Special to The Daily Record//Pete Pichaske//April 21, 2019
//April 21, 2019
When the Maryland Legislature this year dramatically increased the amount of solar power Maryland must produce in the coming years, lawmakers also increased the pressure on the counties that help decide where that power will come from.
Counties already had been grappling with where, and where not, to locate large solar installations. Now that more such installations will be needed, the pressure has intensified.
“I think this is going to be an ongoing and important issue, one that’s going to remain very relevant for the next few years,” said Leslie Knapp, legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties. “We’re in a gold rush for solar in Maryland now.”
Maryland already was committed to generating at least 25 percent of the state’s electrical power through renewable energy by 2025, including 2.5 percent from solar. Lawmakers this year raised those numbers to at least 50 percent renewables by 2030, including 14.5 percent from solar.
While the state Public Service Commission must approve new energy sources, such as solar, counties also have a say through their zoning and land-use planning authority.
Because of that, the state is a patchwork quilt of rules governing where the larger solar projects (technically known as utility-scale solar projects but commonly known as solar farms) can be built.
In largely rural Carroll County, large solar installations are restricted to business or industrial districts, where they’re likely to be built on rooftops.
“Carroll is very much an agricultural county,” said County Zoning Administrator Jay Voight, noting that the county’s solar regulation, passed in 2014, prohibit solar developments on farmland. “We don’t want solar panels to interfere with farming, because that’s our number one industry.”
Similarly, Harford County allows solar power generating facilities on land zoned as General Industrial, but not an agricultural-zoned property. “We are not planning to make any changes at this time,” said county spokeswoman Cindy Mumby.
In Anne Arundel County, County Executive Steuart Pittman supports the new state goals for renewable energy, according to his environmental policy director Matthew Johntson. But Pittman also supports limits the county already has set on solar installations meant to protect farmland, scenic roads and historic sites, as well as address community and environmental concerns, Johnston said.
“In his mind, solar is worth it, but it is another development,” Johnston said.
In Baltimore County, solar emerged as a contentious issue even before the General Assembly came up with higher goals. In January, County Council member Wade Kach proposed a nine-month moratorium on rural solar projects so the county could reconsider allowing such projects on farmland.
He later withdrew his proposal, saying he had little support on the council. However, he has no plans to let the issue die.
Kach, who represents the farmland-rich northern section of Baltimore County, argues that the county’s 2017 law governing solar installations was haphazard, short-sighted and too heavily influenced by the solar industry.
In particular, Kach said, the law does too little to protect the county’s prime farmland and not enough to steer solar arrays to other areas, such as commercial or industrial rooftops or open land not suitable for farming.
Kach said he plans to lobby his fellow county leaders for a comprehensive study that will yield a better solar policy.
“There are so many concerns,” he said. “We really desperately need a strategy in Baltimore County.”
MACo, meanwhile, officially supports solar energy but considers local authority over siting important. The association supports a mix of sites — residential rooftop, parking lot and warehouse rooftop and open space zoned by local governments, in that order.
The association favors discouraging solar installations on prime farmland, in forests and environmentally sensitive areas and in areas of cultural or historical importance, according to policy counsel Knapp.
The variety of approaches and regulations found in central Maryland have not gone unnoticed by the solar industry.
“Every county has its own approach to solar as far as permitting,” said David Murray, executive director of the Maryland, DC, Delaware, and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association (MDV-SEIA), a solar trade organization. “I wouldn’t say it’s hampering development, but it certainly can slow down business, and I think folks see it as a bit of red tape.”
Murray said resistance to almost relatively new development is common, but once people see the benefits of solar power and its relatively benign impact, it will gain wider acceptance.
“We’re confident that as an industry, we’ll be able to meet the 14.5 percent carve-out,” he said.i