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May 28, 2019 5:51 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Exploring Nature Friendly Solar Options

The new East Hampton Town solar facility on 20 acres off Accabonac Road. MIKE BOTTINI
May 28, 2019 9:23 AM

I recently heard a radio interview with colleague and friend John Turner concerning the environmental pros and cons of solar “farm” facilities. John is one of the leading and most respected environmental advocates on Long Island, as well as one of our most knowledgeable naturalists, with a long history of advocacy work including being a founding member of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.The issue with large solar farms boils down to where to site them, and has pitted environmentalists against one another. Some have taken the position that, in the long run, the loss of forest and wildlife habitat, or in other cases the loss of active farmland, is justified by the creation of clean, renewable energy sources. While I understand that point, I agree with Turner: Long Island has already witnessed excessive development and loss of both those resources, and there are ample opportunities here on Long Island to site solar systems without resorting to clearing forests and taking farmland out of production.

The most egregious example of this is found at Brookhaven National Lab (BNL) in the pine barrens near the headwaters of the Peconic River. This 200-acre solar facility went online in 2011 and is estimated to provide enough energy to power 4,500 homes. To their credit, BNL’s irregular-shaped design was the result of utilizing an existing cleared area and to meet protective setbacks from vernal ponds being used by endangered species. The project was supported by some environmental groups and opposed by others. The most notable opposition was led by Dick Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Since then, we’ve seen a number of other solar farm proposals to be constructed on large tracts of vacant woodland on Long Island. What are the alternatives? We can look at several options right here in East Hampton, a town whose leaders have committed to an ambitious goal of meeting all our electrical energy needs via renewable sources by 2030. These options could all be applied elsewhere on the island.

First, there are roofs. East Hampton (and L.I.) has enough roofs to site solar arrays without having to clear any woodlands. Not all roofs are suitable in terms of orientation toward the sun and shade cast by nearby trees, but there’s a lot of untapped potential solar production there. To the town’s credit, they initiated an incentive program to encourage homeowners to go solar, and having participated in that I can say it is an excellent program that I hope they can continue.

Some of you may wonder why, as I did, many of our largest McMansion-type homes lack solar panels on their roofs. I was surprised to learn that some architects have difficulty with the aesthetics of solar panels, and don’t encourage their use in their designs. Knowing what solar panels do, I see them as a beautiful thing on my roof.

They are also good investments in terms of payback over their projected lifespan. Which is why I was surprised and disappointed that our recent renovation of the East Hampton High School, possibly the largest building in town, did not incorporate solar in the initial plans. Ditto, it seems, for the Springs School $23 million reno. It’s also odd that our town-owned Rec Center hasn’t gotten onboard with the town’s renewable goal. Here’s a facility that probably consumes more hot water than any other in town, and could greatly benefit financially with a solar hot water system. Now that they’ve finally fixed the front door, perhaps they can look into some upgrades in the renewable category.

Another good site for solar is parking lots, and we have lots of those on L.I. Here in East Hampton, the largest lot I can think of is the high school. There’s also the airport lot, long-term parking in the village, Reutershan lot, Amagansett’s municipal lot, the Montauk train station lot, and Montauk Point’s sizable parking lot.

There’s also lots of sunlight to harness at our landfills. I assumed that the landfill’s waterproof cap would pose problems for mounting solar arrays, but apparently that is not the case. The bottom line is there are lots of options for siting solar panels without having to clearcut existing woodlands, or old brush dumps that sit adjacent to nature preserves and across the street from public water wells.

I should also mention something that our local energy guru Gordian Raacke told me many years ago: “The most cost-effective solution to lowering your energy bill and energy use impact is to replace energy hog appliances with more energy efficient ones. Once that is done, look into solar panels.” I was not happy about replacing a refrigerator that worked fine, but by doing that and going with energy efficient lighting I cut my electric bill by 30 percent. The new fridge paid for itself in two years.

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