Last night the Finance Committee approved Part B of docket item #133-15, authorizing the mayor to negotiate leases for solar carports on the parking lots of the Newton Free Library and Newton South High School. (Part A , involving solar panels at Rumford Ave and on the roofs of a several schools and other city buildings – but not City Hall, and carports at Elliot St DPW, had already been approved.)
The company that would lease the city-owned sites and construct, operate, and maintain the solar panels for a 20-year lease period is Ameresco Solar, Inc. The city would buy the energy produced through a Power Purchase Agreement, and Ameresco would receive federal income tax credits for solar that are apparently what makes the project financially feasible.
I had expressed concern to the Board of Aldermen last year that solar panels in parking lots with trees would cause problems for pruning trees that appeared to be very close to the panels, and that a solar company would not want tree branches shading their panels.
But it turns out they don’t want trees at all. Ameresco representatives told me last night after the meeting that they would be cutting all the trees on the two Library parking lot islands that would have solar carports. The carport design they are using is a continuous V-shaped cross section that doesn’t even have a gap in the middle for tree trunks. (The southernmost island will not get carports because there is ‘too much’ shade from the trees along the boundary of the Newton Cemetery.)
Not only did the Library trustees approve the solar panels, Building Commissioner Josh Morse told me they actually would like to get rid of the grass berms to fit in more parking spaces. (So much for promoting biking and public transit.) He called keeping the grass berms and getting rid of trees a “compromise.” (And the grass berms will be under the carports — how will that work out?)
I find the idea of cutting down trees for solar distressing and counterproductive. The Library parking lot is one of the few in the city, maybe the only one, that comes close to meeting the zoning requirement of one tree for every ten parking spaces. New trees were planted only about three years ago to replace trees that were dead or dying. These include large-maturing species like maples and disease resistant American elms, that would eventually provide a beautiful green canopy over the parking lot. The NSHS lot does not have as many trees as it should, but at least two of the main parking lot trees look like they will be casualties of the carports, if I’m interpreting the aerial view rendering correctly.
We would be losing the other benefits of the trees including aesthetic, air quality, bird and insect habitat, and storm water retention, the last of which is particularly relevant in the prone to flooding Library parking lot.
On the Finance Committee, only Lenny Gentile raised any concerns, and only about the Library carports. He feels that the Library and City Hall are the hub of the city, and it’s the wrong thing to do for only about $17,000. (I’m not sure if this represents the city’s electric savings, or what, from the Library carports.)
The solar proposal has already been approved by Public Facilities, so the next step would be the full City Council.
How do others feel?