On a recent trip to the Frederick County Recycling Center, I happened to notice the solar arrays that have been constructed at the landfill. This was good to see, as I am a fan of solar power and other renewable energy sources. Like many local residents, I have been following the discussions taking place at the county level about solar energy and where such panels should be placed (i.e., agricultural land). Although I support solar energy efforts, I have not been behind some of the recent attempts to place large arrays on prime farmland.
The 2017 Frederick County Council’s ordinance that created “solar floating zones,” where solar panels would be permitted, included a number of specific restrictions for land that has been zoned agricultural. For example, the solar arrays could not cover more than 10 percent of the farm’s tillable acreage or more than 75 acres, they could not be placed in a rural legacy or priority preservation area, could not be on prime farm soil, or cannot be contiguous to a growth area as defined by the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
In general, I agree with the restrictions set out by the 2017 bill, although recent conversations have revolved around relaxing them a bit. If that happens, I hope the County Council doesn’t ease them up much. This doesn’t mean I am anti-farmer. In fact, the Frederick County Farm Bureau has also taken a stance to protect important agricultural land. Rather, I am more pro-food. As population increases, we will lose some farmland to development while needing more food for sustain ourselves. Yes, our farmers need to be able to survive and even thrive, but there are other ways to support them than by allowing large, ugly metallic structures across our rural landscape.
Which brings me back to the solar panels at the landfill. The solar arrays placed there were constructed on a closed landfill site, which obviously can’t be used for anything else. Farming won’t be done there, nor can residential and commercial developments be built on top of the geosynthetic landfill cap. It is these types of locations that make better sense for solar arrays.
In fact, the approach by which Coronal Energy and other companies want to build solar panels on farmland is outdated. They are trying to exploit the farmers and build these structures in the cheapest and most antiquated ways. There are many other sites with large square footage that make more sense, including roofs of big-box stores, warehouses, colleges and schools, government buildings, and even gas station canopies. In fact, the city of Frederick, Frederick County, and the state of Maryland could incentivize the installation of solar panels on such facilities.
Other ideas are out there too. Placing solar arrays on the top deck of parking garages would not only capture energy but also keep the cars that park there cooler in the summer and protected from other weather elements. Encouraging parking canopies that do the same or creating solar trees as public art installations would also serve more than one purpose (do an internet search for images of either example to see what is possible).
Rack-mounted modules installed on rooftops or in fields is no longer the norm. Solar solutions have seen significant improvements in technology and aesthetics. Building Integrated PV (BIPV) are solar PV modules that generate electricity and also perform the waterproofing function of the roofing shingle or tile. They are lightweight, require no structural reinforcement, are easy to install and also designed to withstand snow, wind and hail.
It takes a tiny fraction of the sun’s rays that hit the Earth to take care of our needs. Therefore, let’s look at other viable options rather than replace Frederick County’s farms with large solar arrays.
Shuan Butcher is a writer, nonprofit professional, amateur photographer, wannabe background actor, event planner, and perpetual traveler. He writes from Frederick.