The recent Charles County Planning Commission meeting ushered in a new era for alternative energy use in the county.
The commission voted unanimously to approve a zoning text amendment that would allow small properties — primarily homes and small businesses — to install solar and wind energy systems on the land. Larger properties, like the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative solar farm, would still have to seek special exceptions in all zoning districts.
The measure must go to the county commissioners for final passage.
The energy generated could either be used on-site or sold back to SMECO if the installer chooses to do so. SMECO spokesman Tom Dennison said the company reviewed the proposed zoning text amendment prior to its introduction to the commission.
“We were pleased to review the ordinances, and we were happy to see the amendment approved,” Dennison said last week. “We’re there to help customers in terms of helping them connect to the grid ... safely.”
Dennison said the company had noted a “growing trend” toward the renewable energy market.
“What you see with these new regulations ... is the government responding to that demand,” Dennison said.
Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) has had a wind turbine on his Swan Point property for five years now, well before the push toward renewable energy began coming in full force.
“I think it took long enough,” Robinson said. “It’s very exciting because we’re in Maryland, where there’s thousands of piers. In this county alone, we have hundreds of miles of shoreline, and wherever there’s water there’s wind. I applaud the planning commission for taking it up and passing it. The other interesting thing is that this is becoming so mainstream that there’s very little controversy. In Charles County, we really are a beacon for renewable energy, with the turbine at the welcome center, the SMECO solar farm and the electric vehicle charging stations at the libraries. I’m really proud of where the county is in that regard.”
For solar systems and wind turbines on residential properties, the Internal Revenue Service offers a tax credit. The credit runs through 2016, and is for 30 percent of qualified property, according to the IRS website. The state offers similar incentives.
According to information on the Renewable Energy Corp. website, a Lutherville-Timonium-based residential solar company, the sale of electricity from solar panels is exempt from sales tax. All solar equipment also has been exempt from Maryland sales tax since 2008, according to the site. There is also a minimum $1,000 state tax credit available for residential solar energy systems which is earned at a rate of $0.0085 per kilowatt hour, meaning one’s system has to generate at least 23,530 kwh annually.
According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average home uses 11,280 kwh annually, for an average of 940 kwh per month.
County government spokeswoman Donna Fuqua wrote in an email that this bit of county legislation is the “first of several” changes to come about from a Department of Energy grant that the county received “several years ago” through funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestmant Act.
“Additional future code amendments to be considered include changes to promote mass transit, pedestrian [and] bicycle use and walkways and revisions to the landscape code,” Fuqua wrote in the email.
Nanjemoy resident Marsha Back said she is looking forward to the potential uptick in the use of alternative forms of energy in the county with the passage of this amendment.
“I think it’s good for solar to go on commercial buildings and if we could have a co-op ... where people could invest in the energy that would be fantastic,” Back said. “That could be an alternative to another 100-acre solar array. I don’t know about wind, because I think that really has to be on the river. But there’s so much potential for solar. We could have it on all the rooftops of the schools and government buildings.”
Mike Thompson, a Hollywood resident with a solar system on his own property, said he’s a vocal advocate for it “because it’s great stuff.”
“It’s very profitable for the people who can do it,” Thompson said, noting that a system can require an investment of anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000. “When you install a huge system, you have to invest a lot to get it on the grid. What I advocate for is smaller systems of 50 to 200 kwh without incurring some tremendous expense to get them on the grid. I’m an advocate for having them scattered around. That seems to be much less intrusive.”
Thompson said small systems of this nature could be installed on parking lots, where they could serve double duty as shade providers on hot days, and on existing flat roofs.
“The idea is to make this not such a strange idea,” Thompson said. “If people look at the numbers, the payback on solar is very good. ... The rewards are there.”