Montgomery council steps up timeline for clean energy purchases -- Gazette.Net


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Beginning in mid-2015, Montgomery County will purchase all of its electrical power from renewable sources, part of a wide-ranging group of energy legislation passed by the County Council.

The bill requiring the change was sponsored by Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda, part of a package designed to help make Montgomery a leader in green energy and technology and fight climate change.

Montgomery’s actions may not stop climate change single-handedly, but the county should do what it can, Berliner said before the council’s vote Tuesday on the package of seven bills and two zoning changes. April 22 is Earth Day.

All nine measures were approved unanimously by the nine-member council.

Montgomery currently gets 30 percent of its electric power from renewable energy, and Berliner’s bill originally called for the county to increase that number to 50 percent by fiscal 2015 and 100 percent by fiscal 2020.

But an amendment by Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At Large) of Takoma Park altered the bill to move the 100 percent target to fiscal 2016, which begins in July 2015.

Riemer said the county’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee, of which he is a member and Berliner the chair, was surprised to learn that going to 100 percent renewable energy by fiscal 2015 wasn’t a huge expense, and had put that change on the list of items to be resolved before the budget is passed in late May.

Buying 100 percent renewable energy in fiscal 2015 would have cost the county nearly $170,000 more than it spends for its current 30 percent, while doing so in fiscal 2016 is projected to cost between $206,000 and $275,000 more based on current prices, according to information prepared by council staff.

The county’s current energy contracts run out at the end of the year, and they’ll begin soliciting new contracts this summer, said David Dise, director of the Department of General Services.

In working out the new contracts, the county will have to determine whether it’s better to lock in energy prices for a long period, or if it would benefit the county to get new prices more often, he said.

According to a report released last week by the county’s offices of Finance and Management and Budget on the expected fiscal and economic impacts of the bill, the county currently buys renewable energy certificates, independently traded commodities representing the environmental, social and other qualities of renewable energy creation.

But the county report warns that prices for the certificates can fluctuate wildly.

While prices are currently low, over the past 10 years prices have varied by more than 600 percent for the same product, it said.

Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) of Garrett Park was the only member to vote against Riemer’s amendment, although she ultimately supported the amended bill.

Floreen, who also sits on the Transportation Committee, said she would prefer the discussion on when to require 100 percent renewable energy be part of the budget discussions rather than as part of the bill Tuesday.

Floreen said there are already a lot of demands on the budget, and questioned whether the county can really afford the change.

“I don’t like doing this in a vacuum,” she said.

Along with the energy purchase bill, the package of bills passed Tuesday also included zoning changes regarding charging stations for electric vehicles and solar panels, and bills on:

• creating energy benchmarks for non-residential buildings

• transitioning to light-emitting diode bulbs in county street lights

• requiring county staff to factor in the external and social costs of using fossil fuels when reviewing the energy efficiency of county buildings

• expediting the review processes to obtain permits for solar projects and charging stations for electric vehicles

• making it easier for county employees to work from home and telecommute

Council Vice President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park said the recession forced the county to eliminate some clean energy programs it believed in, and the county faces a challenge to stay in the forefront of the climate change issue.

“This is probably the most urgent public policy challenge that we face,” Leventhal said.

rmarshall@gazette.net