More than two years after fighting off plans for soccer fields and a playground at a former organic farm on Brickyard Road, Potomac residents are challenging a new proposal from property owner Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS).
MCPS, which says the roughly 20-acre site is reserved for a future school, is evaluating a proposal from Missouri-based SunEdison and Rockville-based Standard Solar to install an array of ground-mounted solar panels that could produce as much electricity as a standard county high school uses in a year.
Sean Gallagher, assistant director of the school system’s Department of Facilities Management, told a crowd of about 70 people Tuesday night at Seven Locks Elementary School that together with proposed solar panel fields on future school sites in Gaithersburg and Rockville, MCPS could save about $2.5 million in electricity costs over the next 10 years.
But it quickly became clear that most in the crowd opposed the project.
One Brickyard Road resident said the solar panels would “destroy our neighborhood” and threatened to sue the school system if it moved ahead with the installation. Others questioned whether the land’s zoning allows for a solar panel array. Gallagher told the crowd that the school system’s lawyers are looking at that issue and admitted “it’s a loose end that needs to be dealt with.”
If Interim MCPS Superintendent Larry Bowers recommends the panels be installed after a public comment period and the plan is approved by the Board of Education, construction of the Brickyard Road solar array could start as soon as early next year.
Plan for a solar panel array on Brickyard Road, via Standard Solar/MCPS
Many in the crowd were supporters of the Brickyard Educational Farm, an organic farm on the site started more than 30 years ago by Nick Maravell, who leased the property from the school system. When the school board leased the site to Montgomery County for the soccer fields in 2011, Maravell and supporters fought the decision. Some took the county to court.
In 2013, County Executive Ike Leggett abandoned the plans for the soccer fields and surrendered the site’s lease. The former farm site has sat empty for the past two years.
Sophia Maravell, Nick Maravell’s daughter, spearheaded a campaign to convince the schools to keep the organic farm operating for field trips and other educational activities. After hearing about the solar panel proposal, the Maravells and Brickyard Farm supporters have restarted that effort.
“We really applaud MCPS for pursuing solar,” Sophia Maravell said. “We just really don’t think destroying an organic farm makes any sense.”
The solar panels at Brickyard would cover 12 acres of the site, cost about $5 million to build and provide roughly 30 percent electricity cost savings annually to MCPS thanks in part to federal and state subsidies for solar projects, according to Mike Volpe, the sales director at SunEdison who presented the project Tuesday.
The panels would be protected by a perimeter fence.
Gallagher said SunEdison, which would finance the project, and Standard Solar, which would engineer and build the project, have already received approvals from Pepco to connect the electricity generated by the panels into the utility’s power grid.
MCPS would essentially be credited for the 3.6 million kilowatt-hours of electricity generated by the solar panels each year and the financial agreement between MCPS, the solar panel contractors and Pepco would set the rate at which the electricity is sold into the grid so that MCPS achieves 30 percent cost savings annually.
Gallagher said installing the Brickyard Road panels would result in $90,000 of electricity savings a year. The Warfield Road site in Gaithersburg would produce about the same amount of annual savings. The Cashell Road site in Rockville would mean about $60,000 of electricity savings a year.
Gallagher said the three sites were selected because they aren’t heavily forested, don’t have buildings or other uses and aren’t needed for future schools during the initial 10-year term of the proposed project.