Timothy Wheeler, BayJournal.com
Two projects, one for Georgetown University, pose trade-offs between climate action, woodland conservation
Standing in a clearing surrounded by trees, with the sun peeking through clouds, Edwin Moses looked around and declared the mostly wooded site in Southern Maryland a “fantastic” spot to install thousands of photovoltaic panels.
Therein lies an apparent clash of environmental ideals. The solar energy company that Moses works for wants to build a pair of renewable energy projects that would help fight climate change — but in the process, they would clear approximately 400 acres of trees from the heavily forested Nanjemoy Peninsula in Charles County.
That’s upsetting to community activists and environmentalists, who otherwise support climate-friendly renewable energy. They contend that the state’s forestland shouldn’t be sacrificed for energy production, even for something as “green” as solar panels.
Origis Energy USA, based in Miami, plans to build one of its projects, a 32.5-megawatt solar facility, on a privately owned 537-acre tract near La Plata to serve Georgetown University. The project, which would clear 210 acres of trees, would help the school shrink its carbon footprint by furnishing nearly half the electricity consumed on its District of Columbia campus.
“This amount of solar on this site is a fantastic use of the property,” said Moses, managing director of project development for Origis.
Just a few miles away on Ripley Road, the company is preparing to build a second, 27.5-megawatt solar facility that on a sunny day would generate enough electricity to power nearly 5,600 homes. That project would remove another 190 acres of trees from a 300-acre forest.
Origis has pledged to permanently preserve the uncleared portions of both sites and to preserve more forested acres on the peninsula than it plans to clear.
The Ripley Road project has the major approvals it needs to go forward. The larger one, planned to serve Georgetown, has gotten a green light from Charles County’s zoning appeals board and the state Public Service Commission. But it still needs state permits to build an access road and transmission lines across streams and wetlands.
Watershed groups, birders and smart growth advocates have mounted a last-ditch effort to halt the Georgetown project. They contend that it will harm the local environment and the Chesapeake Bay. By carving up one of a relative handful of large forested areas left in the state, the projects will diminish the region’s bird populations and threaten water quality, they say.
“It’s really our version of mountaintop removal,” said Linda Redding, who lives on Nanjemoy Creek, downstream from the Georgetown project on Shugart Valley Place. “In light of climate change, we should be saving all our forests. We can’t disconnect climate change from our forests or the health of the Bay.”
Opponents have appealed to Georgetown to back out, so far without success. Now they are urging the Maryland Department of the Environment to deny the necessary permits. The state agency has scheduled a public hearing on the case at 7 p.m. Feb. 27 at the county government building in La Plata.
Georgetown University officials, who publicly hailed the deal in 2017, aren’t talking to reporters now. Matt Hill, media relations manager, emailed a statement saying that the school is “deeply committed” to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. Though trees take climate-altering carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, Hill said the emissions avoided by the project far outweigh the carbon sequestration value of the forest to be removed. He added, though, that the school would retain an unidentified third-party expert to see that the project is “conducted in an ecologically responsible way.”
The Charles County debate is the latest in a series over where to build big renewable energy projects in Maryland. Residents in some Baltimore suburbs and rural Eastern Shore counties have objected to seeing solar panels take over farm fields that once grew grain and hay. Ocean City officials oppose the huge wind turbines planned offshore there.
Those and other projects are popping up to meet a Maryland law that calls for 25 percent of the state’s power to come from renewable sources by 2020. Lawmakers now are considering doubling that goal, to require 50 percent of the state’s energy be from renewable sources by 2030. Solar would have to account for 14.5 percent, nearly six times what’s now mandated.
The Charles County solar flap also comes amid a contentious debate over whether Maryland is doing enough to conserve its remaining forests. Environmentalists say the state’s forest conservation law, passed in 1991, has major loophholes. Developers and local and state officials dispute that and have so far blocked legislation to strengthen it. Environmentalists are trying again this year with a trio of bills.
The fight in Charles County is as much about land use as it is about renewable energy. In the last 40 years, portions of the county have been transformed from farm country to sprawling Washington, DC, area bedroom communities. Local community activists have sought to preserve the remaining rural areas, including Mattawoman Creek, a high quality tributary of the Potomac River.
In some Maryland localities where large-scale solar has generated controversy, local officials have responded by developing zoning or land use regulations to address it by placing caps, for instance, on the amount of farmland that can be converted to solar, or by limiting it to lands zoned for industrial use.
Charles County’s land use plan, adopted in 2016, calls for conserving farmland and large contiguous forests, and the Nanjemoy Peninsula is identified as a “priority preservation area.” But the plan also calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and developing renewable energy. There’s no language about where such projects should or shouldn’t go.
The forested Nanjemoy Peninsula was identified by the state Department of Natural Resources as a “targeted ecological area,” a designation meant to guide government land acquisition for parks and nature preserves. The DNR staff gave the parcel planned for the Georgetown project high marks as habitat for wildlife, proximity to protected lands and value in buffering a pair of high-quality streams.
The Shugart Valley Place tract is also included in what the Audubon Society calls an “Important Bird Area” covering much of the lower peninsula because of the habitat it provides for species that only dwell deep in the woods.
“Obviously, we support renewable energy,” said Kimberly Golden Brandt, director of Smart Growth Maryland. But, she added, “We don’t support clearing hundreds of acres of trees in a site with this kind of status when there are lots of other sites available.”
But neither the DNR nor Audubon designations carries any official weight, and the county land use plan is a guide, rather than a mandate.
Jerry Stewart, who lives on Shugart Valley Place, said the property has been in his family’s hands for a century and was passed down to him and seven relatives. He raised grain and hay there until about 2006, he said, and portions have been logged for timber at various times.
Stewart said he has mixed feelings about selling the land, but it was the decision reached by all the heirs. He expressed irritation at “tree huggers” trying to block the deal with Origis, which he said was the first solid offer the family had received.
“It becomes disturbing when society can tell you what to do with what you own,” he said.
John Hungerford, Stewart’s lawyer, said that If Origis does not exercise its option to buy the land, the owners could still timber or mine the land, then sell it for development, albeit for only a limited number of homes. The solar project would preserve more trees and wildlife habitat, he suggested, and better preserve the area’s rural character.
Origis’ Moses said the company believes that the benefits of the Georgetown project outweigh any downsides. The fields of solar panels will be screened from view by passing motorists, he noted, and of 49 large “specimen” trees tallied on the site, the company plans to leave two-thirds untouched.
“Balance is what everyone needs,” Moses said, “and we think we struck it really well here.”
But birders and environmentalists insist it’s a bad trade-off.
“This is the largest forest in southern Maryland,” said Bonnie Bick, a longtime Charles County environmental activist. The value of the forest goes way beyond carbon sequestration, she argued. “It’s really the biodiversity, the protection from fragmentation. It’s the water quality impact.”
Areas like the Nanjemoy Peninsula attract migratory birds that need the shelter of deep forest to survive egg-eating nest predators, such as foxes, raccoons, blue jays and crows. Among the forest-dwelling birds seen on the peninsula are the wood thrush, prothonotary warbler and the Eastern whip-poor-will. David Curson, interim executive director of Audubon Maryland-DC, said whip-poor-wills have been sighted or heard very close to the Georgetown site.
By creating clearings for solar panels, Curson said, “You’re punching a permanent hole in the forest and you’re fragmenting it. Not only do you lose that forest permanently, but you degrade the forest around it.”
Many community activists say that instead of gobbling up farmland and forest, solar projects should go on rooftops, parking lots, closed landfills and brownfields, those former industrial or commercial sites where fears of contamination have prevented redevelopment.
Origis’ Moses, though, said costs and technical issues related to accessing the electrical grid render many of those kinds of sites untenable for large-scale solar projects.
The controversy over the Georgetown project has inspired legislation in Annapolis. Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs his chamber’s environmental committee, has introduced a bill to create a commission to hammer out siting guidelines for future projects.
“It’s nuts – we need a blueprint,” he said, warning that repeated disputes over solar development threaten to stymie the renewable energy push in Maryland.
“As much as we want to put them on rooftops, that’s not going to be enough,” Pinsky said. The state needs a plan that stops “NIMBYism,” he said, but also protects forests, prime farmland and lands near the Bay and its tidal tributaries. “We have to stop these crazy battles,” he said.
At a legislative hearing Feb. 19, Pinsky’s bill drew favorable reaction from environmentalists, local officials and even a solar industry representative, though several witnesses cautioned against a prescriptive, “one-size-fits-all” statewide policy on siting utility-scale projects.
MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles, meanwhile, said he plans to attend his agency’s hearing on the solar company’s request for waterway and wetlands disturbance permits. He said he believes the issues raised by the Georgetown project are an important debate to have.
Grumbles, who is also chairman of Maryland’s climate commission, said he believes state and local governments need to work on “sequencing” solar siting decisions, to prioritize placing them where they don’t conflict with other desirable land uses.
“Clean energy and environmental protection must go together,” Grumbles said, “As we strive to meet our aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals, we must also be aware of the local impacts.”