The handwriting is on the wall for Frederick County’s go-slow approach on solar power. Once it seemed like a good idea, but now it is apparent that it is just not going to work.
The County Council passed a fairly restrictive law in 2017, and we praised it then as a reasonable approach to a complicated issue. The county would encourage solar power businesses to start on a smaller scale. We had high hopes that companies would find a way to comply with the law while protecting agricultural land and the scenic views that are an important part of the tourism business here.
The council this past winter turned down a proposed $17.2 million project outside Walkersville because it did not comply with the local ordinance. More than anything, it was criticized as too large — 151 acres along Biggs Ford Road.
But a recent decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals — the state’s highest court — in a Washington County case shows that the ultimate authority on where to allow solar power arrays and how big they will be is not going to be the county government.
The court ruled that the Public Service Commission is the “ultimate decision-maker” concerning where solar companies can construct solar arrays anywhere statewide. That decision means the PSC will have the final say concerning the Biggs Ford Road project.
After the council rejected the proposal, council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer said she would create a work group to begin updating and improving the zoning ordinance. The council really needs to get moving on this.
The Walkersville project, which is called the Whitmore/Biggs Ford Solar Center, has asked the PSC to overrule the County Council and allow it to build the array. The PSC regulates gas, electric, telephone, water, and sewage disposal companies, and has jurisdiction over electricity and suppliers, and construction of generating stations statewide.
A public utility law judge has requested written testimony from the county, the Department of Natural Resources and others by Sept. 11. A public hearing will be held the week of Sept. 16, with rebuttal testimony from other parties due Sept. 27. Evidentiary hearings are scheduled for Oct. 8 and Oct. 10 in Baltimore.
When it looks like you are about to lose a case, the wisest course is usually to try to negotiate a settlement. County Executive Jan Gardner’s staff should meet with the solar array developer and see what kind of a deal can be reached, rather than wait for the PSC to rule.
The county should explore the outline of a deal that would allow the solar company to build while meeting some of the goals the county is seeking to achieve.
Solar is such an important component of our energy future. The recent discussions in the County Council on the language of the Livable Frederick master plan concerning climate change shows that this community has wide agreement on its reality, with the discussion limited to whether the plan should call it a crisis.
Allowing solar energy generation is one of the ways that local government can contribute to climate solutions.
Solar has become so adaptive to local situations, with creative new ways to building the arrays to minimize the impact on communities. Now is the time for the county to negotiate the best deal possible, while it still holds a few cards, rather than wait for the PSC to impose a solution that we might not like.