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Let the sun shine in Baltimore County

Freeland, Md. resident Gary Atkinson wants a company to install a temporary solar farm to about twenty percent of his land at the Mason-Dixon Line. Some residents and at least one Baltimore Co. councilman have pushed back about the proposal to the property, in his family's possession since the 1800s.  (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)

Community solar projects — often referred to as solar gardens — are a promising way to broaden the use of renewable energy. They are a shared resource, a solar plant that serves more than one household. Four years ago, the Maryland General Assembly authorized them as a way to help wean more residents off traditional coal-fired power plants that are a major source of greenhouse gases that worsen climate change — a threat to which this coastal state is particularly vulnerable.

So it is more than a little troubling that the Baltimore County Council is scheduled Tuesday to consider a measure to place a nine-month moratorium on solar gardens in the rural part of the county. Why, particularly when the county already set rules to address concerns over such projects two years ago, is this needed now? The answers vary — and some are absolutely absurd — but it appears it’s mostly about appearances. Affluent rural homeowners, accustomed to sweeping vistas of corn and soybean fields and the like, don’t want to stare out from their Great Rooms and see acres of photovoltaic panels unmoving in the breeze.

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Moratoriums aren’t usually disastrous, but this one is worse than most. Should it be approved, it would likely wipe out many, if not all, of the 13 or so solar projects proposed by developers who are attracted to leasing farmland because it lowers building costs. Farm fields are generally flat and unobstructed. They are easily connected to the grid. And they have none of the engineering and structural concerns that come with rooftop installation. The result? They cost $1 per watt of capacity compared to $3 or $4 a watt typical of residential installations.

To listen to opponents, one might think that community solar was akin to an animal rendering plant setting up shop in the neighborhood. They talk about depressed land values, loss of open spaces and productive farmland and ruining “scenic routes.” All such fears are overblown.

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Councilman Wade Kach, the legislation’s sponsor, and others who have joined him in this Not-In-My-Backyard march against these modest solar projects (none of which can, under the law, generate more than 2 megawatts of power) do make at least one valid point: Ideally, solar gardens would be built more often above existing development and not on farms. That doesn’t make farm sites bad (to some degree, they can help preserve farms by allowing farmers to supplement their incomes), it simply makes building on top of industrial buildings or at “brown fields” (a contaminated site that’s being redeveloped) much better.

The question is, how could Baltimore County steer more solar development to rooftops and brown fields? Clearly, not by moratoriums that assure only that no solar projects get built. No, what Mr. Kach and others ought to be proposing are grants and tax incentives to make it more profitable to build community solar in developed communities. But even that approach has its limits as developers too often get stuck in government red tape. A solar project over an Annapolis landfill took eight years to come to fruition last year. The small companies behind many of these projects (most of which cost in the neighborhood of $3 million to build) simply can’t afford that kind of timetable.

The fact is, Maryland needs all the renewable energy it can get and it needs it now. Gov. Larry Hogan and the state legislature have already committed to reducing Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent and may, in a matter of weeks, set a goal of requiring at least 50 percent of electrical power to come from renewable sources by 2030. That’s a standard that simply can’t be met by further delaying solar projects like Baltimore County’s — particularly when they collectively amount to a a tiny one-tenth of 1 percent of county farm land. The largest single project is only about 20 acres.

If the look of a solar panel is so objectionable, developers can plant hedges and other landscaping. But wait, they already are. Such improvements are required under regulations the county adopted and developers accepted years ago. And that’s the final reason why a moratorium is outrageous: Baltimore County already set its conditions for community solar and, in good faith, developers have been playing by the rules. Never mind that some other counties in Maryland have been throwing up roadblocks. Baltimore County has a pro-business reputation to preserve. Or is that suddenly unimportant to a Republican member of the County Council? Mr. Kach ought to be welcoming these small business investors with open arms and thanking them for putting the county on the cutting edge of renewable energy instead of trying to chase them away.

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