Balto. Co. addresses hurdles to solar power

Balto. Co. proposes changes to make solar panel installation easier.

Amid complaints from homeowners and solar companies that Baltimore County's rules for rooftop solar panels are cumbersome and unevenly applied, the county is making it easier to install the systems and get tax credits for them.

The County Council is expected to approve a bill reducing the amount of open space required around the panels and allowing companies to run wires and conduits in the space. The change will allow solar companies to install about 20 percent more panels on homes — enough supporters hope will entice more county residents to go solar.

That bill comes on the heels of a decision this month to allow more homeowners to get property tax credits for solar panels in hopes of eliminating a waiting list that extends for nearly a decade.

"This will be really great for our industry," Matt Rhinehart, operations manager for SolarCity, told council members Tuesday.

The Baltimore Sun reported in January that Baltimore County lags behind other suburban counties in residential solar electric and hot water systems. In 2014, for example, Anne Arundel County had triple the number of solar installations as Baltimore County, though it has a smaller population.

Companies in the industry blamed the setback requirement, inconsistencies in inspections and the long wait for the tax credits. Rhinehart said about 60 percent of potential customers in Baltimore County ended up not buying solar panels because they couldn't put enough panels on their rooftops to make the project financially viable.

The new setback rules are "much more flexible regulations" that should allow more homeowners to go solar, Rhinehart said. The company likely will hire more workers as a result, he said.

Solar companies made a push over the past several months to get the county to change its rules. Several council members toured the Hunt Valley operations of SolarCity, which accounted for about half of the county's solar permits last year.

Baltimore County had required more open area around solar panels to make it easier for firefighters to access rooftops. Other counties have allowed one entire side of an angled roof to be covered in solar panels if the other side of the roof was left clear.

County Fire Chief John J. Hohman told council members that he supports the bill, which he called a compromise.

The bill is sponsored by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and all seven council members, so it is expected to be approved at the council's voting session Monday.

The change on the rooftop setbacks would be the second action the county has taken in an attempt to boost the use of solar power. Earlier this month, the council unanimously raised the cap for how much in solar energy tax credits the county can approve each year, from $250,000 to $750,000.

Homeowners who install solar panels can claim a one-time credit against their property tax bill equal to half of the value of their solar system. Since the tax credits were started in 2010, 223 homeowners have received $910,727 worth of tax credits, an average of about $4,000 per homeowner.

But with the credits capped at $250,000 per year, property owners have had to wait years to claim their credits. The waiting list has 568 homeowners on it, and some of them will have to wait nine years, according to the county.

Kamenetz has not yet indicated whether he will include enough money in his budget proposal to cover the higher cap.

pwood@baltsun.com

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