2022 | Government

County’s response to climate change moves front and center in county executive race

Elrich, Democratic rivals spar over speed and substance of steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions

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Montgomery County officials say the county is working on electrifying its 377-vehicle fleet of Ride On buses.

File photo

Editor’s note: Dealing with the impact of climate change in Montgomery County has been a major issue in the 2022 race for county executive. In this story, Bethesda Magazine contributing editor Louis Peck writes about County Executive Marc Elrich’s initiatives to address the issue and his Democratic opponents’ views on those efforts. In a story in the May/June issue of Bethesda Magazine, Peck explored the impact that climate change is already having in the county and what the future holds.

In 2017, a group of climate change activists — under the umbrella of the Montgomery County Climate Mobilization — deftly leveraged an election scheduled for the following year, as the group prodded the County Council into unanimously adopting greenhouse gas reduction goals that were among the most ambitious in the nation.

The push to adopt an “emergency climate mobilization” resolution — with the stated goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2027 and 100% by 2035 — was boosted by the presence of three council members eyeing a run for county executive the following year: Roger Berliner, George Leventhal and the ultimate winner, Marc Elrich.

“…When we passed the emergency climate stuff, you notice there was no plan,” Elrich observed in an interview with Bethesda Magazine late last year. “We had no idea how we were going to achieve those goals. We just knew we had to have goals.”

Today, as he seeks re-election to a second term, Elrich has a plan, finalized in mid-2021.
“It takes time when you have no plan to put a plan in place,” he said during a telephone interview in May.

[Want to know more? Here’s Louis Peck’s Bethesda Magazine story: How climate change may impact Montgomery County]

But, as the owner of that plan, he also is now the target for his two leading challengers in the July 19 Democratic primary, businessman David Blair and County Council Member Hans Riemer. They have repeatedly criticized Elrich for not acting more aggressively in ramping up solar energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with Riemer hitting Blair as well as Elrich for their opposition to Riemer-sponsored 2021 legislation opening a portion of the county’s Agriculture Reserve — which encompasses about one-third of the county’s land area — to solar arrays.

“Montgomery County talks a good game,” Blair said in taking aim at Elrich during an April candidate forum sponsored by Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat. “It was five years ago that we declared a climate emergency, and then it took five years for us to basically get the first legislation in front of the council.”

In a statement on its decision in late April to endorse Blair’s candidacy, the Sierra Club Montgomery County Group said: “On the positive side, during Mr. Elrich’s term, the county developed the ‘Climate Action Plan’(CAP). But, on the negative side, this document is not really a plan, as it does not clearly lay out a plan of action with specific responsibilities, deadlines, and budget specifications.”

Elrich has responded to such criticism by contending that limited county resources – coupled with the uncertainty of future federal and state aid – has stood in the way of formulating a detailed budget to implement provisions of the Climate Action Plan. Within those fiscal limits, he has touted initiatives he has pursued during his first term to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both buildings and vehicles. Those sources together account for 92 percent of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

“…I worked with the school system to come up with a way to electrify their [bus] fleet,” Elrich said during last month’s phone interview. “The county is electrifying its fleet, buses and all its personal vehicles. Our new buildings are all going to be green, our rehabs are becoming green. We’ve got community solar going up in multiple places, and we’re continuing to expand that.”

None of this is going to happen quickly, as the county’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% looms in just five years — and it’s barely one-quarter of the way there based on the latest available statistics.

It is going to take at least three years to electrify slightly more than 25% of the county’s 377-vehicle fleet of Ride On buses, according to the county’s Department of General Services. There are now just four battery-electric buses in service, with another 10 on order — two of which were shipped in late April. The county is now moving to finalize procurement of another 86 electric buses over the next three years.

The deal that Elrich helped arrange last year allows Montgomery County Public Schools to lease electric buses, rather than the county shouldering the capital cost of acquiring them. Highland Electric Transportation of Beverly, Mass., is now under contract to replace 326 diesel school buses — 25% of the current 1,300-vehicle fleet — over the next four years, according to an MCPS spokesman, who added that “our plan is to convert the entire fleet in approximately 10 years.”

In the nearer term, Elrich has cited the COVID-19 pandemic and financial constraints placed on him by the County Council as slowing progress.

“I’ve had three years of totally flat budgets, and two of them due to COVID,” Elrich said. “So the ability to expand things, when the council says you’re doing a same services budget, has been impossible… . This [year] is the first budget where I’ve got the ability to do things that we wanted to do.”

As a result, Elrich added, “we have filled or created all these positions in the Department of [Environmental Protection] to help businesses” comply with newly passed county statutes: the International Green Construction Code, passed by the council last fall to govern new construction, and the Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) legislation, adopted in April and aimed at retrofitting existing buildings to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Elrich boasted the BEPS proposal has become a national model, while taking a swipe at the council — a body with which he has had a tenuous relationship during the three terms he served on it and since – for not approving it sooner.

“We sent the BEPS legislation to the council over a year ago — it took a year for the council to approve it and send it back to me,” he declared. “On that same legislation, the city of Denver looked at what we were doing and last summer…modified it for Denver and passed it by November.”

Critics, however, fault Elrich for not sending the council the BEPS legislation until the spring of 2021, after promising it a year earlier. “We’ve seen lots of talk and delay…before we were even sent a bill, which I was promised as chair of the [Transportation and] Environment Committee back in 2019,” complained District 5 Council Member Tom Hucker during an April candidate forum, shortly before he dropped out of the executive race to seek an at-large council seat.

Private investment under both BEPS and the International Green Construction Code will be leveraged by the county’s Green Bank, whose resources were expanded earlier this year under legislation by Hucker and Council Member Andrew Friedson directing 10% of revenue from the county’s energy tax — about $18 million this year — to the bank. The Green Bank was created five years ago under a bill by then-Council Member Berliner with funds allocated to the county by Pepco and Exelon for backing the merger of the two utilities.

It was during this period that Berliner also sought passage of legislation to force the county’s employee pension funds to divest themselves of stock in fossil fuel companies. He dropped it amid blowback from pension fund managers, leaving the council to adopt a resolution containing the 80% greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2027 and 100% by 2035 as policy objectives without the force of law.

As of 2018, the last year for which figures are available, greenhouse gas emissions had been reduced by 19 percentage points — barely one-quarter of the way to the county’s 2027 goal from baseline emissions levels in 2005. Updated assessments through 2020, compiled by Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), are due to be released at the end of 2022.

According to MWCOG senior environmental planner Maia Davis, there was a “big drop” in greenhouse gas emissions throughout the region from 2005 to 2012, due to a switch from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas. But progress since has leveled off: Between 2015 and 2018, greenhouse gas emissions dropped only 3 percentage points for Montgomery County, an average of 1 point per year. This would appear to indicate that the rate of improvement needs to ramp up to between 6 and 7 percentage points annually to come close to the 2027 target.

As for what the greenhouse gas inventory released at the end of this year will show for Montgomery County, Davis said “the energy grid has gotten much cleaner, even between 2018 and 2020, so the inventory will reflect that significant [decrease] in grid emissions.” She also noted the 2020 figures will show reduced travel during the pandemic, while cautioning: “We don’t want to forget there are more cars back on the road and more people flying again. You’re not back to pre-pandemic levels, but the message is going to be there is still much work to do to continue the progress toward greenhouse gas emission reduction.”

The regional reduction goals set by MWCOG — 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050 — are significantly more modest than those adopted five years ago by the Montgomery County Council. So are those in legislation adopted this spring by the Maryland General Assembly: a 60% reduction by 2031 and net-zero emissions by 2045 — meaning that some greenhouse gases will be released, but they will be offset by removing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere.

The county’s climate change officer, Adriana Hochberg, said she is aware of only one jurisdiction in Michigan and a handful in California with such “ambitious — audacious goals in fact” comparable to those of Montgomery County. But she and Elrich both summarily reject the notion of the county shifting more to the statewide and regional targets, citing the increasingly dire assessments of the impact of climate change.

Asked about the targets set by the region and the state, Elrich — exhibiting his trademark bluntness — declared: “I think those goals are the road to an environmental disaster. They’re inexcusable in this day and age because we know how to do better. It’s not like this is rocket science anymore.”

Elrich, who recently installed a solar electric system at his Takoma Park residence, added: “I’m in a cloudy area on Sligo Creek Parkway, and I’m getting a major portion of my electricity out of the sun. There are tens of thousands of households in Montgomery County whose rooftops could be solarized, and they would realize savings that would actually pay for itself. It’s not hyperbole anymore, it’s not like you have to wait 20 years. This is a real thing that could be done.”

While Elrich asserted, “I don’t think anybody is doing as much as we are,” such contentions have been repeatedly disputed by his rivals.

Blair complained of “being lapped by the surrounding areas” at the April forum sponsored by Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat and pointed to neighboring Howard County —where County Executive Calvin Ball unveiled a plan for an outside vendor to construct 24 megawatts of solar power to provide 75% of the county government’s energy needs by the end of 2024.

Clearly not conceding bragging rights on battling climate change to other Maryland jurisdictions, Ball — who heads a county about one-third of the population of Montgomery — said in a recent interview, “…Having the largest power purchase agreement in the state is something that not only did we aspire to, but frankly I’m glad that we’re inspiring other jurisdictions to do so.”

Montgomery officials say the county also will reach a solar generating capacity of about 24 megawatts from arrays on county and public land at about the same time as Howard. According to Chris Brown of the Department of General Services’ energy and sustainability division, there are now about 10 megawatts of solar operating, including 7.6 megawatts built during the tenure of Elrich’s predecessor, Ike Leggett. This includes “microgrids” at the county correctional facility in Boyds and the public safety headquarters in Gaithersburg.

Another 9 megawatts of solar are under construction, Brown said, adding, “In the next three years, we have a fairly predictable pipeline of at least 5 megawatts more solar to be developed.”

For his part, Elrich said Montgomery will be ahead of the rest of the state in offering “community choice solar” — allowing it to compete with private utilities for residential and commercial customers — due to 2021 state legislation.

Beginning in late 2024, “Montgomery County’s going to be the pilot,” he said. “We’re going to be the first jurisdiction that will go out on the market to buy electricity, and we’ve got the ability to pick an electric supplier. We’re going to get the greenest supplier we can get at the best price we can get it at, and we’ve got the buying power of the entire county to put into this.”

Riemer, however, has repeatedly complained that Elrich blocked an opportunity to provide green energy to as many as 50,000 homes by working to head off Riemer’s proposal to open 1,800 acres of the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve to solar arrays during last year’s extended council debate. “I’d say Marc’s biggest environmental initiative has been blocking solar in rural communities — getting in the way of that proposal,” Riemer said late last year.

Elrich has said that “you have to involve [the Agricultural Reserve] at some point” in solar generation, while noting the county is experimenting at a parcel in the Ag Reserve where it is building a wine-making facility to stimulate the county’s wine industry. “What I’m hoping is that what comes out of the experiment at the farm…is that we can do the work to figure out what actually is needed, what you can grow under solar panels in Maryland,” he said.

He indicated that he objected to Riemer’s proposal because it lacked requirements to encourage more costly but desirable forms of agriculture. At issue is so-called agrovoltaics, in which solar panels and the crops beneath them enjoy a symbiotic relationship in which one helps the other to perform better.

“I actually think that the right way to do this is to demonstrate what you can do, so the farmers and everybody else are convinced that instead of industrial solar, you’re really going to get agrovoltaic solar,” Elrich said. “I suspect we’re going to discover we can do that, and we’ll write legislation that is strict enough to require that a person do that.”

Louis Peck, a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine, can be reached at: lou.peck@bethesdamagazine.com.