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Solar outdistancing other renewable sources

Maryland homeowners are increasingly getting their electricity from the sun, with thousands of people opting to go solar each year.

“Solar energy is going gang-busters in Maryland,” said Ian Hines, communications and marketing manager of the Maryland Energy Administration.

Hines’ agency has $9 million earmarked in fiscal 2011 for its residential clean energy program, which provides grants for homeowners to install solar panels, solar hot water heaters, wind turbines and geothermal technology.

Marylanders taking advantage of the grants are overwhelmingly using the funds to go solar. In fiscal 2011, the state is on track to process 2,574 grant requests, of which 1,154 are for solar panels and just 29 for wind. The trend isn’t new; two years ago, there were 400 solar panel grants, versus three wind grants.

By the dollars, in 2011 $4.9 million in grants potentially will go for solar panels. Grants for residential wind turbines, on the other hand, total $280,000. Of the remaining two renewables that qualify for the program, solar hot water heaters represent $950,000 in potential awards (515 applications) and geothermal systems, about $1.8 million (876 applications).

A state mandate requires that 20 percent of the state’s energy comes from renewable sources by 2020. Solar power must make up 2 percent, said Tommy Landers, campaign director of Environment Maryland. The designated percentage is commonly known as the solar “carve-out.”

“Even though the carve-out ramps up over time, it’s a great driver for the solar companies” in the state, said Landers.

The number of jobs in the solar industry is also exploding. Since 2007, Hines said, an average of 177 solar installer company jobs are created annually. He cited a survey showing 571 people employed in the industry in 2007; 639 people in 2010; and 928 people projected for 2011 — an increase from 2007 to 2011 of more than 89 percent. (These figures do not include BP Solar, a solar panel manufacturer that closed its plant in Frederick last year.)

“We found a lot of growth in the industry,” said Anne Polansky, executive director of the Maryland, D.C., Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association. “There were a lot of newcomers to the state within the past four years.”

Driving through neighborhoods in the state, few wind turbines will be spotted — even though the technology is at the point where one could be installed in a residential yard.

Local governments control zoning regulations. Rooftop solar panels are generally considered a “permitted use,” and state law prevents homeowner associations from prohibiting them on single-family residences.

But residential wind turbines “raise a lot of questions for local governments. There are height restrictions” and concerns about noise, said Les Knapp, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties. “One wind turbine on a small lot generates a lot of noise.”

MEA has suggested guidelines for use of wind turbines in the state. So far, though, only a handful of counties, and two municipalities, have devised regulations. In Baltimore County last year, efforts to do so failed after a battle between environmentalists and community groups erupted over proposed regulations.

“The local jurisdictions and the state aren’t there yet,” Landers said about turbines. “They haven’t dealt” with the issue.

In 2009, MACo did a survey of residential wind turbines at the request of Ocean City, which was considering regulations to allow them at the time and whose attempt this year to adopt them stalled. Of the 23 counties and Baltimore City, eight allowed them, two prohibited them and five were in the process of rewriting their zoning ordinances.

“Of the eight counties that allowed them, two were considered ‘silent’ — wind turbines weren’t specifically prohibited — and they were going to clarify and put on restrictions,” Knapp said. “Most of the counties that allowed them were in rural and suburban areas. Wind turbines are more difficult in a denser environment.”

Of the state’s 157 incorporated municipalities, including Baltimore City, only two have passed zoning regulations for residential wind turbines, said Jim Peck, director of research of the Maryland Municipal League.

They are Frostburg and Cumberland, both located in Western Maryland’s Allegany County, “where there’s enough wind” for such a project, Peck said, and where efforts to install commercial-scale wind turbines have stalled over environmental issues.

Knapp expects local zoning of residential wind turbines to become increasingly urgent.

“It’s now economically and technically feasible to install them,” he said. “Other states are dealing with this issue as well.”