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Going solar has never been easier — or better for the environment

Ed Gaddy has a high-energy efficient standards home which uses solar energy. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

One weekend on the drive to my parents' house during my junior year at the University of Maryland in 2010, my mom took us on a detour to admire our neighborhood's very first solar home.

The owner, Philip Ardanuy, has since told me that he and his wife took the plunge for two reasons: to reduce both their carbon footprint and their power bills. And today, eight years after going solar, the couple's average utility bill comes out to a grand total of zero.

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Like so many people my age, I am deeply concerned about the impact of climate change. My own stake in the crisis is the reason I majored in environmental science, pursued a career in renewable energy, and came to appreciate early solar adopters like Mr. Ardanuy, who was quick to point out that he's a registered Republican, making it clear that not just Democrats care about the environment.

Now, everyone from public schools to military bases use solar as a means to reduce energy costs. People are sometimes surprised to learn that one of the state's largest private installations is in Cecil County and owned by major retail giant Ikea. For many such customers, the climate and environmental benefits are often secondary to guaranteed savings.

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Fred Rohs, general manager of solar energy production for Marina Energy, talks about the Hebron Solar project in Wicomico County, which has 44,000 solar panels covering 100 acres of eastern shore farmland producing 18 mega watt of DC power. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)

In addition to the precipitous drop in solar technology costs over the last decade, there are a number of policy factors that make solar feasible for so many Marylanders.

The state's net metering policy, for example, allows households like the Ardanuys' to offset their electricity costs by crediting customers' utility bills for the excess power they generate.

For residents who rent or lack optimal roof space (my parents' rooftop is shaded by big trees), a new statewide community solar program lets participants earn the bill-saving benefits of solar by subscribing to a local array.

Maryland is also one of 29 states with clean energy laws requiring utilities to generate a set percentage of electricity from renewable sources. Since 2000, more than half of the renewable energy development nationwide has been driven by these laws.

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In 2018, Maryland environmental advocates will press lawmakers to clean up the state's renewable energy supply, which subsidizes some polluting power sources. But it could be difficult to reach consensus on what changes need to be made.

Now, state lawmakers have the opportunity to support Sen. Brian Feldman's bill, Senate Bill 732, to double the state's current renewable standard to 50 percent by 2030. There is already broad support for the measure, including from more than 300 public interest groups — representing faith, labor, business, climate and environmental justice communities — that have publicly endorsed it. An ambitious clean energy standard will create local jobs, improve public health, and make meaningful progress on Maryland's commitment to addressing the most pressing issue of our time.

Millennials know that we cannot afford anything less than urgent solutions to climate change; the most severe impact will be felt in our own lifetimes and by later generations. Yet we remain cautiously hopeful that lawmakers at every level — especially right here in Maryland — will seize them and the job-creating opportunities they would bring.

Black liquor, a byproduct of the paper-making process that is burned to power paper mills, is Maryland's largest source of "renewable" energy, earning it millions of dollars in ratepayer subsidies.

Today, dozens of solar rooftops adorn the neighborhood where I grew up; most mushroomed in the last two years. The most recent convert is my parent's next-door neighbor, who just connected his system to the grid last month. Switching between Spanish and English, he told us that he hasn't yet received his first bill, but he hopes that the new system will help his family save a little bit of money each month. I'm thrilled that, thanks to strong policies, the benefits of clean energy technology are within reach for neighbors of all backgrounds.

In stark contrast to the Trump administration's rejection of science and sweeping environmental rollbacks, people my age accept that humans, and the greenhouse gasses we generate, are primarily responsible for climate change. The last 12 months have proven that leadership at the state and local level is more important than ever.

Zadie Oleksiw is the communications director at Vote Solar, a national nonprofit that works to advance state-level clean energy policies. She's a Maryland native and Tweets at @zadie_oleksiw.

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