By Michael Shank

This year is shaping up to be another “hottest year on record”, as February was the planet’s warmest month ever recorded. These aren’t anomalies. There’s a trend developing. The last few years have been surpassing previous temperature precedents, with 2016 going down as the hottest year ever on record.

While this might be good news for Florida-loving sun bathers, this isn’t great news from a global warming perspective. With warmer weather comes more droughts and wildfires, higher sea level rise (which could easily impact Hudson River towns) and more extreme hurricanes, the likes of which have hit Westchester County before.

None of this global warming is good for our health. Neither are Westchester County’s fossil fuel plants, which pollute our air and fill our lungs. We consistently get an F grade for air quality from the American Lung Association. Part of that is New York City’s fault. Part of that is on us. We’ve still got waste-to-energy plants, such as Wheelabrator in Peekskill, burning waste and emitting particulates into the air we breathe. This is a problem.

There is an opportunity here, however, to make a switch and do the right thing for the environment while also doing the right thing for our health and our pocketbook. And it’s free for the taking. Cities across the country are doing it, led by both Democratic and Republican mayors and city councils. They’re harnessing the free energy from the sun and they’re making a killing off it.

Take, for example, the city of Lancaster, California, which is run by a Republican mayor. They want to be America’s solar capital so they’re requiring that every new building have solar panels installed on the roof. And they’re reaping the benefits from this policy. Lancaster’s school-based solar installations now save the city an estimated $325,000 annually, with another $8 million in savings expected over the coming years.

Even Tea Party leaders like Debbie Dooley in Florida, a supporter of Donald Trump, are all about harnessing solar energy. And it’s completely aligned with their libertarian political perspectives. Why be beholden to a utility’s control over your energy supply and price point when you can harness the sun for free? It’s the democratization of energy and it’s sweeping the nation.

Helping this trend is the affordability of solar. The cost of solar is declining rapidly, down 62 percent from 2009, which is why it’s becoming so popular. Within this decade, solar power is estimated to be the lowest-cost option anywhere. At present rates, Westchester residents can save over $40,000 on energy costs over the next 20 years with solar. What’s not to love?

That’s why the City of Peekskill and the towns of Greenburgh and Lewisboro-Pound Ridge are taking advantage of this low-cost opportunity and partnering with Solarize Westchester and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. They want their residents and businesses to cash in on the unique, discount buying program and roll out solar locally.

This is what local leadership looks like and it’s exactly the energy direction in which we should head. When a city’s mayor and the city manager are on board, as they are in Peekskill, noting that they’re “excited to participate” and that this is an “exciting opportunity for Peekskill’s residents and business,” it becomes a valuable, teachable moment. It makes it much easier to educate the community about the opportunity that awaits them.

Peekskill already has 100-plus pre-existing solar installations throughout the city, which it could easily double if homeowners sign up with the low-cost ‘Solarize Peekskill’ campaign before it ends in early June. Doing so would be a win-win. Cleaner energy, and thus cleaner air, will bring lower energy bills and lower hospital bills.

But beyond solarizing our houses, businesses and public buildings, Westchester County has a much bigger opportunity to become a serious state-wide leader in renewable energy. The solar, wind and geothermal potential here is huge and it’d be a serious boon to the county’s health and economy.

We should lead the market shift now, before the rest of the country catches up, and be producers and sellers of renewable energy. The profits and savings are ours for the taking. And we should make a ten-year goal to see improvement in our American Lung Association grade. An ‘F’ is unacceptable, and so are the preventable respiratory illnesses that are undermining our health and economic productivity.

This is all within our reach, it’s just a matter of saying yes. It’s time to solarize our cities and save the health and the economy of our county.

The writer, a Peekskill resident, serves on the city’s Conservation Advisory Council.