Time For Action: Our Plan for Environmental Progress
Montgomery County talks a big game about how to solve our environmental challenges. The county says all the right things and produces insightful and wide-ranging documents on reducing carbon emissions, expanding clean renewable energy, protecting natural resources, and decreasing our waste stream.
We shouldn’t confuse activity with progress.
Montgomery County isn’t closer to our hugely ambitious environmental goals than we were four years ago. The pace of county solar and renewable energy projects has slowed, neighboring jurisdictions have passed us by with bigger and bolder projects, and key environmental protection initiatives have stopped.
The county boasts a 19-percent community-wide greenhouse gas reduction from 2005 to 2018, but the same data shows just a two-percent reduction from 2012 to 20181 and the 2020 greenhouse gas inventory slated for release in late 2022 is unlikely to show significant progress.
Taking on big challenges requires leadership that recognizes the urgent importance of progress and understands the steps we must take: identifying specific solutions that will make the most impact toward our goals, prioritizing those solutions in budgets and legislation, and bringing the necessary stakeholders together.
The November 2021 Global Carbon Budget reported2 that global carbon emissions have almost completely rebounded to pre-pandemic levels and we have just 11 years of emitting at these rates if we want to avoid raising temperatures above the 1.5-degree Celsius increase set in the Paris Agreement.
The good news is we already have the expertise here in Montgomery County and models to follow from other jurisdictions to do our part. We need the leadership to make it happen.
Lead the Region in Solar Energy Production
Under the leadership of former County Executive Isiah Leggett, Montgomery County began aggressively pursuing solar energy partnerships to install solar panels on county buildings and properties3. But since 2018, there has been little solar energy progress of significance and the county’s goal for solar energy production on county properties hasn’t been revised since September 20184.
Now, neighboring jurisdictions are passing us by in production of clean renewable energy from solar and we’re falling far short of our county’s share of solar energy needed to reach the statewide goals in the 2019 Clean Energy Jobs Act5. Reaching our county’s per-capita share of approximately 585 megawatts (MW) of solar energy production by 2022 didn’t happen6 and reaching our county’s per-capita share of approximately 795 MW of solar by 2025 is in jeopardy.
In 2021, Howard County unveiled the largest solar power purchasing agreement in Maryland, including solar on 11 sites to generate 24 MW of clean renewable energy a year7. With roughly 13 MW of total solar projects installed or planned on county land, Montgomery County has fallen behind despite being an early adopter under previous county leadership.
Evaluate and Accelerate Solar Production.
We have the capacity to reverse this trend by using many of the thousands of acres of empty county land for solar energy.
As County Executive, I’ll direct county government and work with outside agencies with large land portfolios including MCPS, Montgomery College, and Montgomery Parks to take advantage of the Maryland Environmental Service’s free program to evaluate land and building inventory for solar suitability8.
Then, we’ll aggressively pursue solar power purchasing agreements for large-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays in order to take advantage of economies of scale as well as rooftop solar installations. Closed county landfills, school buildings and vacant school property, and non-forested park land all could be suitable for public-private solar installations that produce clean renewable energy for the grid, for low-income renters and homeowners, and at no cost to the taxpayer.
Zero Energy Buildings.
Buildings account for about half of the energy use in Montgomery County9. In order to reach our ambitious goal of an 80-percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2027 and zero carbon emissions by 203510, we must reduce the amount of energy used in addition to producing more clean renewable energy.
We’ll continue to benchmark and incentivize buildings across the county to reduce energy use and switch to clean renewable sources while moving toward the ultimate goal of zero energy buildings11:
We must update our building permitting process to make it easier to get zero-energy buildings permitted. Leading biotech firm United Therapeutics said it took them “nearly four times as long” to get the permitting they needed for their zero energy building in Silver Spring as it did for a similar project in North Carolina12. That must change.
We’ll do an inventory of county government buildings and create a plan and timeline for making 100 percent of them zero energy. I’ll direct the Department of General Services to create a plan and then budget accordingly.
We’ll create a zero energy home incentive program to fill the gap between expenses and increasingly practical energy reduction and renewable energy building practices. We’ll also promote this program by clearly demonstrating the energy savings homeowners will achieve over time. California13 and Massachusetts14 - states on the forefront of net zero home building - have shown it’s doable. But we must help local homeowners and builders make zero energy happen without exacerbating our housing affordability challenge.
Restore Vital Tree Canopy
The value of trees and tree canopy is far-reaching. The USDA Forest Service estimates each hectare of tree cover in urban and suburban areas saves $455 of energy costs a year and another $228 a year in avoided carbon emissions15 and 100 mature trees keep about 140,000 gallons of water a year from flowing into storm sewers - preventing flooding and damage to our streams.
10,000 Trees A Year.
Montgomery County plants about 1,800 trees a year in the public right-of-way along streets and sidewalks16. We’ll increase our tree planting budget and make our process more marketable and efficient so the county plants 10,000 trees a year. We can do this while ensuring tree equity in areas that have seen an increased degradation of its tree canopy. We don’t need to look far for models. In 2021, Baltimore County kicked off “Operation ReTree Baltimore County17” to market the availability of free tree plantings to homeowners and property owners in areas of degraded tree canopy. The county created an equity tree priority score, rating census blocks where the most people with the least amount of resources would most benefit from the climate, air quality, and cooling benefits that trees provide and planted 11,000 trees in the program’s first year.
No Net Tree Loss.
While we’re increasing tree canopy in urban and suburban areas, we need to modernize and update county Forest Conservation law to ensure no net loss of forests.
Frederick18, Anne Arundel, and Howard19 Counties have enacted “No Net Tree Loss” legislation and regulations that require any builder removing forest to pay for the planting of the same number of acres of trees removed - typically in identified conservation areas.
Frederick County reinstated its No Net Tree Loss law in 2020. Between when it was first passed in 2008 and repealed in 2011, Frederick gained 41 acres of forest. Since its repeal in 2012, Frederick lost nearly 500 acres of forest, a rate of about 70 acres a year - demonstrating the importance and effectiveness of this policy.
About 160,000 tons of compostable waste is thrown away each year in Montgomery County20. Compostable organic material represents 43 percent of the waste generated each year in the county21. Composting is the key opportunity we must make easier to do to be more sustainable.
In 2021, Arlington County became the first in Virginia and the region to offer regular countywide residential curbside composting collection along with recycling and trash22. The material is composted at a facility in Prince William County23.
We must act by prioritizing the funding of a major, centralized composting facility, smaller expansions to existing waste management facilities, and by partnering with composting facilities in other jurisdictions so we can implement countywide curbside composting collection.
Doing so will be a multi-year process requiring significant capital investment. In the near-term we can begin the program by picking pilot neighborhoods and business districts.
We’re already experiencing climate change’s severe impact. Warming temperatures mean more intense and wetter rain storms24 and Montgomery County has suffered. We tragically lost a resident to extreme flooding in Rockville in 202125, Kensington, Chevy Chase, and Silver Spring residents saw their homes flooded from an intense storm in 202026, and rushing water collapsed a culvert in 201927 - cutting off road access to an entire Potomac neighborhood.
Our environmental policy is incomplete unless we acknowledge that climate change is already here. We must protect residents by fortifying county infrastructure and deploying intelligent strategies to reduce its impacts.
Modernize Storm Drains.
Storm drains in Montgomery County are typically designed with the capacity to handle the “10-Year Storm,”28 an amount of rainfall that has a 10 percent chance of happening in a given year based on historic rainfall amounts. But historic rainfall amounts may not reflect the new reality of more intense rainstorms caused by warming temperatures. Montgomery County has experienced three storms more severe than the 10-Year event in each of the last three years.
Meanwhile, the county faces at least a $47 million backlog in storm drain maintenance29. We must invest more in maintaining and upgrading storm drains to better handle severe rain and flooding events.
We also must reduce the amount of rain water that is channeled into storm drains in the first place. Green infrastructure30 is a concept that includes specific treatments such as rain gardens and bioswales to capture stormwater before it flows into our storm drains, reducing the burden on the drains and preventing rain water from rushing into and damaging our streams.
Since 2018, Montgomery County has virtually abandoned its Green Streets program31 with no new projects. Green Streets installed green infrastructure concepts and others including permeable pavers in portions of the public right-of-way. We must invest again in green infrastructure, especially in neighborhoods especially prone to flooding and where storm drain upgrades would require significant construction and disruption.
More frequent severe weather will mean more storm-caused power outages. We must prepare for this now. We can ensure critical facilities - including hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, and police and fire stations - will always have power by establishing microgrids in areas with a high concentration of each.
Microgrids can be powered by clean and efficient combined power systems that produce enough electricity to keep power in a specific area for the duration of any outage of the broader electric grid32. With a modest county investment, we can partner with electric utilities to build these systems in areas with critical safety and emergency infrastructure.
Building Sustainability Into Transportation
Vehicle emissions account for 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the county33. We have the ability to reduce emissions in our transportation system by making it significantly more safe and practical for residents to travel by modes other than carbon-powered vehicles. We must also make Electric Vehicles (EVs) more accessible to more residents by lowering costs and barriers to operating them.
Smart Housing and Job Growth
Perhaps the most impactful way we can reduce transportation-related carbon emissions is by creating communities where residents can walk, bike, or take public transportation to where they need to go.
This requires more housing near Metro and future Purple Line and Bus Rapid Transit infrastructure. We have major opportunities to build mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods on empty land or surface parking lots on or immediately adjacent to Metro stations or future Purple Line Stations in White Flint, Forest Glen, Shady Grove and Lyttonsville. I will pursue and support smart changes to our zoning that make it easier to build housing in the places with existing transportation and school infrastructure.
Smart housing growth is intrinsically tied to growing high-quality job opportunities and reversing the county’s job and business establishment losses34. Home builders recognize that people want to live near where they work. With most high-quality job growth happening elsewhere, that’s where builders are concentrating housing projects35. When we can ramp-up job growth, we will stimulate housing construction in mixed-use, walkable communities.
Walkable and Bikeable Communities.
Of course, enabling more people to live closer to where they work is just one element of the challenge. We also must re-think our infrastructure so it’s safe and comfortable to walk and bike with physical improvements to our roadways, sidewalks, and intersections.
As County Executive, I’ll move aggressively to adequately fund sidewalks to reduce our $82 million backlog in sidewalk repair36. We’ll also either move forward or find feasible alternatives for the many “limbo” sidewalk and bike facility projects that have been delayed multiple times in the county’s capital budget.
And we’ll focus on the bicycle Breezeway Network37 as laid out in the county’s 2018 Bicycle Master Plan. The Breezeways will be high-capacity arterial bikeways to connect major activity centers. We should prioritize Breezeways where little or no other off-road or comfortable bike connections exist. We’ve seen how important major off-road bicycle routes such as the Capital Crescent Trail and Bethesda Trolley Trail are not just for recreational purposes, but for commuters between our urban centers and to and from neighboring jurisdictions.
Electric Vehicle Equity.
We’ll streamline permitting requirements for electric vehicle charging stations and equipment and pursue changes in local and state law to make it easier for residents and common ownership communities at apartment, condominium, and townhome complexes to install needed charging infrastructure.
The urgency of climate change requires that we execute on our environmental priorities as soon as possible. Accountability is critical to ensuring action and I pledge to keep our county government accountable for getting results.
We’ll establish a “90-Day Report Card” to identify baseline numbers for where we stand in a number of clear and understandable metrics that demonstrate where we are on climate and sustainability initiatives and how far we need to go to meet our needs. These can include the number of transit passengers in the county per day, tons of waste burned at the Dickerson waste-to-energy incinerator, MW of solar power generation in the county, and more. We’ll set targets for each of these metrics and report on the numbers every 90 days.
This approach would double as an education and awareness strategy, so more people know the environmentally sustainable choice available to them.
Let’s make progress happen.