Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles has denied a permit for a controversial solar farm project that Georgetown University wanted to build in rural Charles County, Md.
The project required razing about 210 acres of trees, which angered local activists. Protesters at public hearings hosted by Grumbles argued that while they applauded Georgetown’s goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, the project would actually harm the environment by endangering birds and causing runoff that would damage tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.
Grumbles said in a statement Wednesday that “water quality-related conditions” were not met at the site, a rural area about 12 miles west of La Plata.
“While Maryland strongly supports the increased use of clean and renewable energy sources, these two proposed projects would harm the nearby high-quality stream in Charles County and threaten our continued restoration progress in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” Grumbles said. “This is an unacceptable trade-off for the environmental benefits of clean energy.”
Representatives from Georgetown University and Origis Energy, the firm hired to develop the solar farm, did not respond to requests for comment. The project would have provided almost half of the university’s electricity.
The parcel, located within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is one of the state’s “targeted ecological areas,” meaning it is a conservation priority for the Department of Natural Resources. A number of at-risk birds — including bald eagles, warblers, eastern whip-poor-wills and wood thrushes — live there in the Nanjemoy forest, according to the Audubon Society of Maryland and D.C.
At public hearings in February and May, activists accused Georgetown and Origis of “green-washing,” saying the Nanjemoy forest should not have to be harmed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation Executive Director Alison Prost said in a statement that she hopes the decision “will set a precedent that ensures we don’t have to choose between renewable energy and clean water.”
“Georgetown University’s efforts to expand their use of solar energy is admirable, but clean energy should never require clearing high quality forests,” she said.
Audubon Naturalist Society conservation director Eliza Cava thanked Grumbles for his decision and “careful consideration” of the impacts of the projects.
“Solar energy has the potential to move us toward a more just and sustainable society, but only if done right,” Cava said. “We hope that Georgetown and Origis will be able to find a more suitable site for the solar farm and commend them on working toward climate change mitigation.”