Until recently, the future for solar energy in Maryland and Virginia looked blindingly bright — with the vast, flat farmland of the Eastern Shore seemingly fertile ground for planting thousands of photovoltaic arrays. Solar panel prices had come down, state and federal incentives had ramped up, and corporations committed to shrinking their carbon footprint were eager to invest.
But lawsuits and citizen opposition have cast at least a temporary shadow over solar’s growth outlook in Maryland. Like wind before it — which environmentalists supported to wean the nation from fossil fuels, but residents sometimes opposed because of noise and bird deaths — solar energy is running into some resistance.
Kent County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is fighting to keep a solar farm from locating on prime farmland; the farm was originally proposed as wind energy, but changed to solar because of opposition to the towering turbines. Talbot County officials, in part as a response to the nearby Kent County fight, imposed a six-month moratorium on solar farms last spring to develop a policy on siting such facilities and limiting their size.
In metropolitan central Maryland, the Baltimore County Council voted in October to impose a four-month moratorium while it considered similar rules. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has since vetoed the measure, though he said that in principle, he supports delaying new solar projects to consider local restrictions on them.
Concerns over solar range from taking farmland out of production to changing the scenic view; in some cases, county officials don’t oppose the idea of solar, but want to make sure they have policies to direct where it might go and limit friction with neighbors.
“That seems to be the thing that we’re hearing the most concern about from farmers — that active, productive farmland might be taken out of production,” said Valerie Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Bureau. “Every time there’s a good idea — ‘That needs to be done’ — everyone immediately looks to farmland. I don’t see them proposing to take soccer fields.”
Talbot officials’ vote for a moratorium in a region where property rights are nearly sacred, “was a remarkably brave thing for them to do,” said Bill Boicourt, a University of Maryland oceanographer who chairs Talbot County’s planning commission. “The most important thing for me was how to allow the activity, which we all thought was a good idea, but how to limit it on a larger scale so it doesn’t take over the county.”
Until lately, solar energy had been a hot item, fueled by a drop in the price of infrastructure and easier ways to connect arrays in less densely populated places with the electric grid. Federal tax incentives, state grants and innovative financing are also encouraging utilities, counties and farmers on the Shore to take the plunge. The ability to lock in electricity rates means that counties and municipalities can save on generation costs and tell their citizens they are using renewable energy.
Since 2011, at least a half-dozen large solar arrays have taken up residence in fields on the Delmarva Peninsula, from the northern tip of the Shore in Elkton to the narrow Virginia coast. Several more are in the proposal stages. Among them: two large solar projects in Worcester County near Ocean City, MD, one at Cape Charles in Virginia, north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, and one in Somerset County, MD, that was formerly a wind project.
Elsewhere in Maryland, Hagerstown and Emmitsburg have solar farms, and Exelon is planning one for Harford County, with the power to be bought by the Baltimore Archdiocese. But Delmarva, surrounded by water, has proven especially attractive for large-scale projects. Jennifer Barnes, vice president of OneEnergy Renewables, said that the amount of power per unit area received from the sun — known as solar irradiance — is excellent on the Shore. The flat topography, coupled with available farmland and — at least in Maryland, good government incentives — have made the peninsula “a good environment for solar,” Barnes said, which is why so many of new and large projects are being proposed there.
Barnes’ company, based in Seattle, has built two projects in Maryland already: one in Wye Mills that was commissioned by Johns Hopkins Medicine’s East Baltimore campus, and one near Cambridge for the National Aquarium’s needs. In both cases, the Baltimore entities have signed long-term agreements to buy the power generated by the solar arrays, even though they’ll continue to draw electricity from the grid as they always have. This way, Hopkins and the aquarium are financing the growth in solar power generation, even if they can’t use it directly.
Virginia ranks 29th in the country for solar energy, with only 49 megawatts of generating capacity developed so far, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. But in 2015, companies invested $28 million in solar installations, an 86 percent increase over the previous year, and that number is expected to grow again for 2016. Maryland currently ranks 11th nationally for solar, with 508 megawatts of generation capacity and $410 million invested in 2015 alone. Another 1,792 megawatts of solar electric capacity are expected over the next several years, more than five times what was installed over the last five years.
Solar is growing nationwide, too. California has nearly half of the United States’ solar capacity; North Carolina is second, followed by Arizona. In the watershed, the District of Columbia has been among the most aggressive, with a standard mandating 50 percent of its energy coming from renewable sources. The District is meeting that demand through rooftop solar arrays, said Dana Sleeper, executive director of the Maryland, DC and Virginia Solar Industries Association. Elsewhere in the watershed, Pennsylvania and Delaware are a little bit ahead of Virginia with solar, and West Virginia is far behind with a 43rd ranking. New York is consistently in the top 10 solar markets, with a variety of incentives and state commitments to renewable projects.
There has been pushback in some states, however. In Florida, utility companies and their allies have spent $20 million on a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot that backers claim promotes solar. But if passed, it would actually restrict the ability of utility customers to enter into deals with third parties to finance installation of solar arrays. It would let regulators approve rate increases on solar owners, likely making rooftop panels more expensive.
The utilities called their effort Consumers for Smart Solar; clean-energy advocates complained the campaign was a ruse to actually restrict Floridians’ choices. One of the ballot measure’s backers essentially admitted as much in taped remarks, which the Miami Herald reported. Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, a think tank supported by electric utilities, advocated engaging in “political jiu-jitsu” to “use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop.” A spokeswoman for the amendment campaign later disavowed Nuzzo's remarks.
Lawmakers in several states have introduced bills to roll back their renewable energy mandates, but those efforts have succeeded in only two places. Kansas converted its mandate to a voluntary goal, while Ohio imposed a two-year freeze. And regulators in states like Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin have tacked on fees for net metering, effectively undercutting whatever money solar array owners can get by selling back to utilities the electricity they generate to the grid.
Some energy experts believe that the powerful pushback from utilities will slow the growth of solar near term. (http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2016/09/solar-rooftop-revolution-suffering-in-u-s-on-utility-pushback.html) But 29 states and the District still have renewable energy policies, with 18 and the District providing for specific solar “carve-outs” guaranteeing those projects a role. Maryland’s renewable portfolio standard, for example, requires the state to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022. At least 2 percent of that has to be from solar. Maryland lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year to increase the renewable target to 25 percent by 2020, but Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed it.
Even so, solar projects in Maryland are helping businesses, individuals and institutions to save money.
“I feel great about it,” said Steve Kuhls, facilities manager for Cecil County, which recently installed a solar farm on its administration building in Elkton and is working on putting more than 8,000 solar panels on a 30-acre parcel in an arrangement with Delmarva Power. Kuhls said he expects both projects to save the county more than $200,000 in the first year. “It’s an outstanding deal if you have land,” he said. “You’ve laid out no capital, and you’re saving money. It’s an exciting project for us, and we look forward to throwing the switch.”
Virginia has a voluntary renewable energy goal, rather than a mandate. In that state, local governments bear the main responsibility for siting solar projects, but the State Corporation Commission regulates electricity.
In Maryland, solar projects of 2 megawatt capacity or greater must secure a Certification of Public Convenience and Necessity from the state Public Service Commission. If the commission grants the certification, that overrides local law. Ratepayers unhappy with the Public Service Commission’s policies can usually seek help from the Office of the People’s Counsel. But those concerned about solar can’t use that avenue, because the companies are not financing the projects with ratepayer money.
“There would be two things, historically, that the commission looked at: Is the plant needed, and what does it cost the ratepayers?” said People’s Counsel Paula Carmody. “We don’t have a direct role here because these are competitive companies, and the commission no longer takes a look at the need.”
Kevin Hemstock, who serves on the Millington Town Council in Kent County, said he supports solar energy. But solar farms like the one proposed for Kent should not get to bypass local zoning.
“They should play by the same rules as everyone else, and I feel they’re trying to bypass those rules,” he said.
The intricacies of zoning and agreements have kept Paul Goeringer busy. Goeringer, a legal specialist for the University of Maryland’s extension service, spent much of the summer talking to Shore farmers and running workshops on what to look for in a solar lease. Specifically, he said, farmers want to make sure that any lease on their property doesn’t hinder their ability to farm, move livestock, add barns or even subdivide part of the property.
“You may not be able to build because you might block sunlight,” he said.
Solar development has been relatively friction-free in Virginia. Earlier this year, Dominion, the Richmond-based energy company, began operating an 80-megawatt facility on 1,000 acres in Accomack County. The array has 8,000 panels and is one of the largest on the East Coast. It was built at the request of Amazon, the Seattle-based company that has committed to sourcing 100 percent of its fuel from renewable sources, and later sold to Dominion to operate. As with Hopkins and the Aquarium, Amazon will pay to make that solar power available to the grid because it was unable to install an array of that scale to generate power at its Northern Virginia call centers.
Dominion has been developing solar energy in eight states. The utility has several projects in Virginia, though it has only been doing solar since 2013, according to spokesman Ryan Frazier.
Companies like Amazon are driving the solar train in the same way Wal-Mart has driven the move to take microbeads out of personal-care products or McDonald’s has pushed the issue of antibiotic-free meat, said Malcolm Wolff, former head of the Maryland Energy Administration and now senior vice president with Advanced Energy Economy, a business association for technology companies that have committed to sustainability. More than 70 percent of Fortune 100 companies have renewable energy or climate change targets, Wolff said.
But Dominion and others are also entering into solar arrangements because of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, even though the plan’s regulatory curbs on fossil-fuel burning are in limbo. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court stayed their enforcement to consider a legal challenge from the coal industry, coal-burning power companies and some conservative groups. Many companies and states are nevertheless forging ahead with solar voluntarily, expecting that no matter what the court rules they’ll ultimately have to switch to cleaner power.
“Solar is now a cost-effective way to hedge risks,” Wolff said. “Companies are saying, ‘let me start diversifying now, because we don’t know what’s coming.’ ”
Frazier, of Dominion, agreed. “The main thing is the Clean Power Plan,” he said. “We were looking into the future, and we said, ‘we’re going to need to do something at Dominion to get our fleet to be less carbon emitting.’ Solar has zero carbon emissions, and it’s also relatively cheap.”
Wolff helped lay the groundwork for solar development in Maryland when he served under former Gov. Martin O’Malley from 2006 to 2012. Lawmakers set the state's 2 percent solar energy goal in 2007, with hopes of meeting it by 2022.
“It’s working just like it was hoped to work,” Wolff said. “It’s orders of magnitude different than even five years ago. We’re reaping the fruit of the policies that were enacted back then.”
Carmody said she thinks there’s a way to have both solar growth and local control over destiny. But for now, she said she expects more debate in the near term over whether local zoning can control project size and location. The legislature may well tackle that question next year.
“Will local governments be totally pre-empted? Can they enact zoning regulations to stop construction? That is the question that will be moving up through these processes,” she said. “It just makes sense to try to figure out a way to kind of balance local concerns.”