Without Local Action on Solar, Climate Action Plans Speak Hollow Words

Solar energy. The term conjures images of savvy-looking panels on rooftops and promises of clean futures void of polluting power plants. In recent years, though, communities and their governments have repeatedly failed to make meaningful progress in solar implementation. This unfounded opposition is stifling climate movements across the country. It’s condemning our planet. 

After four long years of Trump and the war against climate action, America is seemingly poised to begin a new era of commitment to our Earth. We’ve re-entered the Paris Agreement, in doing so committing to holding global temperatures to a 2° C increase. Renewable energy, namely solar, will have to replace a lot of fossil fuel use to make that happen. America needs to embrace solar to meet the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. We now see promising actions with our new federal government. Unfortunately, that’s not happening at a local level.  

A clear and recent example of local solar opposition can be found right here in Maryland. Several weeks ago, the Montgomery County Council decided against a proposal to allow some solar production — about 2 percent of land area — in the county Agricultural Reserve, instead passing a far more restrictive bill. This effectively bans solar development in Montgomery County by slashing the amount of land eligible for solar and creating a series of legal hoops for any new projects. 

The opposition in Montgomery County argues that some solar implementation will open the floodgates for even more solar and other forms of development. They fear that allowing solar energy is the beginning of the end for the Agricultural Reserve. This concern, though laudable in its intentions, is misinformed and damaging. 

No party in the solar energy debate is advocating a takeover of the Montgomery Agricultural Reserve or, for that matter, any place in the United States. Rather, advocates of all forms of renewable energy recognize the benefits of a balanced approach. 2 percent of total land area is by no means an invasion, especially for those farmers who welcome solar.

Further, farmers should not see solar development as the greatest threat to their land  and operations. That title goes to climate change. By resisting renewable energy implementation — a vital ally in the battle against climate change — farmers are shooting themselves in the foot. Local government and citizen groups must recognize that enacting small-scale sustainable development now will abrogate the need for costlier, higher impact solutions in the future.

This stripe of opposition is being replicated across the country. The Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law recently compiled a report that details the creative ways each state is resisting solar development.  

In California, officials in the city of Livermore have halted all solar development because it conflicts with scenery. In Georgia, multiple counties have passed laws that institute ‘moratoriums’ on solar development that have no definite end.  In Massachusetts, citizens of Amherst successfully blocked a solar project by claiming it would threaten the endangered grasshopper sparrow (of which no mention was made in their original complaint). 

Some governments aren’t even attempting to be creative. For example, Connecticut passed a law in 2017 that effectively banned all solar on any land that contained forests or farms. 

Clearly, at least in regard to solar development, Montgomery County is a microcosm of the United States. The vote there, in one of the bluest counties in a blue state, bodes poorly for the future of solar throughout the country. The decision is especially stinging when you consider Montgomery County’s recently released climate action plan, which promises to lead the county to zero carbon emissions by 2035. That will not occur without a transition to solar energy.

To me, the words in that plan are now meaningless. If the county can’t pass a simple, minimally intrusive solar plan, it will certainly not push for the meaningful, difficult legislation necessary to lower carbon emissions to zero by 2035. 

As a college student soon setting out to establish a future and a family, the clear lack of concern displayed by those in power is especially disheartening. They have the luxury of ignoring the damage their decision will bring decades from now. They have the luxury of saying, “not in my backyard.” My generation does not. 

The United States cannot let the Paris Agreement and other large-scale climate action strategies go the way Montgomery County’s plan is already heading. The words contained in those agreements must not ring hollow, for the sake of our climate and our future. One of the first steps in ensuring that they do not is to embrace solar development at the local level with open arms.  

By. Christian Baran

A Scientist’s Fight for Environmental Policy in Virginia

By Omar Rosales-Cortez

As a CCAN Policy Fellow, I have had the opportunity to help support major 2021 legislation and campaigns in Virginia. My experience in policy was limited before joining CCAN, and jumping into the realm of policy as a scientist felt like being a fish out of water at first. I am used to letting science speak for itself so I never thought there was a need for people to speak up for science in the real world. 

However, with a political climate that has many Americans questioning facts, we’re already seeing people dismissing science and in turn climate change as well. In response, I started seeing many of my colleagues and professors begin to speak up in the name of science. Their goal is to prove to the world that climate change is real. We all had the necessary knowledge to push for meaningful climate policy. The hard part was making our knowledge accessible to the public and crafting personal stories for the largest possible impact. 

My motivation to join the fight for our planet was to make an impact as a science advocate and to learn how to communicate effective solutions for issues like clean transportation, sustainable infrastructure and environmental justice to the public and policy makers. As a policy fellow with CCAN, I got first-hand experience having critical conversations with community and statewide leaders to pass legislation like the Clean Car Standards bill (HB 1965). 

This clean car bill isets a state-wide mandate to get more electric vehicles (EVs) to Virginia and on the road. This legislation was a key step in modernizing transportation and infrastructure in Virginia, and will have countless benefits for people and the environment by creating cleaner air and more affordable EVs.

Making this legislation appealing to the masses, however, was anything but easy. The real work behind getting this legislation passed by the General Assembly included many nights of nonstop work between organizations, as well as various community outreach events to mobilize constituencies to hold their elected officials accountable. There were many times when I thought this bill was doomed. Yet it managed to escape death time after time, and it was through the teamwork of the Virginia Conservation Network, CCAN, the Sierra Club, and many more that the bill stayed alive. 

It took a limitless amount of energy and grit to keep defying the odds. The bill’s passage was something I am proud to have been a part of and witnessed. This bill was also only one fight during the 2021 legislative session. There were dozens of other bills that the network of green organizations were fighting for, some ending with victories and some as losses. But I can say that everyone gave it their all and will continue to do so as the fight to protect Virginia’s environment and health carries on. 

My time as a Policy fellow was rewarding to say the least. I had the opportunity of a lifetime to help make a historic impact in Virginia’s growth towards a sustainable future. I got to do outreach, distill dense policy, and help coordinate a lobby day for the public. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, that was not an easy feat. 

I plan to take what I have learned to further my career in science and environmental policy. I plan to advocate for solutions based in science to promote a healthier, more informed society.