Bal­ti­more County con­sid­ers so­lar panel deal

Plan of­fi­cials are seek­ing would put so­lar pan­els on gov­ern­ment prop­er­ties

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Ali­son Kneze­vich

Bal­ti­more County of­fi­cials are con­sid­er­ing plac­ing so­lar pan­els on a va­ri­ety of gov­ern­ment prop­er­ties — from a com­mu­nity cen­ter in Ran­dall­stown to a po­lice sta­tion in Dun­dalk and a park in Lans­downe. The ten­ta­tive plan, com­ing three years af­ter an ear­lier county ef­fort fal­tered, was dis­closed in a re­quest for pro­pos­als posted on a county web­site. The doc­u­ments ex­plain the in­stal­la­tions would help the county achieve its goal of gen­er­at­ing 20% of mu­nic­i­pal power needs from re­new­able sources by 2022.

County of­fi­cials have iden­ti­fied more than a dozen pub­lic prop­er­ties for pos­si­ble so­lar ar­rays, in­clud­ing the rooftops of the Dun­dalk po­lice precinct, the Ran­dall­stown Com­mu­nity Cen­ter, and the elec­tions board of­fice in Hunt Val­ley. They also are ex­plor­ing the idea of plac­ing the pan­els in pub­lic parks — which could prompt ob­jec­tions to green en­ergy tak­ing up green space.

Of­fi­cials are so­lic­it­ing de­sign pro­pos­als from so­lar de­vel­op­ment firms that would in­stall, op­er­ate and main­tain the pan­els, while sell­ing the power to the county. Bids are due June 18, and county of­fi­cials em­pha­sized that the plan isn’t fi­nal­ized.

“There are no fi­nal de­ci­sions” about the lo­ca­tions, said T.J. Smith, spokesman for

County Ex­ec­u­tive Johnny Ol­szewski Jr.

Dur­ing his cam­paign last year, Ol­szewski, a Demo­crat, pledged to cre­ate a time­line for Bal­ti­more County to even­tu­ally get 100% of its en­ergy from re­new­able sources. His first bud­get, ap­proved this month by the County Coun­cil, in­cludes fund­ing for a “chief sus­tain­abil­ity of­fi­cer,” a new po­si­tion that would over­see in­vest­ments in re­new­able en­ergy and de­velop a strat­egy to deal with flood­ing and ex­treme weather.

This lat­est ef­fort fol­lows one an­nounced in 2016 by the late County Ex­ec­u­tive Kevin Kamenetz that would have in­stalled so­lar pan­els at four county sites. That project fell through.

Now the county is look­ing to en­ter a power pur­chase agree­ment with a so­lar com­pany at no up­front cost to the gov­ern­ment. The county would get re­new­able en­ergy and the de­vel­oper would get fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits, such as tax cred­its and in­come from the sale of elec­tric­ity.

Coun­ties through­out Mary­land have turned to so­lar on mu­nic­i­pal prop­er­ties — both for cost sav­ings and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits.

But while so­lar power is pop­u­lar in the ab­stract, the in­stal­la­tion of ar­rays can be con­tro­ver­sial. In Bal­ti­more County’s ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, for in­stance, res­i­dents have chal­lenged plans for so­lar de­vel­op­ments, say­ing they would elim­i­nate pro­duc­tive farm­land and di­min­ish home val­ues.

A lead­ing Mary­land en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist says it makes sense for lo­cal gov­ern­ments to pur­sue clean en­ergy be­cause they have to deal with flood­ing and other ef­fects of cli­mate change.

“So they have a direct in­ter­est in mov­ing to­wards cli­mate so­lu­tions,” said Josh Tulkin, di­rec­tor of the Mary­land Sierra Club.

Back in 2012, of­fi­cials un­veiled a 4,200panel ar­ray at the Back River Waste­water Treat­ment Plant in Es­sex, which is owned by Bal­ti­more city gov­ern­ment and serves both city and county res­i­dents.

In re­cent years, Gar­rett County in West­ern Mary­land worked with the so­lar de­vel­oper So­larCity to in­stall ground­mounted so­lar ar­rays at a refuse drop-off site, and on county-owned land near a pub­lic works garage and a waste­water treat­ment plant.

Last year, so­lar fields were com­pleted at two Mont­gomery County parks. And Howard County uses so­lar pan­els at prop­er­ties in­clud­ing li­braries in El­li­cott City and Columbia, the Robin­son Na­ture Cen­ter and a closed land­fill.

Bal­ti­more County passed leg­is­la­tion in 2017 reg­u­lat­ing com­mer­cial so­lar in­stal­la­tions, but the is­sue re­mained a hot one as the coun­cil weighed a mora­to­rium on such de­vel­op­ment in ru­ral ar­eas ear­lier this year. The mora­to­rium pro­posal’s spon­sor, Repub­li­can Wade Kach of Cock­eysville, with­drew it be­cause other coun­cil mem­bers didn’t sup­port the idea.

While the lo­ca­tion of so­lar in­stal­la­tions can be di­vi­sive, oth­ers em­brace the en­ergy source.

“I think it’s ter­rific for our county gov­ern­ment to sort of lead by ex­am­ple,” said Beth Miller of the Green Tow­son Al­liance, whose plat­form calls for county prop­er­ties to in­cor­po­rate re­new­able en­ergy sources. Still, “there’s a lot of con­tro­versy about ground-mounted so­lar, where it’s ap­pro­pri­ate and where it’s not, so I’d be in­ter­ested to learn more about the parks.”

The county’s re­quest for pro­pos­als lists 13 pos­si­ble sites.

It iden­ti­fied five sites for rooftop so­lar. In ad­di­tion to the Ran­dall­stown, Dun­dalk and Hunt Val­ley lo­ca­tions, the county is con­sid­er­ing the de­ten­tion cen­ter in Tow­son and a main­te­nance fa­cil­ity in Glen Arm.

The de­ten­tion cen­ter has had so­lar pan­els on it for years, but they aren’t be­ing used.

The county listed four lo­ca­tions as pos­si­bil­i­ties for ground-mounted so­lar: closed land­fills in Wood­stock and Park­ton; Mount Vista Park, a for­mer golf course in Kingsville; and South­west Area Park in Lans­downe.

Four other parks were iden­ti­fied as prop­er­ties where so­lar pan­els could be in­stalled on park­ing lots or car­ports: Honeygo Run Re­gional Park in Perry Hall; Reis­ter­stown Re­gional Park; East­ern Re­gional Park in Chase; and Meadow Wood Re­gional Park in Luthervill­e.

Smith said the sites listed in the re­quest are merely pos­si­bil­i­ties.

“There haven’t been any de­ter­mi­na­tions yet on where they’re go­ing to go,” Smith said.

In 2016, Kamenetz, a Demo­crat, an­nounced that the county would work with So­larCity to in­stall so­lar ar­rays at the closed land­fills and Mount Vista and South­west Area parks. He also set the goal to use re­new­able en­ergy sources to gen­er­ate at least 20% of the county gov­ern­ment’s elec­tric de­mand by 2022.

Tulkin at­tended the news con­fer­ence at which Kamenetz an­nounced the so­lar in­stal­la­tion plans, which were pro­jected to save the county $450,000 in the first year.

Af­ter that, “I stopped hear­ing about it,” Tulkin said.

For­mer County Ex­ec­u­tive Don Mohler, who was Kamenetz’s chief of staff at the time, said he wasn’t di­rectly in­volved in ne­go­ti­a­tions, but re­mem­bers that the de­vel­oper was hav­ing dif­fi­culty com­ing up with a prof­itable plan.

“We had an agree­ment in prin­ci­ple, but we had to work out the de­tails and we were never able to,” Mohler said. “I re­mem­ber County Ex­ec­u­tive Kamenetz be­ing very dis­ap­pointed.”

Tesla, the elec­tric car com­pany that ac­quired So­larCity the same year Kamenetz an­nounced his plan, de­clined to com­ment on the project.

County of­fi­cials said at the time there were no up­front costs to the county.

The plan sparked con­cerns about los­ing green space at Mount Vista Park.

“My con­stituents do not want these so­lar pan­els on a pub­lic park,” Coun­cil­man David Marks, a Perry Hall Repub­li­can whose dis­trict in­cludes the park, said re­cently. “Rooftops are fine, but not green space.”

Coun­cil Chair­man Tom Quirk, whose dis­trict in­cludes the South­west Area Park, said other mem­bers have sim­i­lar con­cerns. He said he doesn’t have a prob­lem with so­lar pan­els on the park­ing lots of parks, but doesn’t want them to take up any green space.

“The con­sen­sus of the coun­cil is we don’t want the so­lar pan­els on park­land or open space,” the Oella Demo­crat said. “I would not want to see so­lar pan­els placed in a park. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Marks said he hopes the Ol­szewski ad­min­is­tra­tion will lis­ten to res­i­dents’ sug­ges­tions.

“The way the for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tion did this was com­pletely wrong,” he said. “There was no com­mu­nity in­put. And when you’re deal­ing with pub­licly owned land, there needs to be some en­gage­ment with the pub­lic.”

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