Credit: Montgomery County Government

Adriana Hochberg, dubbed the “climate czarina” by many of her Montgomery County government colleagues — a title that also serves as the name of her county Twitter handle — has been busy in recent months.

That’s because Hochberg is balancing two roles: serving both as the climate change officer, a position created last year by County Executive Marc Elrich, and as the acting director of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Adam Ortiz, the former director, left to join the Environmental Protection Agency late last year. 

Earlier this month, the County Council unanimously voted to extend Hochberg in her role as DEP acting director through Oct. 31.

In a recent interview, Hochberg said she would consider serving in that role permanently “if the opportunity presents itself.” 

As climate change officer, Hochberg said she deals with policy that impacts multiple county departments while as the acting DEP director, she oversees more than 100 programs and physical infrastructure — including the Shady Grove Processing Facility and Transfer Station near Rockville and the Yard Trim Composting Facility in Dickerson.

Both involve working with aspects of the county’s Climate Action Plan — a document that sets goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the county by 80% by 2027 and eliminating them by 2035.

Earlier this month, Bethesda Beat spoke with Hochberg about environmental and climate change issues in Montgomery County. Here are some of her responses, edited for length and clarity.

What are your key goals as acting DEP director?

First, I want to support the staff in carrying out DEP’s mission. Second, is to look after individual and team wellness. You know, we’ve all survived the pandemic together, we’re still in the process of healing, figuring out what the post-COVID work arrangement looks like. And I want to support people in rebuilding the team spirit for DEP. And then third, is to center racial equity and social justice in our work, in what we do. I feel that it’s a responsibility for all of us, in that enhancing racial equity and social justice supports our community well-being.

The County Council recently passed the building energy performance standards bill, which aims to modernize multifamily and commercial buildings countywide and make them more environmentally friendly. What’s the next part of implementing that legislation?

One of our first next steps is we have a call for members of the community who are interested in serving on the building improvement advisory board. It’s a brand-new county board that was called for in the legislation. And so, we’re looking for people who are interested, who have expertise in this sector, to participate — and they are going to help serve as our sounding board, as we move forward with developing regulations. We want to make sure that we continue to involve our public stakeholders in the regulatory process, just as we did back when DEP was developing the legislation.

Earlier this year, the council also passed the Green Buildings Now Act, which allocates 10% of the county’s energy use tax to the county’s Green Bank, a nonprofit corporation aimed at helping building owners countywide make environmental improvements. The bill targeted multifamily and commercial buildings. Will it be easier to implement changes to multifamily, commercial or both?

I know that [the Green Bank staff] have worked with a mix of commercial real estate, like office buildings, as well as multifamily [buildings] in the past. So [they’re] looking to work with clients that are looking for help. So they’ve had success across both of those fronts as well as residential [customers].

How is the county preparing for stormwater management issues in the coming years, given recent flooding events?

We brought on board a team of outside experts and hydrologists to help the county undertake a comprehensive analysis of where we are now, in terms of our current regulations, our current respective departments’ work responsibilities with regards to flooding management, to help us identify the gaps and also read and do a data review and identify what are the data gaps? So that moving forward we can begin some watershed by watershed assessment and analysis so that we can then begin the needed work to prepare our neighborhoods and communities for the additional amount of rain on flooding events that we’ve already started to experience.

In the past, the county has taken more of a reactive stance — we act once the flood occurred. We want to move more towards a proactive stance. That also includes looking at projections of increased rain amounts that we can expect to see in Montgomery County in the coming decades.

The county launched its electric vehicle co-op purchasing program in January. What is your sense of the electric car market in the coming years? Are the vehicles going to be affordable for people at lower income levels?

I read the other day that currently about 5% of vehicles in the fleet nationwide are electric. It’s a small number, but it’s been ramping up fairly quickly. And so many different car makers have come out with these announcements that by 2035, they’re only going to be selling electric vehicles. So I think the race is on across various car manufacturers to provide more variety, more models that meet different people’s needs and at different price points.

One of the great environmental debates locally is where the county should install solar panels. Some believe solar panels should be installed in the agricultural reserve while others point to Montgomery County Public Schools rooftops, parking lots and other similar areas. Is there any one place where this is more likely in the near future?

We have been working with the National Renewable Energy Lab for an agrovolatic solar installation in the ag reserves. We would be the first installation in the Mid-Atlantic to scientifically assess how well table crops grow underneath of and next to solar panels. So these are solar panels that would be located a little bit higher, a few feet higher off the ground, to enable the space and the soil to be used for agriculture.

MCPS has plans in the works for solar on MCPS rooftops, and our Department of General Services also has plans for additional solar. We have the construction breaking ground this month at the Oaks Landfill (northeast of Gaithersburg). That’s where there are six megawatts of solar. Four of those six megawatts are going to benefit low- and moderate-income residential subscribers. That’s the largest community solar project in the whole country that’s dedicated to low- and moderate-[income] members of the community.

The term “environmental racism” has come up multiple times during local election forums in recent cycles. In what ways does the county need to address this in the future?

We dedicated a chapter of the Montgomery County Climate Action Plan [to] looking at the environmental injustices, both historically and current in the county, particularly as it relates to housing, transportation and energy. One example that really helps illustrate environmental racism is when you look in the last five years, it’s really been determined that from an air quality perspective, people who live close to very heavily traveled transportation corridors are heavily impacted by the air emissions in terms of public health impacts. And then when you look at the prices of houses, the houses that tend to be more affordable are the ones that tend to be closest to those heavily traveled transportation corridors. And so you have, more frequently, people of color that are getting more exposed to air quality emissions.

With regards to transportation, we need to move away from internal combustion engine vehicles, so we need to electrify. There’s also other options besides electrification; hydrogen is something that the county is looking at seriously for our bus fleet. And then we need to make it easier for people to walk and bike, take transit, so that there’s a need for fewer cars on the road altogether.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com