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The ‘climate crisis is much more real today.’ Could solar panels on new rooftops help?

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Having clear climate-change goals is important if the town is going to get more energy-efficient homes and buildings, Town Council members say.

The challenge, member Rachel Schaevitz said Wednesday night, is providing the flexibility to ensure developers meet the goals no matter what technology their buildings use.

“You can’t say, well, I can’t do the solar [panels] because there’s trees, and so I guess I don’t have to anything,” Schaevitz said, “because what I really want is to see that all new development is improving on our carbon reduction, beyond what we established more than 10 years ago.”

The town’s 2009 Energy Policy was aimed at making new buildings 20 percent more energy efficient than industry standards. The town’s policy is voluntary, and developers typically bring an energy plan when they want the council to rezone land. Rezoning is the council’s primary tool for enforcing energy-efficiency standards, Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said.

Schaevitz noted the “climate crisis is much more real today” than when the town approved its policy.

“I think we really need to be much more intense about our efforts, and so I want to support all our efforts to improve it, but I also want to close any of these loopholes that might be lingering,” she said.

The town’s Environmental Stewardship Advisory Board asked the council in December to require all new and renovated buildings to include solar-energy systems covering at least 80 percent of eligible rooftops. That includes flat or pitched roofs that face southeast to southwest, as well as parking decks and lots that could be covered with solar panels.

The current policy could be amended within a few months to add the 80% coverage requirement, said John Richardson, the town’s community resilience officer. The policy would be flexible enough to address a site’s unique characteristics and to adjust to evolving technology, he said.

A developer with a heavily wooded site, for example, might not have enough sun for solar panels, but could install heavier insulation, energy-efficient windows, he said.

“If the bottom line is carbon savings, then a policy or an ordinance that allows for flexibility to maximize those carbon savings at every site is practical,” Richardson said.

Another, more time-consuming option is changing local land-use rules to add an incentive, such as a density bonus or permit fee rebate, for developers who meet energy-efficiency requirements.

Either approach would be voluntary; the town doesn’t have the authority to force developers to make buildings more efficient.

But the right policy, council member Hongbin Gu said, would be informed with more data about how each technology reduces carbon emissions and how much each costs to implement.

Council member Nancy Oates said she would like to avoid pitting the town’s desire for energy-efficiency with its desire for affordable housing.

“It may be that the Planning Department could help us get that message out when applicants come forward that the council is equally concerned about affordable housing and about energy efficiency,” she said.

Rooftop solar panels Chapel Hill.jpg
The owner of this building at 750 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. hired a company to install 233 solar panels on the rooftop in 2014 and 2015. The installation was done while tenants, including Root Cellar and Flyleaf Books, continued to operate. Town of Chapel Hill Contributed


North Carolina was the nation’s second-largest generator of solar power last year, falling only behind California, according to Inside Climate News. However, it was only 17th in the nation for small-scale solar arrays, such as rooftop systems, primarily because of state laws that favor utility companies, the report stated.

However, state law lets cities and counties grant density bonuses and incentives to developers who make their buildings more energy efficient, and the state made solar leasing legal in 2017, which allows customers to pay a flat monthly fee to lease solar equipment. That made it more affordable for homeowners and small businesses to install solar arrays. Any excess power is sold to a utility.

Many Chapel Hill homes and businesses already have installed solar panels, including Chapel Hill Tire and Midtown Market, the home of Root Cellar and Flyleaf Books on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Mayor Pam Hemminger emphasized the need to retrofit more buildings with solar arrays, including more town-owned buildings. The Chapel Hill Public Library, Fire Station 1 and the town’s Operations Center already sport rooftop solar panels.

The town also has a Gold Level designation from the SolSmart program, which helps local governments expand their local solar energy production. Tax incentives also are available for property owners who install solar arrays.

Other Triangle governments have considered ways to cut their communities’ carbon footprints.

Carrboro — also a SolSmart Gold Level community — has multiple programs and policies addressing energy-efficiency and climate change.

In Durham, the city, county and public schools have a goal of emitting 50% fewer greenhouse gases by 2030. Since 2008, Durham County has reported saving enough energy and water at public facilities to power 1,549 homes for a year.

Raleigh offers a Green Raleigh Review process that provides developers with feedback and support from a city “Green Team” of experts in urban forestry, stormwater, transportation and other fields. Developers that participate can have their sketch plan and express review fees reimbursed.

CHHS renovation project 2017
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials say Triangle construction cost increases have increased the cost of renovating and rebuilding parts of Chapel Hill High School (pictured in this artist’s rendering) to $68 million. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools


Chapel Hill High School update

In other business Wednesday, the council approved using up to $200,000 in town money to help with bike and pedestrian improvements and a bus shelter on High School Road. The work is part of the Chapel Hill High School redevelopment project.

The money will fund an off-road pathway, instead of bike lanes planned for both sides of the road. The change is expected to save $250,000 up front and more in long-term maintenance costs.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools district would pay up to $225,000 toward the pathway. The high school renovation project is being funded with money from a $100 million voter-approved schools construction bond and is scheduled to be completed by May 2023.

The district also plans a new Transit Maintenance Building at the corner of High School and Seawell School roads.

A right-turn lane also is planned from Homestead Road onto High School Road and a left-turn lane from High School Road to Seawell School Road. The N.C. Department of Transportation is expected to pay for the road improvements.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.


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