Becoming ambassadors for the environment

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 4:15pm
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A small group of island residents had gathered at the Harbor Church in an effort to turn all the talk about how to preserve the town’s natural resources into action. The issues are not new — parking, vehicle congestion, lack of bike paths, protecting the dunes — and the group was aware of that, but they were looking for ways to make practical improvements.

Some suggestions were made, including working with state elected officials to change existing legislative limitations on solar energy production, as an example, and to work with the state on widening the shoulders of state roads to create bike paths. There was also talk of making each island resident a kind of ambassador for the environment by providing information cards to them to hand out to visitors about how best to treat the environment.

Resident Bill Penn, in recognizing that many of these issues have been discussed before, also suggested doing what he called “an institutional history of these issues. They have been talked about forever. Find out why they haven’t worked.”

Resident Socha Cohen said she would reach out to Second Warden André Boudreau, who has made it something of a personal mission to reach out to the political leadership in Providence so that the island does not fall off their radar.

The group — which is calling itself Climate Care Solutions on Block Island — also decided to create an online chat group so that ideas and other information could be shared. (The group’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 20 at 8 a.m. at the Harbor Church.)

The majority of the 90 minute meeting was about how to put existing ideas into action.

“I have a passion for biking. I don’t use my car on the island any more than I have to,” said Harbor Church Pastor Peter Preiser, who was presiding over the meeting with Rev. Eletha Buote-Grieg of St. Ann’s by the Sea. “What about e-bikes? I think e-bikes are worth exploring on the island. To charge them is pennies.”

“The problem with that is you have to have a charging station,” said resident Bill Penn. Preiser said that people could charge their e-bikes at home.

A discussion ensued about how to use more solar power on the island. Penn said there is a cap on how much solar energy can be generated without customers losing their net metering benefits. (Net metering is designed to promote renewable energy sources and allows customers who generate their own energy to use that at anytime instead of just when it is generated.)

State law caps the amount of energy generated under net metering at three percent of a utility’s peak usage.

Preiser asked, “Are you suggesting some kind of lobby to get that changed?”

“Yes,” said Warfel. “It would be exceedingly beneficial to have more solar.”

Resident Chris Warfel said the cap on solar energy generation was “a relic. It’s not a technical or engineering requirement. It’s arbitrary.” He said other states have modified that cap.

“Is there anyone who can look further into this issue,” asked Preiser.

“The Utility District is looking into it,” said Penn. “There is a rate case coming up and that issue, and things like the demand charge” — a charge reflected on the bill — will also be looked at, said Penn.

Penn then reminded the group that all customers of the utility district own the company, and urged ratepayers to attend Board of Commissioners meetings, which are open to the public. He said the next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 23 at 4 p.m.

Cohen had global issues that could impact the island on her mind. She said the average global temperature had gone up by 1.5 degrees, the result of which she said was a continued rise in temperature, melting polar ice caps, and mass extinctions. She said even reducing CO2 emissions down to nothing would not reverse those trends, but she suggested several books on how to best manage one’s carbon footprint.

One of the issues the group discussed was a lack of interest in ecological issues among politicians.

“One of the critical issues is a lack of political will,” said Penn. “This [Trump] Administration is devastating to the EPA and environmental regulations. Unless there is political will and leadership, we’re stuck.”

“States are moving ahead without the federal government,” said Chris Warfel, who works in the solar industry and also runs an oyster farm on the island. “Working at the state level is the way to go.”

Joanne Warfel also said an impediment to action is the unfocused message the island itself sends out in terms of its environmental message. “Block Island is very mixed when it comes to our message. What are we? We have tons and tons of cars and mopeds that pollute. What are we doing on the local level?” She said she was aware of that contradiction in her own life. “We’re putting in air conditioning after 35 years because we just can’t tolerate the humidity any more,” she said. After that, she said, “I’m excited to start locally, and the state is the next best thing.”

At the end of the meeting, Preiser said, “I’m hearing action-oriented ideas. Be encouraged.”

Anyone wishing to join the group can email Pastor Peter Preiser at harborchurchblockisland.org.