Barrington Climate Committee Focuses On Solar to Address Crisis
September 13, 2021
BARRINGTON, R.I. — The town’s Resilience and Energy Committee forms an off-kilter circle on the edge of the parking lot around the back of Town Hall. Seven sit in folding chairs, one on a cargo mat dragged from the car to soak up the wet of the grass.
This is climate action in the era of COVID-19: meeting outside in the middle of one global crisis to tackle the underlying public-health emergency at hand.
“In light of the new IPCC report of the worldwide climate emergency … Where should we be placing our emphasis in the Town?” reads item D on the Aug. 24 agenda, a question posed by committee member Magnus Thorsson.
“We need to see some actionable items,” said Thorsson, a hospitality professor at Johnson & Wales University. He has tried unsuccessfully to move his university to more sustainable goals, he said, and now he’s calling for the same from the town where he lives.
“We need to get moving,” he said, because the future, “it’s not pretty.”
“It’s not been pretty for a very long time,” said committee chair Lynne Carter, an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University and the University of Arizona who has contributed to the U.S. National Climate Assessments.
In an address to the U.S. Senate last month, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., held up a map of Rhode Island circa 2100. The seas have risen by then and Rhode Island is an archipelago. Barrington is an island.
“We can make it less bad, but parts are irreversible,” said Whitehouse, labeling the climate outlook “increasingly dire.”
But the question — as climate policy continues to face the deadlock of national politics — is what local communities can do to combat that grim outlook.
For a moment, the committee seems to lean into resignation — a trend toward the depressive, anxiety-inducing outlook of the climate crisis that overcomes many.
Even if everyone instantaneously gets rid of their cars and hops on a bike, “we’re still not going to be able to peddle out of town in 50 years,” said Michael Carroll, president of the Town Council and the committee’s Town Council liaison.
This is the decade we need to reduce global emissions, but fossil-fuel lobbyists still have a hold on the House and Senate, committee member Hans Scholl noted.
“We can do some,” he said, “but we cannot reach that goal on our own without major policy change.”
But every action has a ripple effect, Carroll said. We have to start somewhere, Scholl agreed. The committee bends the conversation back toward action.
For years, the committee has been leading an incremental charge toward renewable energy and the members are close to rolling out a community electricity aggregation program to increase Barrington’s renewable energy purchasing power.
Since 2016, the committee-driven Solarize Barrington project has successfully put solar panels on residential and commercial buildings, and converted street lights to solar energy. According to Carroll, the project now saves Barrington about $180,000 annually.
“So far I’ve been able to sell carbon reduction as saving money,” he said. The council president noted it is easier to get people on board if carbon reduction is paired with economic benefit.
Around Barrington, there is plenty of potential for more solar on rooftops and in already-developed areas. Parking lot solar canopies could both shade cars and collect energy to be distributed to the community, Thorsson said.
Plenty of companies can build these canopies, but projects tend to be focused in Massachusetts, where better incentives are offered, Carroll said.
Getting shopping plazas on board could signify another huge breakthrough, the committee noted.
Carroll said Shaw’s and Starbucks make perfect sense. But it is a little complicated, he noted. The 105,000 square feet of land beneath the Barrington Shopping Center is owned by Paolino Properties and each company owns its own building.
To get solar on top of the County Road shopping plaza, the committee would have to convince each chain to get involved, Carroll said. To use Shaw’s roof space, one of 2,200 Albertsons Companies Inc. supermarkets, Barrington’s eight-person committee would have to enter discussions with a national food and drug retailer.
It’s not impossible, but there might be other battles to fight first.
For years, Kim Jacobs, committee member and consulting resiliency planner for the town, has headed a committee effort to get solar panels on top of the local schools. The project is still hung up in funding, Jacobs says, but the support is there.
“It’s looking like a reality,” she said.
The schools could make more than $80,000 in leasing their roof space, according to Carroll. And, as Thorsson noted, it is also an opportunity to get students involved and teach hands-on renewable energy lessons to the next generation.
With the price of solar panels dropping, it’s also worth revisiting the idea of transforming the old Barrington landfill into a solar facility, Thorsson said.
Since 2019, the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources and Rhode Island Commerce have provided $1 million annually to solar projects on brownfields. It’s a tree-sparing and convenient use for land often unfit for other purposes.
Carroll is uncertain if it’ll be a popular move, but he said it’s likely to get votes from the Town Council.
Thorsson made a motion to “strongly encourage” the Town Council to revisit the idea of putting solar panels on the landfill. It was seconded and approved.