Sun Editorial: Large Scale Solar Needs Planning and Zoning

A Baltimore Sun editorial (2016-12-27) commented on the need for balanced land use oversight of large scale solar facilities so that both green energy and valid environmental and rural land use concerns are addressed. Allowing a greater role for local zoning in the location of utility scale energy generation projects is a 2017 MACo legislative initiative. Currently, the Public Service Commission has the authority to preempt local land use policies and counties are struggling with a “land rush” by energy developers to secure rural and open lands for potential utility scale energy sites. Several high profile cases in Kent and Allegany Counties have raised awareness of the issue, but the problem is statewide. The editorial specifically references legislation proposed by Baltimore County Council Member Wade Kach. From the editorial:

As much as solar power has invaded suburban neighborhoods rooftop by rooftop in recent years, the real growth in solar worldwide has been in larger “farms” where electricity is generated and sold to local utilities or perhaps to one or two large companies. Increasingly, builders are buying or leasing cheap rural land and then installing permanent solar panels. It’s a formula that may help promote renewable energy, but it’s not the best use of land in all cases. …

That’s why Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach’s recently-introduced plan to regulate rural solar farms is a timely effort. That’s not to suggest that solar power is to be discouraged. Quite the contrary. But a balance should be struck in promoting renewable energy while also preserving rural areas. …

Scale is another matter. The larger the solar farm, the greater the need for zoning oversight. That includes making sure solar farms aren’t adding too much impervious surface, replacing forest or natural habitat or causing stormwater runoff issues. It would be ironic, indeed, if a major installation of solar panels was found to be hurting the water supply by increasing soil erosion that pollutes local streams which pour into rivers and then the Chesapeake Bay. …

Like most important decisions in the planning and zoning arena, this is a balancing act that must respect the important goal of promoting solar energy while also protecting communities, preserving farm land and sparing historic districts from losing their integrity. We don’t know that the legislation as it’s currently written accomplishes the task satisfactorily, but it is certainly worthy of serious consideration and debate.

As part of its discussion, the editorial was also critical over a recent decision by Howard County to permit utility scale solar facilities on preserved farmland.