Georgetown University announced plans for a massive solar farm in Charles County as a major step toward reducing its carbon footprint by half. But residents and environmentalists are raising concerns that it will actually harm the planet.
It requires clear-cutting 240 acres of forest.
Fights over forest loss are relatively common in the rural Southern Maryland county, about an hour outside Washington. But this time, the debate isn’t about housing developments and shopping centers — it’s a choice between a vanishing ecosystem and a push toward cleaner energy.
Residents who would otherwise support Georgetown’s green-energy efforts now find themselves asking the university to find a new location for 100,000 solar panels.
“It’s thoughtless of the future,” said Bonnie Bick, an activist in the Southern Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club. “It’s not sustainable.”
The project’s developer acknowledged that the loss of forest makes people emotional — but said the solar farm can do significantly more than the trees to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“We care as much about trees and the Chesapeake Bay as anybody,” said Edwin Moses, managing director for project development at Origis Energy USA. “Society has to make trade-offs.”
Neighbors will get a chance to raise their concerns at a hearing the Maryland Department of the Environment plans to hold. The project already has the blessing of state utility regulators and natural resources officials, but still needs a permit from the environmental agency to build near a high-quality stream.
Georgetown announced a partnership with the Miami-based Origis in September 2017, with plans for a 32.5-megawatt solar farm on 537 acres near La Plata. They said the project would be large enough to offset the burning of 28 million pounds of coal, and equivalent to planting more than 600,000 trees.
Last year, the Maryland Public Service Commission approved the project with input from state agencies, including the departments of environment and natural resources and the Maryland Energy Administration. Those agencies concluded the forested site on what is known as the Nanjemoy peninsula was “suitable” and could comply with environmental regulations, including a state policy designed to retain forests.
It wasn’t until after that that many residents and activists say they heard about the project, and requested a closer review by state environmental regulators.
The forest to be cleared is among fewer than three dozen areas in Maryland that the Audubon Society has deemed an “important bird area” — increasingly rare specimens of large contiguous forest. It sits along a bend in the Potomac River just south of Washington and is home to such species as the Eastern whip-poor-will and the prairie warbler, said David Curson, director of bird conservation at Audubon Maryland-DC.
In documents evaluating the project’s impact, the solar developer suggests that the forest is young and “scrubby,” already cleared of most hardwood trees and pines.
But Curson said that underestimates the forest’s ecological value. Many types of birds and other forest creatures need what is known as “interior” forest to survive, so any fragmenting of forest could reduce their habitat. And while the forest may be relatively young today, it is closer to becoming mature than any newly planted trees.
Bob Lukinic, a Charles County resident who has been volunteering with Audubon for 30 years, said Georgetown officials should consider other sites for the project.
“It’s good that these people are promoting solar energy, but we think they need to study a little bit more if they’re taking one step forward and two steps back,” he said.
A Georgetown spokesman said the university is “deeply committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions” and is hiring an expert to assess the project and “ensure it is conducted in an ecologically responsible way.”
State officials last week scheduled a public hearing on the project’s wetland and water quality permit for Feb. 14, but Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said Thursday that the meeting would be rescheduled for a later date. Some Charles residents had expressed concern that turnout would be poor on Valentine’s Day.
Grumbles said state environmental regulators signed off on the project during its review by the Public Service Commission knowing officials would later get a chance to examine the details of how the project could impact forest ecosystems, the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
“We can have green energy and environmental protection together,” he said, adding that he plans to attend the hearing. “We need to strike the right balance.”
In recent years solar projects have raised forest loss concerns in other states. After outcry over a solar farm sponsored by Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, the theme park agreed last year to reduce its tree clearing by about half, to 40 acres, and to put some of the project’s panels on a canopy over a parking lot.
In Maryland, most conflict over solar farms has been tied to loss of agricultural land, which is usually solar developers’ first choice because it doesn’t require much clearing or other site preparation. But advocates said the Georgetown project was the first example of clear-cutting for solar development they were aware of in the state.
Moses said Origis chose the forest site in part to avoid controversy over the use of productive agriculture land. Now that the project is nonetheless facing blowback, he said opponents are entitled to their opinions about the project, but added, “There are many other opinions of the value and the use of the land.”
He noted that the property, which Origis purchased from a family, could have been cleared of trees at any time, but the company has pledged to permanently preserve half the trees on the site through a conservation easement. Origis also plans to plant pollinator-friendly vegetation underneath the solar panels, he said.
And if this forest were so important, Moses also asked why the state or county governments didn’t use land conservation programs to protect it.
Moses declined to provide an estimate comparing the forest’s ability to store carbon with the reduction of fossil fuel burning associated with the solar panels.
Even if the solar farm is the equivalent, in terms of reducing carbon emissions, of planting more trees than are being cleared, residents said that’s not worth a massive loss of trees in one of few remaining areas of large, contiguous forest in the state.
Nanjemoy resident Loretta d’Eustachio said kayakers, cyclists and bird watchers come from far and wide because the area is so pristine. Without a large chunk of forest, she wonders if that would still be the case.
“It’s one of the last, best places,” she said. “We’re trying to preserve that.”