Howard Co. not sweating opposition to solar project
COLUMBIA, Md. — Unhappy neighbors are unlikely to kill a plan to erect solar paneling on 10 acres of Howard County farmland, a local official said last week — part of a much larger environmental program announced last year that will use solar paneling to generate half of the county government’s energy needs.
The program — 11 different paneling sites, including two additional farms — is on track to eventually generate 44 million kilowatt-hours a year for the county, equivalent to taking nearly 6,800 cars off the road, said Joshua Feldmark, director of the county’s community sustainability office. But a handful of residents near Ricky Bauer’s Rural Rhythm Farm continue to oppose the project as it winds its way through the county approval process.
Feldmark brushed off the opposition on July 7 as the project approaches another hearing with the county’s Board of Appeals early next month.
“We’re still cautiously optimistic that it’s going to go through and it will keep us on our timeline. Hopefully this will just be a hiccup,” he said. “We stand firmly behind it as a good project, and obviously you can’t predict the process, but we are hopeful that it will survive through the appeals.”
For Bauer, income from the solar paneling eliminates some of the anxiety of farming in a growing county whose residents occasionally find themselves at odds with agriculture. It will also help him pay off a recent 50-acre expansion of his operation.
A handful of residents expressed concerns about Bauer’s proposed paneling during a meeting with the county’s Hearing Examiner — part of its Board of Appeals — on June 28, 2021. Residents took issue with details of a county report that said the solar paneling did not violate county zoning laws.
One resident said the county had better sites for such paneling and another said the panels would rest on the farm’s most fertile soils.
“These are ways to try and supplement the farm,” Bauer said. Opponents of the project “don’t understand that farming is a business and we have to make money. We’re not just here to make things look pretty for them.”
In 2019, Maryland added a goal to its renewable energy portfolio standard that requires half of the state’s electricity retail sales to come from renewables, such as wind and solar, by 2030. Electricity suppliers already had to meet a deadline last year to obtain at least 20 percent of their power from renewable sources. Farmers should expect entreaties from local government and energy providers to meet those standards. A state task force on renewable energy last year said between 7,766 and 33,033 acres of farmland will need to be covered in paneling to meet the state’s solar needs — or 0.7 percent to almost 3 percent of the state’s prime farmland.
In Howard County, Triple Creek and Clear View farms will also adopt paneling. Clear View will produce 10 megawatts of energy, Triple Creek will produce 6 megawatts and Rural Rhythm just 2 megawatts, but together it’s the lion’s share of the county’s entire 24-megawatt project. CI Renewables, a New Jersey company, is signing 25-year leases with farm owners and will install the paneling at no cost to the county, to which it will eventually sell the energy. The electricity will be moved through Baltimore Gas & Electric. The company’s solar paneling is elevated 6 feet above the ground, allowing for some agricultural activity to continue beneath. Bauer, for instance, said his farm may graze sheep there.
The opposition reminds him of another dispute with homeowners more than a decade ago. He was trying to host a new cell phone tower on his farm to supplement his agricultural income, and many local residents protested the project. Bauer recalls the irritating irony of sitting in a county government meeting and watching protestors occupy themselves with smartphones. The residents eventually killed the tower proposal, but many more residents were involved, including local community groups. The solar paneling project’s opposition is comparatively tiny — a good sign, Feldmark said.
“There’s a lot of folks who sort of get that our fight against climate change is real, and we need to look at all opportunities. When it comes to solar, it’s a much stronger argument,” he said. “To us this is a key part of supporting farmers. The Bauers have been farming that land for a very long time and so it’s in our best interest to keep them going.”