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Maryland denies permit, blocking Georgetown-sponsored solar farm that would clear Charles County forest

James Morelli and Edwin Moses of Origis Energy walk through Charles County, Maryland, land Georgetown University bought for a solar panel project.
James Morelli and Edwin Moses of Origis Energy walk through Charles County, Maryland, land Georgetown University bought for a solar panel project. (Mary F. Calvert / For The Washington Post)

Maryland environmental officials have denied a permit application for a solar project proposed on hundreds of acres of forest in Charles County, blocking construction of a controversial Georgetown University-sponsored solar farm.

State Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the 500-acre project could harm water quality and set back progress in improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay. More than 200 acres of trees would have been cleared to make way for the 32-megawatt project.

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“This is an unacceptable trade-off for the environmental benefits of clean energy,” Grumbles said in a statement.

Representatives for Origis Energy USA, the company developing the project on behalf of Georgetown, declined to comment on the decision.

Miami-based Origis said it planned the 100,000-panel solar farm in an area of Charles County known as the Nanjemoy peninsula to avoid controversies that have developed in other parts of the state when solar farms have been proposed on active farmland. The company said much of the forest was immature and of poor quality, though opponents of the project disagree.

The water quality permit application appeared to be among the final hurdles for the project, which the Maryland Public Service Commission approved last year after getting input from state environment and natural resources officials. The Maryland Department of the Environment gave the permit application close scrutiny, holding a public hearing amid community concern over forest loss and the impact it could have on a stream running through the property.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation applauded the department’s decision, saying forests are invaluable filters for water pollution and are needed to combat climate change. It suggested the project should instead be built on retired farmland, brownfields with a history of environmental contamination, rooftops or parking lots.

“We hope Maryland’s decision today will set a precedent that ensures we don’t have to choose between renewable energy and clean water," the foundation’s Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost said in a statement.

Community groups that had rallied against the project, joined by interests from across the state and students at Georgetown, expressed relief. But Loretta d’Eustachio, a Nanjemoy resident active with a group called Nanjemoy Vision, said vigilance is needed to continue to preserve the area’s character.

For example, a 400-acre farm is for sale near Nanjemoy Creek, she said. Residents hope “some conservation-minded person” can buy it, d’Eustachio said.

She acknowledged that Origis could take the permit denial to court, but said she hoped the community opposition would prevent the company from doing that.

“It’s a constant fight to keep that section of the country as beautiful as it is,” she said.

Maryland faces a goal to obtain half its energy from renewable sources by 2030 under a bill the General Assembly passed this year. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan did not sign the measure but allowed to become law. Under that legislation, 14.5% of Maryland’s energy supply would have to come from solar power generated within Maryland borders. Most other types of renewable energy can be generated outside the state and still count toward Maryland’s goals.

At the same time, solar projects being proposed to satisfy that demand are facing opposition around the state over concerns about loss of farmland and rural character. A July ruling by Maryland’s highest court affirmed that state utility regulators can trump local governments in approving large solar and wind projects.

Hogan recently launched a task force to examine how the state should manage conflicts over renewable energy projects going forward.

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