As Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich looks for ways to increase sustainability, he has his sights focused on the sun.
A recent proposal would require all new homes to have solar panels on their roofs starting in 2022, said Adam Ortiz, the director of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Elrich announced the proposal at a Sept. 14 forum on climate change — at which some activists accused the county of inaction on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2017, the County Council passed a climate emergency resolution with goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2027 and 100 percent by 2035.
“I’m telling you, to meet any of those requirements, you’ve gotta have a radical change in the electric grid,” Elrich said at the forum. “I think what we’ll see, if we’re successful, is more rooftops with solar. We’ll see more solar on top of garages. We’ll see solar in the spaces where I think it ought to be captured first, which is interior spaces. And in the county, I think they’ll be largely solar-based.”
The administration plans to introduce the policy in 2020, Ortiz said. It would make Montgomery County one of the first jurisdictions in the country to mandate solar panels.
California became the first state to pass similar legislation in 2018, when a unanimous vote by the California Energy Commission became a heated debate over the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of the measure.
Elrich’s proposal has attracted similar local scrutiny. The Maryland Building Industry Association quickly expressed reservations over the proposal, which fails to consider consumer demand and increased construction costs, CEO Lori Graf said.
“Anecdotally, what we’re seeing is that there’s not a lot of demand for solar panels even when consumers are given the option,” she said. “And that’s why, generally speaking, we prefer to see incentives over mandates. We prefer things to be market-driven. So, if consumers want solar panels, that’s when we’ll start providing solar panels.”
The association’s reservations dovetail with wider concerns raised after California passed its 2018 mandate.
Some energy experts argue that rooftop solar panels — which cost around $12,000 to $16,000 to install, Graf said — are an expensive and sometimes inefficient way to promote sustainable energy. Properties with less sun exposure are poorly suited to harvest solar, she added, and the proposed legislation could raise construction costs in a county already facing an affordable housing shortage.
“We’re 100 percent in favor of energy efficiency, but the return on investment just isn’t there for solar,” Graf said. The association argued that LED lighting, energy efficient windows, and newer forms of insulation are less expensive ways to reduce the carbon footprint of a home.
Montgomery County is adopting the 2018 International Building Code, which sets stricter requirements for energy efficiency in new construction. But both Ortiz and Adriana Hochberg, the county’s climate change coordinator, said the government needs to consider all ways to reduce carbon emissions, especially given the ambitious targets set over the next 16 years.
“That’s why I’m a little surprised that some people think this is debatable,” Hochberg said. “We have to be using an all-hands-on-deck approach to meet those energy goals.
The administration is crafting the proposed legislation, which could also apply to apartments and commercial buildings, she added. The county is also planning to introduce several measures to decrease carbon emissions on a broader scale.
One is large-scale solar arrays on closed landfills, an ongoing project to be formalized over the next few months. There’s a plan to direct the community solar power to low and moderate-income residents, Hochberg said, who could receive credits for renewable energy on their utility bills.
At the Sept. 14 forum, Hochberg also announced plans to introduce building energy performance standards for structures over a certain square-footage. The policy, based on similar standards in New York City and Washington, D.C., could require larger buildings to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on size or average performance expectation.
“We’re looking at a lot of different models to help us meet our goals,” Hochberg said.
The Department of Environmental Protection is also negotiating on an agreement with a regional composting facility for a Montgomery-based pilot program. The department is looking for commercial partners with high volumes of food waste that could be composted through the neighboring facility, Hochberg said.
The county currently disposes around 147,000 tons of food scraps every year, but efforts to reduce the volume have been limited by the lack of a local composting facility, according to a 2018 analysis by the department.
Ortiz defended the rooftop solar proposal as one important step in a wider effort to meet emission targets. The California mandate resulted in an emissions reduction of just less than 2 percent, and households typically save roughly $80 a month on utility bills.
“Those are numbers that add up over time,” Ortiz said. “And to meet this challenge, we have to do everything we possibly can. We can’t pick and choose.”