Green and Clean in Southern Maryland

With a new wind turbine at the Crain Memorial Welcome Center (a landmark as drivers cross the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge from Virginia into Charles County), an uptick in residential geothermal and solar panel usage, an influx of hybrid and electric cars, and a commercial solar farm in Hughesville, the area is re-energizing its thinking. And clean is what’s trending. Motivations vary from policy initiatives and economics to reducing one’s “carbon footprint” and environmental impacts.IMG_2621

“This is the first utility, commercial-grade [solar] facility in Southern Maryland. That’s a really proud moment for SMECO to have that, and to have it right here in Hughesville,” says Thomas Dennison, government and public affairs manager for the 75-year-old Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO).

On a gray winter day, Dennison proudly walks the 33-acre site – a contemporary vista of more than 23,000 specifically angled solar panels on racks – with Jay Marx, project manager with subcontracted SunEdison. The solar farm cost $20 million, with 30 percent funded by federal stimulus monies. The 5.5-megawatt facility generates enough clean energy for 600 homes. But it is also helping the co-op meet state mandates, which require utilities to have 20 percent of their energy load come from renewable sources by 2022 and a two-percent carve-out for solar by 2020, explains Dennison.

With more than 150,000 customers, SMECO is a leader in “greener” efforts. This includes issuing rebates for higher-efficiency cooling and heating systems, spearheading energy-usage awareness, and using the solar farm to help power SMECO’s new engineering and operations center.

Alternative World

“Charles County is quietly becoming a hub of renewable energy,” says Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D-District 1). He says that in addition to the solar farm and the Welcome Center wind turbine, the Morgantown coal-fired plant, located in Newburg, has been purchased by NRG Energy, a foremost national provider of renewable energy.

As part of the county’s renewable energy and environmental sustainability efforts, the 12-kilowatt wind turbine reduces the Welcome Center’s reliance on the public utility grid and provides power to the Center’s electric vehicle charging station. A vertical-axis wind turbine was used to reduce impact on wildlife and birds, according to Dwight Puckett, president of All In Energy Solutions, LLC, in Swan Point, which performed the installation.

Helping fuel the county’s interest, Robinson is an alternative energy enthusiast and a political champion who made a name for himself through a new kind of power influence. In 2009, he and his wife, Sheryl Elliott, had the first windmill in Southern Maryland erected on a jut of often-windy land on their waterfront property in Swan Point.

“[Wind energy] became part of my identity,” Robinson remarks. “To this day, I could be in the supermarket in La Plata, and someone will come up to me, and – where I’m expecting them to say, ‘Aren’t you the county commissioner?’ – they’ll say, ‘Aren’t you the windmill guy?’”

The juxtaposition of the Morgantown plant, with its towering smoke stacks emitting pollutants, against Robinson and Elliott’s non-obstructive, streamlined 33-foot windmill underscores the energy shifts occurring in Southern Maryland.

“There’s no question about it that just looking at the turbine and seeing the coal plant in the background, you’re seeing the comparison of old versus new technology as well as clean versus dirty,” says Robinson.

Robinson is one of the elected officials thinking greener and cleaner in Maryland, along with Gov. Martin O’Malley, who pushed offshore wind development legislation. But these leaders just scratch the surface of the microcosm of renewable energy converts dedicated to sustainability every day.

In St. Mary’s County, Paul Waxman and his wife, Deborah, are setting a new standard in a household where their two young daughters are learning what it means to truly embrace new energy ideologies.

Not only does the family have a geothermal heating system, solar panels (also known as photovoltaics or PV), and solar tubes for passive lighting, Paul Waxman purchased a $9,000 piece of equipment that helps him convert cooking oil, regularly supplied by three local businesses, into biodiesel to run his car. It’s not magic or rocket science; however, on first glance, it looks a little that way.

Waxman has masterminded a system that includes a shed, composting and rain barrels that help with the biodiesel production, an efficient way to filter and process the oil, and the purchase and safe storage of methanol and potassium hydroxide (which act as catalysts in the conversion phase).

Nonetheless, his greatest feat might be that he’s broadening people’s minds. He speaks at Earth Day programs and even has a website that details his thinking and research. He also cycles to work one day a week.

“Learning new things and sharing that knowledge makes it easier for people to understand why and how to do the right thing. If you don’t get the idea planted in your head, it won’t happen,” says Waxman, who works at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. “It really is all about efficiency. Everything our family does, it’s about what’s right to do for the environment, right to do for the kids, right to do for the community, and right to do for our pocketbook.”

The price of fuel has no doubt affected the renewable energy movement, including residents’ vehicle choices. “We have doubled our hybrid sales at this store in the last year,” says Aaron Douglass, internet sales manager at Prince Frederick Ford in Calvert County. “Ford has released all new models in the hybrid segment. We predict that this segment will increase even more as more consumers make fuel mileage one of their main factors in their vehicle purchase,” he adds.

Certainly, cars that have lower carbon emissions and are less costly to run are gaining ground. The Prime Street Grille, in White Plains, has an electric vehicle charging station that was partly funded through a grant. It’s used by regulars as well as travelers heading through Charles County on Route 301, says Nick White, co-owner of the popular watering hole and restaurant. Known for its succulent crab cakes, the business also has a steady supply of used cooking oil that the Filta Group of Southern Maryland buys for repurposing into biodiesel.

Renewed Thinking

Frank Jackson, a St. Leonard resident, is owner of Continental Services Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc., in Prince Frederick. He’s been installing geothermal systems for 22 years and his company has installed more than 1,000 systems in Southern Maryland.

“Things like geothermal are becoming more mainstream, and more people are thinking about ‘going green,’” says Jackson. “That’s probably also because so much of Southern Maryland is surrounded by beauty and water.”

Jackson says geothermal technology (through which a water-filled, closed-loop system uses energy stored in the earth to power heating and cooling systems) has been around for decades, but it is becoming less costly and the technology has improved. Lifespan and maintenance are typically better than traditional heat-pump and oil-burning units, and tax incentives and grants help spur public interest.

“Personally, I see more and more people wanting to [use renewable energy]. The payback is becoming workable now, and also some people want to be better stewards of the environment,” says Steve Wall, a Valley Lee resident who recently had geothermal heating and cooling installed at his home by Leonardtown-based T. N. Bowes Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc.

“Average homeowners can expect to save up to 45 percent on their overall utility bills,” says company vice president Tommy Bowes, who adds that savings are dependent on factors such as existing equipment, insulation and windows.

Wall emphasizes that $3,000 in state energy grants, a $500 utility grant, a Carrier (manufacturer) rebate, and 30 percent federal tax rebates are financial motivators. But Wall, who is also the Southern Maryland regional manager for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, says, professionally, he is seeing “a great deal of interest in alternative energy in the commercial sector” as well, citing SMECO’s solar farm as a major success.

The solar craze is so hot that even Bay Equine Service/Fresh Meadows, a Huntingtown horse farm and equine veterinary service run by Dr. Linda Molesworth, had solar panels installed in 2010 by All In Energy Solutions.

Ninety-two panels were installed on its main building, a large barn. Generally, the facility does not have a monthly electric bill because it generates more on the power grid than it uses, according to Molesworth. She also receives money through renewable energy credits. “It has been a good educational tool for people to learn about solar,” she adds.

Nanjemoy resident Ted Baker, who was a planner for the pioneering smart-growth community of Columbia, Md., has been a longtime advocate for alternative energy sources. He has had solar hot water (solar thermal) for around a decade, and had solar panels installed in 2010.

“If we want to stop burning coal and oil, … distributed solar – [because] we all have roofs – is a great solution, and the cost is dropping,” he says. Baker notes that his electric bill is 20 percent lower than previously, and monthly he “sequesters” 400 to 600 pounds of carbon, “the equivalent of five to eight trees.”

Through its rural landscape, farms and forests, and being an important part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and watershed, Southern Maryland has a historic and natural tie to being green. But the move toward more renewable energy is making Southern Maryland “green” in a different and more progressive way. ✦

For more information on alternative energy and sources, contact:

• All In Energy Solutions, LLC: 301-367-8618
• Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson: robinsonk@charlescounty.org
• Continental Services Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc.: 410-535-0091; http://www.continentalservices.net
• SMECO: 888-440-3311; http://www.smeco.coop
• T. N. Bowes Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc.: 301-880-4856; http://www.tnbowes.com
• The Prime Street Grille: 301-392-0510; http://www.theprimestreetgrille.com
• Paul Waxman: http://www.waxmans.net

Published in the March 2013 edition of Southern Maryland This is Living

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