We’d like to congratulate J. Mark Rooney on his selection as Westerly’s new town manager, and welcome him to the community. In three months as the town’s interim manager, following the departure of Derrik Kennedy, Rooney clearly made a favorable impression with members of the Town Council, the employees of the various municipal departments, and with the residents and business people he encountered as he worked to become acquainted with Westerly’s problems, aspirations, and culture. The Town Council deserves some credit, too, for having five council candidates serve on the citizens committee that interviewed Rooney and the five other finalists for the job. Some of them will be working with Rooney after November, and it was important to get them on board, along with those town employees who served on a separate interview panel.
It’s probably safe to say that the general atmosphere of town government has changed for the better since Westerly hired its previous town manager in 2015. Kennedy came in with a mandate to shake things up after a period of turmoil and scandals, and he did, uncomfortable as it may have been for him personally. Since it was his first experience handling a top administrative job, he pretty much operated “by the book,” especially in matters of personnel — and there are lingering resentments to this day about some of his decisions. Rooney, however, comes in as an old hand in municipal management. He offered high praise for the professionalism of the town staff and said there was a “positive feeling in every department.” He also spoke of the “warm and welcoming” character of the community. And why not? He had worn out his welcome at his last job in Illinois, and as we have reported on this page, he could literally have ended up just about anywhere. Instead, he’s been brought into the bosom of a place with enviable wealth and natural resources, vital community institutions, and a strong sense of civic pride. We’re hoping that he performs up to expectations and helps the community deal with its many challenges in the years ahead.
The growing resistance to large solar arrays in forested areas of Hopkinton has arisen at a time of unusual crosscurrents and uncertainty in the energy sector. Rhode Island takes pride in its status as a national leader in clean energy policy, and Gov. Gina Raimondo has set a goal of 1,000 megawatts of clean energy resources by 2020 — 700 more MW than we have today. In some ways, the federal government is supporting this goal by opening up big tracts of the ocean floor to wind power, but these projects will take a long time to come to fruition. Revolution Wind, which would add 400 megawatts to Rhode Island’s supply, wouldn’t be in operation until 2023. On the other hand, the Trump administration is actually weighting down the solar sector through its imposition of tariffs on imported solar equipment — boosting the price of residential installations by $500 to $1,000, and more to commercial ventures.
According to the 2018 Rhode Island Clean Energy Jobs report, the state saw its first decline in solar employment since the reports began in 2014. Solar employment dropped from 1,584 jobs in 2017 to 1,453 this year, and solar most likely figured in Washington County’s 12 percent drop-off in overall clean energy jobs, to 1,806 in 2018 from 2,054 a year earlier. Many of the layoffs were attributed to installers quickly hitting the annual 6.55-megawatt cap on one of the state’s incentives, the Renewable Energy Growth Program, that allows small producers to sell their power at long-term fixed prices. Enrollment has been closed for this year, too.
For Hopkinton and other rural areas, the relevance of this data may be that if Rhode Island is going to hit its 1,000 megawatt clean energy target — and its associated goal of 20,000 clean energy jobs by 2020 — solar will have to step up. All those megawatts aren’t going to come from small-scale operations. To quote from the report, “To date, the state has 95.03 MW of solar capacity across 4,619 installations. Roughly 1 percent of the state’s electricity is derived from solar energy, and the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources projects that the state will add approximately 590 MW over the next five years and will come from a combination of solar programs and future renewable energy procurements.”
In a letter published in The Sun on July 29, Sharon Davis, a Town Council candidate, tabulated the projects approved and in the works in Hopkinton, and asked, “How much renewable solar energy is enough? What is our actual goal?” As we have seen, the state has an answer, and powerful constituencies are pushing for the solar solution. The question is where, and whether, Hopkinton can draw its own line, in the hope of heading off the harmful side effects of large solar arrays carved into the region’s forests. The economic and social costs of these developments were not within the scope of the state report. But at some point state officials need to remove their blinders and take in the full field of alternative energy — the good consequences, and the bad.