Baltimore County’s first chief sustainability officer already had his job cut out for him when County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. appointed him last August.
Steve Lafferty inherited from the late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s administration a languishing Energy Action Plan with the goal of achieving 20% renewable energy generation by 2022 and had to explain to the public why the county had been urging residents to recycle glass when it had not been collecting those materials since 2013.
And then a global pandemic hit.
“The list of needs far exceeds the amount of money we’re able to invest in this time,” Lafferty said. “But that means there may need to be some shorter-term solutions.”
The coronavirus, Lafferty said, upended timelines for several goals the former Towson state delegate had outlined after stepping into the position last year. He also expects the economic impact of the pandemic will challenge some efforts to improve the county’s sustainability, given its effect on funding sources and anticipated losses to state and local revenue, with the county’s budget director predicting to miss pre-pandemic revenue projections by as much as $172 million between now and June 2021.
Sustainability refers to not only environmental protection and natural resources management, such as trees, open space and waterways, but also the ways the county can operate without contributing to environmental pollution and global climate change by emitting tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
But “change is slow” even in typical times, said Beth Miller, an architect and member of the Green Towson Alliance, whose platform calls for managing mature trees, particularly in downtown Towson; building more environmentally friendly stormwater management infrastructure; using renewable energy sources in more county properties and increasing mass transit options; and requiring developers to meet the standards of LEED, a green building certification program that looks at building design, construction and operation.
“It’s difficult to turn a barge around on a dime,” she said.
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In Baltimore County, the largest sources of emissions produced by county government operations were building electricity use, waste water pumping and the county transportation fleet, according to a 2012 study by Towson University.
In that same year, the county emitted an estimated 9.9 million tons of carbon dioxide due to transportation, residential energy use, commercial energy use, industrial energy and the waste sector.
A more recent report commissioned by the Valleys Planning Council and released earlier this year by the engineering and consulting firm WSP USA, paints the picture of a future where Baltimore County has more days that climb above 90 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040, has higher minimum monthly temperatures by 2037 and continuously has more extreme precipitation events.
The report also predicts higher risks of runoff, flooding and saturated fields; higher summer temperatures that could damage crop and soil health; increasing stress on oak trees under higher temperatures; at-risk biodiversity; and the spread of invasive species, like the emerald ash borer, that could fare better under warmer conditions.
And Lafferty appears to have the experience to take on the challenges: As a state delegate, he worked in Annapolis from 2007 to 2019, serving on the House Environment and Transportation Committee, and was deputy director of planning and zoning in Howard County from 2003 to 2015.
Lafferty works in Olszewski’s office rather than within any one county department, although by the nature of his work, much of his job involves facilitating interagency discussions that Lafferty says weren’t happening before he took the position.
“The economy has thrown us for a loop, but we’re cautiously optimistic” about deriving 20% of energy from renewable sources in the next two years, Lafferty said.
The county entered into an agreement with Energy Power Partners in June to convert the landfill’s methane gas produced by decomposing waste into electricity for generators powering the facility and other small meters nearby, which Lafferty estimates will add 11% more renewable energy to the county’s portfolio.
And in July, the county announced a 10-year agreement with Cap Glass Inc. of Connellsville, Pennsylvania, to provide a new glass recycling program for residents.
In May, during the final meeting of the Baltimore County Youth Climate Initiative Work Group, county students convened by Olszewski to make recommendations for the development of the county’s Climate Action Plan (under Lafferty’s direction), Olszewski noted the county had repurposed Department of Public Works funding in its capital budget to improve stormwater drains throughout the county at a cost of $10 million over the next six years, including $3.7 million this year.
Issues at the top of Lafferty’s list last year included getting more solar panels installed in the county and cutting down on fossil fuel consumption by replacing gas-powered vehicles in the county fleet to electric vehicles.
A few electric vehicle charging stations already have been installed at Towson garages managed by the Baltimore County Revenue Authority. Also, the county is working with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to install additional ones on county property at no cost to the county, thanks to an initiative from BGE to install 27,000 public charging stations in the greater Baltimore area as part of a state goal set in 2013 to have 300,000 zero-emissions vehicles on the road by 2025.
Those charging stations are in the planning phase, Lafferty said.
The county issued a Request for Proposal, or RFP, to install solar arrays, or collections of solar panels, on five government buildings and two closed landfills, an effort first announced in 2016 before it faltered during Kamenetz’s administration.
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Del. Dana Stein, a Baltimore County representative, said he expects the solar and other renewable energy industries to take a financial hit given the deferring of capital projects by local governments.
But, Stein added, the pandemic will not greatly impede sustainability efforts in the long run since achieving sustainability is often a long-term process.
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“Obviously, coronavirus has had a huge impact this year, but it hasn’t precluded continued planning on attaining our goal of getting 40% reductions in greenhouse gases by 2030, or improving resiliency [on shorelines’] vulnerable sea level rise,” Stein said.
Local governments taking the initiative to address climate change is an effective approach, Stein said, because a sustainability coordinator “can focus on the very specific communities in that county” and the issues they’re facing, like shoreline erosion.
Charting a robust path forward for the county to address climate change locally requires a plan for how to do it.
Two consultants are writing a Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Reduction Plan and a separate plan focused on climate change impacts on government facilities and operations, a draft of which is expected to be published later this year. The timeline was disrupted by the pandemic, Lafferty said.
That work will include looking at reducing emissions in the county’s waste, energy and transportation sectors, and will flesh out the longer-term goals the county will seek to achieve, Lafferty said.
Absent more capital funding for sustainability projects, Miller said the county can continue to address climate change through policy change, like setting tighter restrictions on developers or incentivizing them to build more energy-conserving projects, two things that Lafferty said he has not yet looked into.
“Issues of policy that aren’t dependent on funding, those should be the focus,” Miller said. “They don’t cost anything, and this is the time to do it.”