Solar panels vs. trees: A real debate or a false dichotomy?

Potomac Conservancy statement on Georgetown University’s Solar Project

photo copyright of william macfarland,

photo copyright of william macfarland,


Potomac Conservancy believes the foundation of healthy, sustainable, and vibrant communities starts with clean water.

That’s why our team works each and every day to safeguard the lands and waters of the Potomac River, one of the wildest urban rivers in the country and the source of drinking water for five million people.

The core of our conservation work centers around the protection of our region’s forests – the source of the cleanest waters to the Potomac. As we like to say, trees are like nature’s Brita filters because they effectively protect our waterways from excess nutrients and sediment.

Working throughout the Potomac region, we permanently protect upstream forests, empower volunteers to plant riverside trees and remove trash from our waterways, and mobilize citizens to fight for clean water policies and funding at the state and local levels.

We’re proud to report that the Potomac River is in the midst of a comeback, but rapid deforestation and increasing levels of polluted runoff threaten to undo decades of progress. In fact, in our last Potomac River Report Card, riverside forests, called forested stream buffers, received the worst grade of any river health indicator: an “F.”

We need healthy, functioning forests to filter our water, clean our air, provide wildlife habitat, and capture carbon. Shoreline trees offer crucial protection from the harmful effects of polluted runoff flowing into local streams. They absorb excess nutrients, reduce erosion by stabilizing river banks, keep our cold-water streams shaded, and provide important habitat for wildlife.

We must defend and protect our existing forested areas from ongoing development threats. This is why Potomac Conservancy has joined partner organizations for the past three years to strengthen forest protections across Maryland – at both local and state levels.

And it’s why we’re taking a stand now against the needless destruction of Southern Maryland’s largest surviving forest along the Potomac River.

As an accredited land trust with 25 years of conservation experience, Potomac Conservancy is alarmed by Georgetown University’s Solar Project plan to clear-cut over 200 acres of forest in Charles County, Maryland to build a solar array. While we salute Georgetown University’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2020, we have real concerns about the area selected for this project because of the associated negative impacts to the environment and Potomac River.

The chosen site in Charles County is the largest surviving forest in Southern Maryland and is home to the Audubon-designated Nanjemoy Important Bird Area. Located nearby are two “Tier 2” streams, which are the highest quality of streams remaining in the state of Maryland. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources designated the forest “of high value”. And, the precedent-setting nature of this decision is disconcerting – sacrificing our forested land for renewable energy development is not an appropriate solution to the climate crisis.

In an area as geographically diverse as the Potomac River watershed, we must ask Georgetown University why another location wasn’t investigated for this project. An existing open field, a closed landfill, or other similar sites could provide a better return on greenhouse gas emissions reductions, as opposed to cutting down over 200 acres of riverside forest. Our local partners engaged on this issue haven’t seen any evidence that alternative sites were considered by Georgetown’s contractor, Origis Energy.

Curbing greenhouse gas emissions is critical to addressing the climate emergency, but we can’t approach solutions only through one lens. Renewable energy development must be increased, but only where it makes sense and especially not at the expense of other natural resources.

We urge Georgetown University to ask Origis Energy to explore alternatives that will help the University meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals and protect our existing natural infrastructure. Until such alternatives are explored and vetted, we ask the Maryland Department of the Environment to oppose this solar siting project.

Take action and tell Maryland to oppose
Georgetown University Solar Project.

Submit your comments by April 17 to:

Jeffrey Thompson, Maryland Department of Environment:


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