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Howard officials propose three green energy initiatives

Howard officials propose three green energy initiatives
ho Ellicott City, MD Photo date: 07-15-2013 Photo by Nate Pesce County Council member Calvin Ball speaks at the hearing. Photos of County Council members during a zoning hearing at the George Howard Building, July 15. (Nate Pesce / Patuxent Publishing)

While an international climate accord was signed last weekend in Paris, two Howard County politicians spent this past week talking about green energy at home.

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball proposed a zoning amendment aimed at expanding the land available in the county for potential solar farms. And on Tuesday, County Executive Allan Kittleman announced two initiatives designed to incentivize energy efficiency for homeowners and businesses.

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Ball's legislation would fix what he called an oversight by the council during the 2013 comprehensive zoning process, the once-a-decade re-examination of zoning designations throughout the county. Council members voted that year to allow solar farms on rural properties, subject to a conditional use approval process.

Solar installations were also permitted by conditional use on preserved farmland – but zoning regulations limited them to no more than one acre of a property.

Ball's measure would open the door to larger solar farms on preserved agricultural land by bringing the regulations in line with those for other rural properties. In a statement, he said the change would help keep preserved farmland financially viable, with typical lease rates for commercial solar facilities set at $1,250 to $1,500 per acre annually.

"This [amendment] will expand the number of farmers who could take advantage of commercial solar facilities," Ball said. "We all have a vested interest to see our farmers succeed and it's important they are afforded as many tools as possible to keep their farms economically sustainable while promoting green energy."

Under the amendment, solar facilities on preserved farmland would be required to occupy at least 10 acres and could expand up to a maximum size of 75 acres.

The proposal, which will be studied by the county's planning and zoning department and the Planning Board before it makes its way to the council for a vote, has the support of the Howard County Farm Bureau's board of directors.

"We recognize not all farms will be a good fit for solar; however, those that can will be able to add value to their operations and efficiently harness the power of the sun," said Farm Bureau President Howie Feaga. "In our minds, farms have used the sun's energy for every crop we have ever grown and proposals like this can help protect farming on agricultural preserved land."

According to the county, some 270 parcels in the agricultural preservation program could be eligible to benefit from the regulation change.

Harry Holt, vice president of operations for Bithenergy, Inc., which developed a 67-acre, 10 megawatt solar installation on Nixon's Farm in West Friendship, said the proposal "would create more opportunities for companies like ours."

With increased interest nationwide in renewable energy, Holt said his company is trying to expand solar installations in the region. Other counties are joining in: Carroll County and Frederick County also have similar projects in the works, he said.

Meanwhile, Kittleman's proposal would expand options for property owners looking to invest in energy efficient homes and offices.

One initiative is an extension of a program the council created in 2011. For the past four years, the Residential High Performance Building Credit program has provided credits of up to $5,000 per year, over a four-year period, to homeowners who achieve LEED certification or an equivalent set of energy efficiency standards for their homes.

The program, set to expire in June 2017, has so far paid out some $293,000 in credits.

Kittleman wants to extend the credits through 2022, and has directed the county's Energy Task Force to look at making the program permanent.

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"We know that restoring and preserving our environment today will benefit our community for many years to come," Kittleman said in a statement. "This credit is an effective tool for us to encourage residents, businesses and homebuilders to incorporate energy efficient features."

Ball, who sponsored the legislation creating the tax credits, said he hasn't consulted with Kittleman yet on the proposal, but "I'm glad to continue partnering with him."

The county executive's second initiative would implement a financing program for energy efficiency improvements in commercial, industrial and multi-family properties.

The Property Assessed Clean Energy program, or PACE, helps commercial property owners take out low-interest loans from private lenders without a down payment for the improvements. The loans are paid back as part of the business owner's property taxes; the county then forwards the payment to the lender.

Larry Twele, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said the program "creates energy efficiency and clean energy jobs."

Kittleman's proposals are set to be prefiled Dec. 23 and will likely be introduced at the council's first legislative session in 2016.

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