this year that showed reducing emissions in the United States alone enough to avoid a 2-degree Celsius increase in global warming could prevent up to 175,000 pollution-related premature deaths nationwide by 2030.

At the same time, an analysis by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Duke University determined the emissions reduction would generate health benefits of about $250 billion annually. Saving American lives and increasing national prosperity is just part of the story. One in eight of all global deaths is caused by air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

You don’t have to be a town leader responsible for legislation to make a difference. Every citizen can and should go solar. In 2014, New York committed nearly $1 billion to increase the number of solar electric systems across the state over the next decade. With the goal of establishing a sustainable, self-sufficient solar industry, NY-Sun has incentive programs to support projects for commercial and industrial companies as well as for homes and multi-family buildings.

Individuals and businesses as well as schools and municipalities that install solar systems save on their electric bills while helping the environment. The local building inspectors we surveyed have all seen a steady stream of permit applicants since the new program started.

“When solar first started, it was $20,000 to $30,000 out of pocket,” said Coeymans’ building inspector, John Cashin, which he noted was too a high of cost for most homeowners to bear. “Now all you have to do is make the first payment and they put it in for free.”

There’s no excuse not to go solar. People whose homes have roofs that face the wrong way, or who don’t have the yard space, or people who rent or live in an historic district that doesn’t permit solar panels can become part of a community net metering project, as detailed on our front page July 21.

The local array, to be built by Monolith, came about because of the hard work of a small group of Hilltown citizens, Helderberg Community Energy, committed to finding renewable energy for local residents. We commend them. They joined forces with Solarize Albany, one of three Capital Region campaigns.

The Enterprise is signing up to be part of the project, and so should you.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, in his 2016 State of the State address, called for additional solar projects to be installed at 150,000 homes and business in New York by 2020 — just four years away. Cuomo’s Clean Energy Standard commitment, requiring half of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2030, was approved by the Public Service Commission on Monday. Bravo for New York State!

Each of us must do our part. We’ll do more than save money. We’ll help save the world.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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