Finding a way forward on farm solar

As a lead sponsor of the proposed zoning change to allow “community solar” on less than 2% of the County’s 100,000 acres of land zone Agricultural Reserve, I can no longer support the zoning change as it was amended by the Council on January 26, 2021. If it comes before the Council again, I am hopeful that we will still find a compromise that provides a clean path forward for a meaningful amount of solar energy; if not, with regret I will vote against it.

The original proposal I introduced with Council President Tom Hucker would have generated enough clean electricity to power about 50,000 homes, helping the County achieve important climate goals and supporting State goals to shut down coal-fired power plants — all while providing discounted clean energy to low income residents.

Working with groups such as the Sierra Club, Poolesville Green and Chesapeake Climate Action Network, we developed a plan that we hoped would be a cornerstone of our County’s environmental and climate action agenda.

The Council’s amendments thus far, unfortunately, restrict the land that can be used so significantly that, if adopted, the zoning proposal would establish a local precedent for solar power that many clean energy advocates are warning us could move Maryland backwards rather than forward, akin to a local government blocking offshore wind generation on the Eastern Shore.

The original proposal would have allowed 1,800 acres of land to be used. With that amount of land, we would reasonably expect about 150 community solar projects each providing 2 megawatts of solar power, or 300 megawatts total. That would power about 50,000 homes (330 homes per project x 150 projects). As amended, we can reasonably expect as few as 2 projects, enough to power around 660 homes.

Solar power facilities are permitted or incentivized by the public sector but built by the private sector. As amended, according to a careful review by solar developers, there are just 41 parcels of land close enough for electrical interconnection to be feasible. Based on experience in Maryland, just 1 in 20 property owners will accept a solar contract; meaning that the amended proposal could produce just 2 solar projects. If Montgomery County’s market experience is 500% greater than typical, resulting in 10 projects (20 megawatts of power), that would be in the range of 7% of the amount of clean energy generated compared to what we originally proposed. This is before considering the “conditional use” risks of denial, which are hard to weigh but may turn solar developers away given the high upfront costs of each project.

Our county has adopted climate goals. We declared a “climate emergency.” We have funded a series of studies on how to reduce our carbon footprint. These steps were important, but cannot move the needle without actually making changes, many of which will require real tradeoffs and disruption to the status quo.

I hope we can yet find a reasonable path forward.

Background on farm solar

Farm Solar (ZTA 20-01)

Just as we knew that a devastating coronavirus pandemic would eventually hit us, we know that the destruction of climate change is growing.

To quote Bill Gates, “Covid-19 is awful. Climate change could be worse.”

We must all do what we can to change course to a better future.

The good news is that, much like we have solutions for COVID-19, we can in fact slow down and ultimately reverse the trends causing climate change.

We have to be willing to act.

This is why I have proposed an ambitious plan for farmland solar that could power up to 50,000 homes with clean energy instead of coal and gas.

Yes, this plan has been highly controversial. It has engendered opposition, even from those who otherwise care about the environment.

So let me tell you why this plan makes sense.

Most carbon emissions come from two sources:

  • Our use of energy in the electricity grid for our homes, offices, devices, etc, and
  • Our use of energy in our vehicles.

The electricity grid is fed by fossil fuels — coal and gas.

Our cars are fed by fossil fuels — gasoline.

The path to eliminating carbon emissions is to switch all fuel sources in the electricity grid from fossil fuels to solar and wind; and then to switch all vehicles to electric or other clean energy.

These fuel switches will require reducing demand for electricity — energy efficiency and reducing driving are crucial.

But everything rests on our ability to switch power sources from fossil fuels to clean energy.

To get there, we need solar on rooftops, parking lots and everywhere we can get it.

According to very intensive research by national laboratories, even at maximum buildout, rooftops and parking lots will only ever provide a fraction of the solar generation that we need.

We must have solar panels mounted on the ground. Maryland will need about 40,000 acres of solar statewide on agricultural land to get to 100% clean energy. 1,800 acres, per our proposal, is a small share (5%) for our County to provide considering that we have over 17% of the state’s population.

Climate change is one of our generation’s most daunting challenges. When I think about how Montgomery County can lead the way, it fires me up.

Already farmers elsewhere are pioneering “dual use” of land beneath solar arrays by

All of these uses are compatible with solar arrays, but none of them are allowed due to the zoning in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve.

That’s right. A very meaningful solar solution to fight climate change with farming is prohibited by zoning in Montgomery County.

If we pass the measure as proposed, a whole new model of farming is poised to emerge.

The plan also has forest, runoff and other environmental protections that exceed what is otherwise required for farm land.

Climate change is daunting. But I know that if we take bold action — we can do this.

Hans Riemer

P.S., please read this great piece in the Washington Post about why the County Council should vote for the proposal, written by the leaders of the Montgomery County Sierra Club chapter and the Maryland statewide advocacy group, Chesapeake Climate Action Network