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Bel Air

Here comes the sun - and the solar panels - in Harford

Sunny days can mean many things to different people: vacations, open pools, outdoor festivals and fairs.

For the many new users of solar panels in Harford County, though, the summer sun means their investment in "greener" energy is paying off.

The flat, gleaming energy-collecting devices have been popping up on rooftops across Harford County and its municipalities in recent years, and local officials have especially seen a jump in the past few months.

The Town of Bel Air approved at least 131 solar panels, spread out among five applicants, for the month of June alone.

Harford County, meanwhile, received 190 applications for property tax credits for the devices in 2013, up from 146 in 2012 and 110 in 2011. (The beginning of this year was a little slower, with 64 applications through May so far, versus 71 for the same time period last year.)

The reasons behind the uptick in solar installations, however, may be trickier to tease out.

A new county law did raise the amount the county can provide in annual tax credits for solar and geothermal devices from $250,000 to $500,000 each year, treasurer Kathryn Hewitt explained. The law was responding to some pent-up demand for the tax credits.

"There is a backlog to receive the property tax credit, as there is a maximum amount of credits that may be provided in a fiscal year," she noted.

Farming community use

One notable customer niche for the technology has been the farming community.

Kate Dallam, of Broom's Bloom Dairy, a few miles southeast of Bel Air, said her family installed 180 panels on the barn and 68 above the ice-cream store three summers ago in hopes of lowering the electric bill.

"We have huge electricity demands," Dallam explained. "We were just looking for a way to reduce the cost."

The installation has been "a huge capital investment" that she expects to see a return on within about five years.

"It costs an enormous amount of money, especially on the scale we did them," she said.

The panels have nevertheless been generating almost 100 percent of the electricity for the barn and about half of the electricity for the ice-cream store, Dallam said.

"We're very glad we did it," Dallam said, adding that environmental concerns were also a factor.

"We try to be environmentally conscious, so we also like the idea of generating our own electricity. It's more environmentally responsible," she said.

Dallam has been getting about a call a month from other ag community members interested in the solar energy idea. She said solar panels do cut down on energy expenses for operations like hers.

"That's just because we have large buildings, large farms," she explained.

Dallam urged anyone interested in the panels to call several companies before committing to the "huge investment."

"You do not just go with the first company you talk to," she said. "You need to really research them."

Government reaction

Besides rural property owners, some governments may even be considering solar energy. Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett said at a recent work session that the city has had a lot of discussions about putting solar panels on City Hall.

Most of the interest, however, seems to still be residential.

"What I've seen a real uptick for is single-family dwellings, single-family homes," Richard Lynch, Harford County director of inspections, licensing and permits, said Friday. "We are seeing a lot of activity in single-family homes."

The Maryland Energy Administration confirmed Harford County has seen a rise in solar energy use since 2011. Most Maryland jurisdictions have had steady growth in solar energy for the past several years, according to an MEA graph.

Tax credits and environmental concerns aside, there's nothing like a good sales pitch, as several government officials suggested.

"Is it a trend or is it a spike?" wondered Neal Mills, planning and zoning director for the City of Havre de Grace. "We have had a new business, not located in town but that has approached us to conduct solar panel sales."

Mills said his city has processed 35 applications for the panels in the past two years.

Growing acceptance

More people seem comfortable with the new technology, which has also evolved and become more efficient, sales manager Joseph Dillon and operations manager Gailan Wensil-Strow of American Design & Build in Bel Air, agreed.

"Overall, everything's just gotten better very quickly," Wensil-Strow said, explaining panels are 30 to 35 percent more efficient than they were five years ago.

Both said they have seen more interest in solar energy in Bel Air and beyond.

Marissa Willis, who processes the applications for the city, said there have been several solar-energy companies that have sold them in Havre de Grace in recent years, including at vendor booths during local festivals.

Lynch, of Harford County's inspections, licensing and permits department, said he has issued several solicitors' permits to companies interested in selling solar panels. Lynch has seen a rise in interest since May or April especially, he said.

"We've had a lot more inquiries," he said. "I think it has to do with the marketing, and I believe it may be tax incentives. I do know individuals who have done solar and even geothermal systems and they've conveyed to me that they've gotten a pretty good amount of it paid for through relief for taxes."

Customers have to get a building and electrical permit from the county for the installation, he said. That requirement has stayed consistent.

The Town of Bel Air had just one application each in February and March, but received five in May and five more in both June and July, building permits clerk Chrissy Mullaney said.

Aberdeen city manager Doug Miller also told his city's council members recently that he has seen a lot of solar panels in his neighborhood lately, although he did not know why.

The City of Aberdeen approved 41 permits for residential solar panels from January through May, planner Gil Jones said.

"We have had a few here and there over the years, but nothing really to speak of," he said, noting the volume has mostly been over the spring months this year.

Lower costs, firefighting concerns

Larry Chaput, energy consultant with Baltimore-based Power Factor, was one of several solar energy vendors set up at the Harford County Farm Fair over the weekend.

He said costs of the technology have come down substantially in recent years. He also pointed out plenty of incentives exist for solar customers, including a 30 percent federal tax credit.

He noted customers can also buy products, such as a solar roof attic fan that are less extensive than traditional solar panels, used for heating water or running heating and cooling systems.

"Harford County is very green, very focused," he said about local interest in solar energy. Harford Community College, for example, installed solar panels on the roof of its new campus building, he said.

One group, however, has been eyeing solar panels more warily: the firefighting community.

"There is a concern in the fire service with the proliferation and the widespread use now for solar energy collection rooftop panels," Dave Williams, of the Fallston Volunteer Fire Company, said.

While he has not heard of any problems in Harford County, Williams said there have been instances elsewhere in the United States where buildings were destroyed by fire because firefighters were hampered by solar panels.

"It decreases the exposed area of the roof and there are certain areas of the roof, depending on the structure, that are more optimal to place the ventilation hole," he said. "[The solar panel system] totally precludes our practical strategic planning of the ventilation holes."

Also, he said, "it creates an electrical shock hazard for our personnel if we are trying to operate in the area of those solar panels."

"The shut-off switches are not real common; they are not all the same," Williams added.

Williams said the firefighting world is trying to stay on top of changing solar technology. He noted when the International Association of Fire Fighters did a presentation on code revisions several years ago, "that was one of those big topics, was, 'We really need to get on top of and get ahead of the solar panel issue.'"

Williams nevertheless said firefighters are definitely not suggesting people stop getting solar panels.

"It's more that we need to adjust our strategies and tactics," he said. "We certainly wouldn't discourage them."

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