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Transforming Baltimore County into a ‘statewide leader in renewable energy’ | COMMENTARY

Shane Willis, plant operator at the Eastern Sanitary Landfill Renewable Energy Plant, does routine maintenance on one of the plant's Waukesha engine generators. In a partnership with Energy Power Partners, the plant collects methane gas from decomposing trash in the landfill and converts it to renewable energy. The energy produced supplies 24% of Baltimore county managed facilities' electrical power usage. August 19, 2020
Shane Willis, plant operator at the Eastern Sanitary Landfill Renewable Energy Plant, does routine maintenance on one of the plant's Waukesha engine generators. In a partnership with Energy Power Partners, the plant collects methane gas from decomposing trash in the landfill and converts it to renewable energy. The energy produced supplies 24% of Baltimore county managed facilities' electrical power usage. August 19, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Every year, Earth Week provides us with an opportunity to re-evaluate our efforts to create a sustainable future for our children. Too often, however, elected leaders say the right words, but fail to act with the urgency that the climate change crisis requires. We are making sure that’s not the case in Baltimore County.

Upon assuming office, we inherited a languishing plan from the prior administration to achieve the goal of generating or displacing 20% of the county’s electrical demand with renewable energy sources by 2022. Unfortunately, when I was sworn into this office in December of 2018, we were still effectively at 0%.

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From Day One, my administration has made efforts to promote sustainability and combat climate change a top priority. I hired our county’s first chief sustainability officer, who was tasked with coordinating efforts across the government — and that work is paying off.

In just over two years, Baltimore County is now on track to exceed its 2022 renewable energy goal. We accomplished this feat by launching the county’s first large-scale renewable energy projects: an innovative landfill gas-to-energy system that captures methane gas produced by the county’s Eastern Sanitary Landfill to provide energy directly to the utility grid, and a partnership with a national leader in solar production to place panels on unproductive closed landfills. We are proud about the ways in which these projects are making us more environmentally sustainable, but they are also making us more fiscally sustainable. The county’s landfill gas-to-energy project is projected to save county taxpayers $285,000 this fiscal year, and a new solar agreement we soon will announce is expected to save residents millions of dollars over the next 25 years.

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I’m proud of these efforts, but we need to think even bigger. That is why I will sign a new executive order with the aggressive but achievable goal of generating or displacing 100% of Baltimore County’s electrical demand with renewable sources by 2026, and 125% of our electrical demand by 2030.

This next step represents a bold leap forward to transform Baltimore County into a statewide leader in renewable energy. Moving forward, we are continuing to look across government to ensure we build on this progress. Among other actions, we’re finalizing the development of the county’s first ever climate action plan. My proposed budget dedicates funding for a tree equity initiative, helping to plant more trees in parts of the county historically neglected in these efforts. We’ve committed funding for resiliency efforts to ensure our communities — particularly those with waterfront — are prepared for the impacts of a changing climate. The new park we’re building at Tradepoint Atlantic in Sparrows Point will feature the county’s first ever LEED-platinum designed building.

Local jurisdictions have an important role to play in combating climate change, and each of these efforts will have an important impact on Baltimore County’s goals. But the climate change imperative is bigger than any one county — it requires leadership and bold action at the state and federal levels, too.

That’s why I was disappointed that the General Assembly was not able to come to a final agreement this year on the Climate Solutions Act — a sweeping proposal to dramatically increase statewide efforts to reduce emissions and create a sustainable future.

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The bill would have set an ambitious goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 2030. It also contained a number of other important provisions, but the House and Senate versions had significant differences they were unable to reconcile before the legislature adjourned for the year.

The failure to enact the Climate Solutions Act was truly a missed opportunity. I’m confident, however, that the General Assembly will work over the coming months to get the details right so that a climate solutions bill can be the No. 1 priority in 2022. I look forward to working with our state lawmakers to do the right thing on behalf of our communities, our residents and our children on this critical issue.

Among the important lessons from the pandemic, we have learned that we have the ability to act with urgency and on a large scale when faced with a crisis. We need to confront climate change with the same sense of urgency. While it may not be as clearly visible as the lives lost in just a year to COVID-19, climate change is a threat to our health, economy and our lives. We have to act with urgency to address climate change because our children’s futures depend on it.

John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr., a Dundalk native, is the Baltimore County executive. Email: johnnyo@baltimorecountymd.gov; Twitter: @BaltCoExec.

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