(First published in The Capital, April 27, 2018)

Anne Arundel County, Maryland—my home county—is wrestling with how to accommodate demand for new solar farms while preserving its rural and agricultural character. It’s a familiar challenge faced by communities across America: As solar panel costs have dropped (92% over the past decade) and customer demand for clean energy has increased, the need for suitable locations has been growing. And farmland, with its open space and plentiful sun, can be highly attractive for solar development.

Anne Arundel County feels this friction more acutely than other places. Just a short drive from both Washington, DC and Baltimore, the county’s 311 farms are relatively small—less than 100 acres on average, compared to a national average of more than 400 acres—and comprise less than 30,000 acres in total. So, for instance, if a solar developer were to build a large 100-acre solar project on farmland, it would have a bigger impact both on the individual farm and on our county’s collective farmland than in another, more agricultural region of the country.

It makes sense that Anne Arundel, whose agricultural identity is reflected in the rallying cry “keep south county rural,” would want to take a step back and prepare for this rising solar tide. To that end, last December the County Executive imposed a temporary eight-month moratorium on new solar developments.

As our county examines the issue, it’s important for policy makers to recognize that not all solar is the same. Utility-scale “industrial solar operations” (as the County’s press release describes them) of 100 to 200 acres or more represent just one segment of the solar industry. By contrast, community solar farms—which enable utility customers to directly source their electricity from locally-generated solar energy—are typically no more than 20 acres and their capacity is capped at 2 MW by state law.

Rather than being a threat to agriculture, community solar can help sustain it. A small 15- or 20-acre lease can provide a farmer with a nice economic buffer against drought and other seasonal and yearly crop and price fluctuations.

Moreover, a movement is taking root nationally to add pollinator-friendly habitat to community solar farms. These “solar sites planted with deep-rooted native flowers and grasses that capture and filter stormwater, build topsoil, and provide abundant and healthy food for bees and other insects… are valuable to agriculture,” according to the Center for Pollinators in Energy. What’s more, the vegetation standards are cheaper and easier to maintain than conventional landscaping.

Maryland enacted its own pollinator-friendly solar law last year, making it a national leader in this budding movement. This law provides a ready-made framework for our county to consider.

I attended the County’s most recent Agriculture, Agritourism and Farming Commission meeting and was glad to see it is differentiating between community-scale and utility-scale solar. Unfortunately, the Commission’s tentative proposal to change community solar from a conditional use to a special exception in the Rural Agricultural (RA) zone would be a strong deterrent to new projects. Even though a special exception would still offer a path forward, it would significantly increase the risk, expense, and uncertainty.

The existing zoning already imposes several conditions on community solar such as screening, landscaping and prevention of glare. These ensure strong protections for the community and at the same time offer predictability to the property owner and solar developer. A special exception, on the other hand, offers no such clarity. While it may be appropriate for larger utility-scale solar, it is unnecessary and unwarranted for community solar, given the protections already in law.

The county’s solar moratorium is set to expire this August. Any recommended zoning changes will ultimately come to the County Council for action. When the time comes, I hope the Council will keep community solar as a conditional use in the RA zone.

#solar #communitysolar #bees #pollinators #monarchs #butterflies #rural #maryland #solarhoney #cleanenergy

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