Law bars homeowner from installing solar panels on pier

Maryland is so eager for its residents to try solar power that it offers homeowners thousands of dollars in grants to mount photovoltaic panels on or around their homes to generate electricity from the sun.

Just don't try to put them on your boat pier.

That's what Robert Bruninga found out when he proposed putting PV panels on a wooden pier jutting out into Marley Creek in Glen Burnie. An engineer at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Bruninga says he needs to use his pier because there are too many trees elsewhere on his property to get a steady dose of the sun's energy-producing rays.

His solar-pier plan passed muster with federal and local regulators, he says, but got a cold reception from the Maryland Department of the Environment. The department rejected his application for the wetland permit he needs to construct the pier, saying solar panels are not "water-dependent."

The state's rejection was a shock to Bruninga, 62, who calls himself a "born-again solar-power junkie." He drives a plug-in Prius with custom-built solar panels mounted on the roof, which he estimates boosts the hybrid's gas-sipping mileage by another 10 percent.

He's eager to take advantage of what he says are growing financial incentives to install solar energy at home. He had hoped to mount 8 kilowatts' worth of photovoltaic panels on his property — enough on sunny days to offset the electricity he buys from Baltimore Gas and Electric.

Pointing north across the creek to the plume of steam rising from BGE's Brandon Shores coal-burning plant, Bruninga said he figures his household's energy consumption is responsible for 22,000 pounds of climate-warming carbon dioxide going into the air, plus other pollutants.

"Why can't I eliminate my contribution?" he asked. He originally planned to mount the solar panels on the roof of his 100-year-old house, but the tall oaks and poplars around it shade it from the sun too often to generate much power. Indeed, the trees cast shadows across all but a scrap of his one-acre lot. For now, he has 12 solar panels — a third of what he needs — mounted in that one sunny spot in his yard, feeding electricity to his hot-water heater.

Bruninga said he wants to build a standard 100-foot pier and lay solar panels end to end along its deck. He's also thinking about building a solar-powered boat to tie up at the pier. State officials told him they'd approve the pier, just not the solar panels, he said.

"Our regulations do not permit nonwater-dependent structures on piers," said Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the department. The rules are written, he explained, to keep people from building houses, restaurants or other structures out over the water that might do environmental harm. The structures themselves can shade the water from sunlight, preventing the growth of underwater grasses that provide fish habitat.

"Apparently, my pier and riparian rights only allow me to have a pier to access a gas-burning, oil-leaking, energy-consuming, noise-generating, bay-polluting, air-fouling, fossil-fuel stink-pot boat," Bruninga wrote in an e-mail. "But putting clean-energy-generating solar panels on a pier … [is] not allowed."

Brad Heavner, state director of Environment Maryland, called the state's ban on solar facilities on piers "ridiculous."

"A pier seems like as good a place as a backyard or a rooftop to generate electricity," Heavner said. "Solar panels have such a positive public benefit that we should be looking to put them in places like piers, and every nook and cranny that doesn't get in the way."

Apperson said state environmental officials, who are charged with shrinking Maryland's carbon footprint, sympathize with Bruninga's cause, but for now there's nothing else they can do.

"We obviously want to encourage renewable energy, and we appreciate Mr. Bruninga's interest in this sort of green initiative," the MDE spokesman said. "We're reviewing the regulations that might constrain that type of project, but obviously we have to follow the regulations."

Bruninga said he doesn't blame the bureaucrats. They're just following an outdated law, he said.

"I would not want to see my neighbor put a god-awful array on his pier," he said. But he added that what he plans would be unobtrusive the state ought to let a little sun shine on its ban on nonwater-dependent uses on piers.

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