Solar panel mandates, a dramatic and hotly debated environmental policy with roots on the West Coast, could be coming to a suburb of the nation’s capital.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) wants to introduce legislation requiring all new single-family houses — and possibly apartments and commercial buildings — to have solar panels on their rooftops starting in 2022.
If the measure is approved by the all-Democratic county council, the wealthy suburb of 1 million would be the first major jurisdiction outside California to adopt such a mandate, experts say.
While the proposal has plenty of supporters in the liberal county, some argue that it is an inefficient way to boost renewable energy, it could detract from more significant energy-saving policies and it may slow construction as well as raise costs in a jurisdiction already gripped by a severe affordable housing shortage.
Elrich, a self-described “old-fashioned progressive,” was elected last year over opposition from most business groups. They considered him anti-development, in part because of his opposition to high-density projects in areas of the county including downtown Silver Spring.
He told environmentalists about the solar-panel requirement at a “climate emergency” town hall on Sept. 14. In a phone interview Wednesday from New York City, where he was attending an international climate conference connected to the United Nations General Assembly session, Elrich said he intends to introduce the law in 2020 and have it take effect two years after that.
“If you’re not going to do stuff like this, you’re not going to reach any climate goals,” Elrich said, referring to the county’s resolution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2027, and 100 percent by 2035. “At some point, you’ve got to act. You can’t just say you’re going to do something.”
However, the head of the Maryland Building Industry Association said the mandate would drive up construction costs and provide only minimal savings on utility bills, given that Montgomery already has stringent building codes in place to ensure that new homes are energy efficient.
“If it passes, it’s just going to make things more expensive,” said Lori Graf, chief executive of the association. She said California, deep in the throes of its own housing crisis, should not set the example for Montgomery.
According to California’s Energy Commission, the mandate — which takes effect in January — will add between $8,000 and $10,000 to the cost of a home, then save an average of $80 a month on utility bills. In Maryland, installing solar panels on a home costs $12,028 to $16,272, Graf said.
A recent report from the Urban Institute found that the Washington region needs to add 374,000 housing units by 2030, more than 75 percent of which must serve low- and middle-income families. It found that Montgomery must add 23,100 low-cost units, the most of any jurisdiction.
Elrich noted that such housing would come from apartment complexes, not single-family homes, and Adam Ortiz, the county’s director for its Department of Environmental Protection, said a solar panel mandate would not interfere with that goal.
“Solar panels provide efficiency and cost savings over time,” said Ortiz, an Elrich appointee. “This has been proven thousands of times over in Montgomery County.”
Several affordable housing advocates said it is hard to ascertain the impact on housing until they see the actual bill.
Graf argued for introducing incentives rather than mandates, saying that home buyers should be allowed to choose whether they want solar panels on their roofs.
Montgomery County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said it is likely he would vote for the bill if it was introduced, though he worried it would detract from more significant environmental policies.
“This will barely move the needle,” Riemer said, noting that unlike California, most of the county’s new residential developments are apartment buildings and mixed-use dwellings, not single-family homes. “I wouldn’t want to see this as a substitute for something that would make a real difference.”
Riemer argued that Montgomery should focus its efforts on utility-scale solar projects, or solar farms, including placing them on land that is part of the county’s agricultural reserves.
His comments touched on what Julia Pyper, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who followed California’s decision closely, described as a long-standing debate among renewable energy advocates on the merits of “distributed versus large-scale solar.”
Ortiz, however, said that in the face of increasingly urgent climate change, all options have to be explored. For Montgomery to achieve “net zero,” meaning that each building generates as much renewable energy as it needs to operate, the county would need approximately 8,700 acres of solar panels, he said.
“If we’re going to make a difference, we need an ‘all of the above’ strategy,” said Ortiz, whose department is reviewing the county building code and plans to recommend additional updates.
David Blockstein, an environmental scientist based in Takoma Park, called the solar panel mandate a small but necessary step in what should be a package of drastic policy changes. While Montgomery is ahead of other jurisdictions in clean energy, he said, it is still woefully behind compared to the rate of climate change.
Elrich, who launched his political career in Takoma Park, agreed.
“This would have been bold if we did it in 1960,” he said. “Bold would be doing things we can’t do. This, we can.”