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Thinking of going solar? Here’s a way to make it happen. | COMMENTARY

Kimberly Armstrong, Maryland program director for Solar United Neighbors, stands outside her home in Belair-Edison. She had solar panels installed on the roof four years ago.
Kimberly Armstrong, Maryland program director for Solar United Neighbors, stands outside her home in Belair-Edison. She had solar panels installed on the roof four years ago. (Baltimore Sun staff)

Kimberly Armstrong, who had solar panels installed on the roof of her house and wants others to do the same, got me thinking about Formstone, AstroTurf and planters made from old tires. I’ll tell you why.

Whole blocks of brick rowhouses were once covered with Formstone. Many still are. In the mid-20th Century, salesmen came through Baltimore neighborhoods and convinced thousands of homeowners that sticking faux-stone stucco to their homes was the Next Big Thing. Formstone — John Waters called it “the polyester of brick” — played on the covetous nature of rowhouse life, the desire to keep up with Fred and Beulah next door.

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Years later, I saw a whole block of houses in Medfield with AstroTurf (or some variant) on the front steps. It was as if there had been an outbreak of turf fever and everyone had to have green plastic grass on their stoops.

On a street in West Baltimore, I saw maybe 10 or 12 rowhouses with car tires turned into colorful planters filled with petunias. That appeared to be a team effort — perhaps an entry in the Afro-American’s Clean Block contest — that demonstrated the potential for solidarity in a rowhouse neighborhood, or any neighborhood, city or suburb, where people are on speaking terms.

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So why not solar?

Why not whole neighborhoods getting their power from the sun?

“That would be incredible,” says Armstrong. “We would love to see a whole block go solar, and it has been done in other jurisdictions.”

Armstrong’s rowhouse, in Belair-Edison, is an end unit with a pitched roof and a modest array of solar panels. She’s been saving on her electric costs and now she’s trying to spread word about the virtues of solar energy at home.

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Armstrong leads an effort to make it more affordable. She’s Maryland program director for the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors (SUN), a national organization pushing cooperatives as a way for people to get solar units on their roofs.

A solar cooperative does not necessarily mean 20 homeowners on the same block joining forces to get the best deal on installation. “Though it could be that,” Armstrong says.

It could also be a co-op of 20, 30 or maybe 50 homeowners and businesses in a region — Baltimore and Baltimore County, Carroll and Harford counties — to negotiate the best price with a solar contractor.

Armstrong has already been making presentations to homeowners in the Washington suburbs. In fact, SUN says there are more than 700 homes in Maryland that got solar panels through co-ops.

Now, with a co-op established for northern Maryland, Armstrong has started recruiting members.

There’s no fee to join. You sign up for an informational webinar to hear about costs and tax credits. If it sounds appealing, you hang loose while the co-op entertains bids from installers. Then co-op members pick one contractor for the group. They negotiate the best price for rooftop solar arrays and, for those who want them, electric vehicle chargers.

The solar setups can cost thousands of dollars per house — between $11,000 and $22,000, depending on size — so getting a group rate can mean significant savings. Plus, the 26% federal tax credit is still available along with a $1,000 clean energy grant from the state.

And there are other incentives and other ways to get the sun to serve your energy needs. If you’re interested, you can tune into any of several SUN webinars scheduled for the coming months. (The Northern Maryland Solar Co-op can be found via solarunitedneighbors.org)

If this sounds like a public service announcement, it is. Armstrong got me thinking again about the economic and environmental benefits of going solar and wondering where the movement stands.

Maryland is behind the middle of the pack when it comes to solar installations. That’s by the standards of a trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association. In a report issued last month, the SEIA said installers had a strong 2020, despite the pandemic, with 43% growth nationally.

California had the most solar demand, the association said, with Virginia, New York and New Jersey each making the top 10. Maryland was 28th in the SEIA rankings.

That’s one of the reasons SUN exists — to get more of us thinking about using photovoltaic cells to capture clean, renewable energy from the sun.

Will it catch on here the way Formstone did? That’s a tall order, but we shall see.

In other solar news: I groaned a couple of years ago while reading about local resistance to Gary Atkinson’s plan to turn part of his farmland in Freeland, way out there in northern Baltimore County, into a commercial solar field. There was an attempt in County Council at a moratorium on solar fields in rural areas, but it was withdrawn just days after the Sun published a story about the matter.

I checked with Atkinson recently, and apparently his project is finally moving forward.

“With five years of delay by Luddite neighbors and shortsighted county officials, we will finally get in the ground this year,” Atkinson said. “The area of the project has increased from around 15 acres to 19 acres because of additional fencing and landscaping to magically make it disappear. I should have put in an 80-acre hog farm, which would be an approved use in a farming area, and the neighbors could put up with the smell and noise for the rest of their lives.”

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