Montgomery County zoning rules threaten to leave the area behind when it comes to community solar. The state’s community solar pilot program is moving forward. Across the state, approved projects in other counties will receive financing, get permits, build the solar arrays, and look for customers in the next few months. Unfortunately, Montgomery County code (Chapter 59, Section 3.7.2) limits county property owners’s ability to host these systems. It limits solar collection systems to accessory use only and limits them further to “use where the system produces a maximum of 120% of on-site energy consumption.” This zoning code will prevent ground-based community solar from being built in the county.
When the code says “accessory use” it means an array is only permitted in support of another structure on the property. When it says “120% of on-site energy consumption” that means the array’s energy is only permitted to offset the electricity usage of the property where the array is located. As written, this does not support the idea of community shared solar where a facility may be located in one place and have its energy output virtually divided up among a group of subscribers somewhere else.
Land use and zoning can be complex. We hope the council will take this issue up in its fall session and carefully consider how to enable community solar to happen broadly across the county while honoring the county’s agricultural traditions. Solar and agriculture do not have to be at odds. Hosting solar arrays can offer steady long-term income for landholders and forwarding thinking municipalities and project developers are finding ways to develop solar projects in agricultural zones that are more closely aligned with the needs of land holders and communities.
Enabling community solar development in Montgomery County is in line with the county’s broader county economic, environmental, and renewable energy goals. It also increases equity of access to solar by allowing all county residents to directly benefit from solar energy.
While Montgomery County residents who wish to participate in community solar can still do so, they will need to find projects located in Prince George’s County (for Pepco customers) or the western counties of the state (for Potomac Edison customers). Changes to the county’s zoning code can enable more renewable energy to be built closer to the Montgomery County residents who want it.