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Howard County family goes solar for Earth Day

Earth Day at the Clarksville home of Sydney Ostroff, 9, her brother Jonah, 7, and their parents, Len and Michelle, was quite an extravaganza under sparkling blue skies.

The kids got time off from school Thursday and doughnuts to eat, while about 60 news reporters, photographers, construction workers, politicians, bureaucrats and neighbors, all overseen by a clattering TV helicopter, watched Gov. Martin O'Malley and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman help install photovoltaic solar panels on their roof. A big, noisy cherry-picker in the driveway lifted photographers aloft for better views of the politicians sweating in white hard hats and yellow safety harnesses as they carefully tried not to fall. No one did.

"It feels kind of weird," Sydney said, looking around at the growing tumult, but Jonah said the chocolate-covered doughnut he was eating helped. "They help everything," he said.

O'Malley, who like Ulman is a Democrat running for re-election, used the occasion to boost residential solar installations and the three layers of federal, state and county tax credits that are available for installing them. He also announced a $10.2 million statewide program that will help pay for solar panels on 32 government buidings and land around the state, including two sites in Howard County, roughly tripling the use of solar power in Maryland.

"We need to triple it again, and triple it again and triple it again," O'Malley told the crowd. One Howard project, to place solar panels atop a capped landfill in Ellicott City, will provide 98 percent of the power needed by nearby Worthington Elementary School when it is at peak production. The state's Sunburst Program includes $8.3 million in federal stimulus money, with the rest coming from the sale of greenhouse-gas credits to utilities. About 100 new jobs could be created statewide, he said. Panels will go atop Anne Arundel and Howard community colleges, BWI airport, and public schools in several jurisdictions.

Josh Goldberg, co-founder of Astrum Solar, a Howard County firm doing the $30,000 job at the Ostroffs‘ home, said the various credits would cut the cost of the 19--panel system to about $4,000. With about $900 in electricity savings per year, the system will be all profit in about four years. The panels are under warranty for 25 years and need no maintenance, he said, and payments are delayed for one year. His firm has hired 40 new people this year, he said.

"This is why we celebrate Earth Day," O'Malley said into a microphone at a rostrum set up in the driveway, flanked by Sydney and Jonah. "It's because of Jonah and Sydney and the Earth they will inherit," he said to cheers.

Andy Barth, a spokesman for former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is running to regain the office, later dismissed the news conference, saying "we were very distressed to see the BP Solar plant in Frederick closed" and hundreds of those manufacturing jobs go elsewhere.

There was nothing but cheer at the Ostroffs' home, however. "There's no better way to lead than to lead by example," Len Ostroff told the crowd.

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