By Steven Katona
The Nov. 2 Bar Harbor ballot includes a Land Use Ordinance Amendment – Solar Photovoltaic Systems. I will vote “Yes.” Here’s why.
Fewer than 10 years remain for societies to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in order to have a reasonable chance of limiting average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the “pre-industrial” level of the mid-1800s. Transitioning societies from dependence on fossil fuels to renewable energy is key to emissions reduction.
Mount Desert Island is doing its part, starting by becoming independent of fossil fuels for electricity generation by 2030. Many homeowners and businesses are weatherizing their buildings and reducing energy use in other ways, shifting to electric vehicles and installing rooftop solar arrays and heat pumps. At larger scales, Mount Desert Island High School installed 1,400 rooftop solar panels in 2019 to become the first school in Maine to run completely on renewable energy, including its new electric school bus. Also in 2019, Tremont installed 500 solar panels on a portion of the town’s former landfill that now power its municipal building and school, and a new project is being planned, also on the landfill site, allowing townspeople to renewably power homes and businesses by subscription. In Southwest Harbor, a portion of the landfilled former gravel pit owned by Eastern Maine Recycling now houses 1,400 solar panels as a Community Solar Farm that will produce renewable energy for about 100 member-owners.
But the situation is different in Bar Harbor, where the current zoning code does not allow free-standing solar arrays that are not connected to buildings, so here is why the new solar amendment is needed. Several years ago, A Climate to Thrive (ACTT) identified a portion of the Higgins Pit, a former gravel pit in Salisbury Cove owned by the town of Bar Harbor and used in the past as a dumpsite for municipal waste, as a possible site for a solar array. Analysis indicated that the site was unsuitable for housing or other use but could support a solar array to power all the electricity needs of Bar Harbor’s municipal buildings and save the town millions of dollars over the course of its 40-year lifetime. Without a change to the zoning code, the project would not be possible. ACCT worked with the Planning Board to develop the land use amendment for the Nov. 2 ballot.
In a recent letter to the editor (Oct. 7, ‘Not given enough thought’) Laureen Donnelly called for a “no” vote, fearing that farmland or forests would be destroyed to create solar farms and suggested that more thought go into the amendment. Ms. Donnelly is a steadfast supporter of conservation and I agree with all of her points except the headline and conclusion. A great deal of thought and care did go into creating the new amendment. All of the large solar projects on Mount Desert Island have either been on a rooftop or in the degraded places (gravel pits, landfills) that she suggested, as would be the case at the Higgins Pit. For any solar array to be constructed, the amendment specifies that “Activity or structure requires site plan approval. Activity or structure requires approval through the plan review process before it may be commenced or built.” I think that provides adequate opportunity for citizens to oppose any project that would violate environmental integrity in the ways Ms. Donnelly mentioned. I would join Ms. Donnelly in such opposition.
I will vote “Yes” on the solar amendment because climate change won’t wait, because I want to help Mount Desert Island continue its good progress toward a fossil-free electrical future and because I want to help the town of Bar Harbor power its municipal buildings renewably and with substantial cost savings.
Steven Katona lives in Bar Harbor.