Last week, County Executive John Olszewski, Jr. outlined an aggressive goal for energy independence for Baltimore County in less than five years.
Olszewski shared his vision for this goal during a press conference on April 21. The project, the first of its kind for the county, consists of installing solar panels at two County landfills. These panels are expected to produce around 35 percent of the electricity needed to power the county. Baltimore County begins this green energy trek with SunPower Corp., a company that provides solar panel technology for both commercial and personal home use.
Through the power of the sun
The initiative was announced one day prior to Earth Day 2021 (April 22), but the planning and logistics for it began much earlier, in 2019. According to SunPower senior account executive Brad Dakake, the company was chosen by Baltimore County after a lengthy interview process. The announcement comes at a time when both the US and the rest of the globe are seeking modern solutions to curb the impacts of climate change.
“Baltimore County awarded the landfill projects, and we then kicked off a series of due diligence surveys, including a drone mapping survey of the landfills’ contours, updates to designs, conversations with BGE, etc.,” Dakake told the Eagle earlier this week. “Simultaneously, we negotiated a contract with the County, which is now executed, allowing us to move forward with detailed construction designs for permitting and construction.”
Olszewski made the announcement during a press conference in Towson on April 21. After making the announcement, Olszewski signed an executive order that same day that sets a new goal for the county to produce 100 percent of the energy used by its residents with renewable energy sources by 2026. By 2030, the energy produced with renewable energy sources is expected to equal 125 percent of county energy demands.
“Each year, Earth Week provides us an opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to creating a more sustainable future for our children,” Olszewski said from Towson last Wednesday. “Leaders at all levels have a responsibility to protect our environment for this generation and the next.
“That is a responsibility that I take very seriously.”
Olszewski said during the press conference that the previous administration, led by previous county executive Kevin Kamenetz, had set a goal to create 20 percent of the energy demand using renewable energy sources by 2022. That goal was not met and little progress was made, according to Olszewski, though he did not go into reasons behind the lack of progress. His administration took over in 2019, seeing a steep, yet welcoming, challenge, he added.
The Olszewski administration has undertaken various sustainability initiatives and implemented various policies. Recently, Baltimore County announced a private-public partnership with BGE to install electric vehicle charging stations around the county. One such charging station is located at the Sollers Point Multipurpose Center, 323 Sollers Point Rd., in Turner Station. In 2020, the Olszewski administration announced that all government buildings erected in the county must meet Leadership in Energy and Enviornmental Design (LEED) silver standards, a green building ratings system used by countries around the globe.
According to the US Green Building Council (USGBC), projects pursuing LEED certification earn points for various green building strategies across several categories based on the number of points achieved, a project earns one of four LEED rating levels: Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. The score is based on a 100-point scale. The Silver rating is achieved by scoring 50-59 points.
According to Dakake, the solar panel systems that will be installed at these two former landfill sites will generate upwards of 30 megawatts (MW), the energy required to power one-third of the county’s municipal buildings. He called Oszewski’s executive order an “ambitious goal,” adding that closed landfill sites are ideal for solar power because the land is otherwise unusable.
“Low profile, low traffic, often in clear spots with plenty of sun,” Dakake said. “With solar, this land that is detracting from the community can be leveraged to help municipalities save money and be more sustainable.
Dakake said that residents in our coverage area, as well as residents around the rest of Baltimore County, should want to learn more about transitioning to solar because the energy source is a primary driver for cost savings. Solar is becoming more affordable, he said, due to its price dropping while utility prices simultaneously rise.
“As fires, storms, and extra strain are causing grid failures around the nation, distributed energy like rooftop solar is helping people keep their lights and vital appliances on during blackouts,” Dakake said. “Imagine having power during the worst hurricane season. Just like you stock up on groceries and water, producing and saving your own energy can keep families safe.
“As it relates to [Baltimore County], they’re paying a fixed electric rate for this solar energy over the next 25 years. So as the utility rates the county would otherwise pay to supply one-third of their electric load continue to rise over the next quarter century, it will reap enormous savings by continuing to pay a much lower cost to power their buildings.”
Olszewski also touched on the financial advantages, saying that Baltimore County will have no upfront financial obligations with SunPower, while also saving millions in energy costs over the next 25 years, “helping taxpayers save green as we go green,” he added. In addition, Baltimore County now expects to exceed the goals set by the previous administration, that of producing 20 percent of energy demand with renewable energy sources by 2022.
Thinking outside the box
“Leaders have to think bigger,” Olszewski said, a segway into his executive order. “Today, I’m also signing an executive order with the aggressive, but achievable goal to generate the equivalent of 100 percent of Baltimore County’s electrical demand with renewable energy sources by 2026, and 125 percent of our electrical demand by 2030.
“This next step represents a bold leap forward to transform Baltimore County into a statewide leader in renewable energy, and it’s a prime example that the actions of local government can and should help take to combat climate change.”
These efforts won’t only take place at the local level, Olszewski said. At the same time, his administration will take persuasive action at the state level to help pass climate policy legislation. He mentioned the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021 (Maryland SB296), a bill that, if were to become law, would require Maryland to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by 2030, and achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Olszeski also mentioned President Joe Biden’s administration’s efforts at the national level to curb the impact of climate change, such as re-entering the US into the Paris Climate Agreement and naming climate-focused presidential envoys.
Climate change affects us all the same, but in different ways
According to the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA), climate change affects certain groups of people more than others, depending on factors such as where they live and their ability to cope with climate hazards. For example, the EPA found that the US population has grown along the east, west, and south coastal areas since the 1980s, making these areas most sensitive to coastal storms, droughts, heat waves and air pollution. Populations in the Mountain West will likely face water shortages and increased wildfires in the future, according to the EPA. Along the coasts and across the western United States, both increasing population and changes in climate place growing demands on transportation, water, and energy infrastructure.
But location is not the only underlying factor when it comes to measuring the impact of climate change on different demographics. People who live in poverty may have a difficult time coping with changes. These people have limited financial resources to cope with heat, relocate or evacuate, or respond to increases in the cost of food. Older residents make up a larger share of the population in warmer areas of the United States. These areas will likely experience higher temperatures, tropical storms, or extended droughts in the future. The share of the U.S. population composed of adults over age 65 is also projected to grow from 13% in 2010 to 20% by 2050. Young children are another sensitive age group, since their immune systems and other bodily systems are still developing, and they rely on others to care for them in disaster situations.
Urban and rural areas are also impacted in different ways by climate change. Indigenous Americans are among those who live in rural areas. According to the EPA, Indigenous communities and tribes are diverse and span the United States. While each community and tribe is unique, many share characteristics that can affect their ability to prepare for, respond to, and cope with the impacts of climate change. These include living in isolated or low-income communities, high rates of uninsured individuals with limited access to healthcare and coping with higher levels of exising health risks.
Cities are more densely populated. In addition, cities absorb more heat than suburban or rural areas. Around 80 percent of the US population lives in urban areas, making them more vulnerable to heat waves, droughts and violent storms.
City dwellers may also be particularly susceptible to vulnerabilities in aging infrastructure, according to the EPA. This includes drainage and sewer systems, flood and storm protection assets, transportation systems, and power supply during periods of peak demand, which typically occur during summer heat waves.
“There are a number of factors that could cause the grid to prompt a blackout – take the wildfires in California or recent winter freeze in Texas,” Dakake said. “The vulnerability lies in our dependence on a single source of energy where a failure can take down thousands of homes and businesses.
“Distributed energy resources, like rooftop solar and storage batteries, can take load off of the grid and provide more reliable energy. Adding these types of resources, which incidentally help reduce the likelihood and severity of these extreme weather events, will be absolutely essential for modernizing our power system while simultaneously saving our planet.”
Construction of these solar energy systems are currently in the administrative phase. Construction is expected to begin in 2022. The systems are expected to be fully operational by 2023.