Here’s how Montgomery County can lead on climate change
August 26, 2020
Years ago the County Council made a consequential decision to set aside nearly one-third of all land in our County for agriculture, through restrictive zoning.
Today I am calling on our Council to take a new and bold step forward in the fight against climate change — a crisis that Joe Biden highlighted in his convention speech — by revising the zoning code to allow the blending of solar arrays with farmland on a small portion of the Agricultural Reserve.
Farming and solar can go together. Elsewhere, visionary farmers are pioneering “dual use” of land beneath solar arrays by
- Cultivating pollinator friendly wildflowers, storing carbon in the soil and supporting bees needed for local crops
- Grazing sheep for wool and meat
- Growing vegetable crops for local food and grapes for local wine
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 what I am trying to change, working in partnership with climate scientists, farmers, solar providers and leading climate advocacy organizations such as the Sierra Club, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and Poolesville Green.
Councilmember Tom Hucker has been a stalwart leader and is the co-lead sponsor of this measure. Councilmember Evan Glass was the decisive vote against weakening amendments in committee, and together we are bringing a measure before the full County Council to allow up to 1,800 acres of land presently zoned “Agricultural Reserve” to be used for dual use or “solar + farming.”
We now have a short window to secure the votes for passage in September, while we grapple with ongoing opposition from some residents and County Executive Elrich, who advocate restrictions that would prevent solar on almost all farmland in the Reserve.
Our proposed 1,800 acres (about 2% of more than 90,000 acres zoned Ag Reserve) for dual use solar + farming is intended to help free our electricity grid from coal and gas power plants, which directly generate almost 30% of ALL greenhouse gas emissions.
Shutting down those plants and switching the sources of energy in the grid from coal and gas to solar and wind is the best and fastest solution we have to reduce emissions and halt climate change.
To get a sense of the impact, with state-of-the-art design and ever improving solar technology our plan could power as many as 50,000 homes*, or nearly 13% of our total residential housing units. It would be a huge step.
There is no question that our progress on reducing emissions has been too slow and we are failing to do our part to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Communities of color are paying the biggest price from power-plant generated air pollution. We must take action.
Some critics oppose dual use “until we have deployed on every rooftop.” The problem with that is that according to national experts, rooftops can only maximally provide half of the solar energy that we need to clean up the grid, and probably less.
Also understand that the County has issued approximately 9,300 permits for residential rooftop solar. With 390,000 housing units, we have a long way to go.
I feel the urgency. We must allow solar to be built on the ground, and in as many places as we can put it.
It is also important to remember that not everyone has a rooftop where they can install solar panels. With “community solar” projects, which our zoning proposal is designed to support, residents in apartment buildings and townhouses, for example, can still sign up for solar power service — an essential strategy for a solar future.
While climate change makes me anxious and sad, I’m excited when I think about how Montgomery County can lead the way to preserve farming and save the climate at the same time. That’s the kind of leadership our County should provide.
No matter what, we will have a lot more to do to get to zero emissions by 2035, our County’s adopted goal. We need more solar, more smart growth, more teleworking and reduced driving, expanded transit systems and electrified vehicles, green building codes and reduced energy consumption, and we need the state to enact a 100% clean energy requirement for the grid that takes effect soon enough to make a difference.
We will need all of those reforms and farm + solar if we are going to have any hope of doing right by future generations. To quote Poolesville Green, “We cannot give up on our children’s future.”
But I know that if we take bold action — we can do this.
P.S., I encourage you to read the Montgomery County Sierra Club’s blog on why they support this plan.
* The as many as 50,000 homes powered estimate assumes a) maximum buildout of 1,800 acres, which would be 300mw at 6 acres per mw b) solar arrays with dual-axis tracking (north/south and east/west) that could yield a 22% capacity factor, and c) average household kWh of 12,000 per year.