HEBRON – On an isolated 100 acres of farmland where corn and soybeans once grew, a different sort of crop has sprouted – one that hums quietly when skies are clear.
The garden of thousands of photovoltaic panels, creaking occasionally as each one pivots like a sunflower watching the sun cross the sky, this year began powering 13,000 homes as one of the largest solar farms in the state, for now.
Energy companies, lured by a state policy that encourages renewable electricity generation and riding a larger industry boom, are flocking to Maryland farmland to build massive solar installations. Developers proposed 11,000 new solar projects in the state last year, more than twice as many as in 2014, and some of them would dwarf this Eastern Shore facility.
But now the industry’s rapid rise is threatened by the revival of a conflict that had laid dormant for decades – since most of the state’s large power plants were built.
While clean energy advocates and regulators are trying to help the state manage its power supply, local officials and the homeowners they represent are wary of massive new installations rising in their communities.
The question: Where should power plants go, and who should decide?
The Maryland Public Service Commission, the government agency that regulates utilities, has been charged with increasing the share of renewable energy in the state’s portfolio. But county officials across the state are asking lawmakers and judges to give them the power to scale down or reject projects they dislike.
One former chairman of the Public Service Commission says that ceding that power to local officials could weaken the state’s ability to maintain an adequate and affordable supply of electricity.
“The reason the PSC is given the power to make those decisions is that many times, local officials, if not their constituents, take the position, ‘It shouldn’t be here. It should be in someone else’s backyard,'” said Russell Frisby, who led the panel from 1995 to 1998. “The authority really should remain with the Public Service Commission.”
But in rural communities that have already seen housing developments splinter and absorb farmland, solar farms are viewed as a new threat.
Talbot County Councilman Dirck Bartlett voted this summer to ban new solar projects in the county for six months.
“I don’t think it’s right that the PSC can just come in and say, ‘Guess what? We’ve just approved 48 500-foot wind turbines in your county,’ and plunk it down,” he said. “What that would do, without any local control, could really reshape an area forever.”
Maryland farmers say the calls started coming in earnest over the past year or so: solar companies asking if they would be willing to give up some or all of their land for a couple of decades.
They offered more than $1,000 per acre per year in rent to install solar panels across the fields.
“It’s a different type of farming than we’re used to down here, that’s for sure,” said Mike Rew, who sells seeds and fertilizers to farmers across the lower Delmarva peninsula.
Some farmers weren’t interested – anything that breaks up open cropland makes farming more difficult and more expensive. But others were desperate. Rising costs and declining grain prices have made it more difficult to turn a profit, they said. And as long as the sun shines, a solar lease might make the difference in making their mortgage payments.
Worcester County farmer Buster Powell has not leased any land for solar farming. But he understands why others have.
“If you bought property, you’ve got to come up with a solution to pay for it,” he said. “Everything gets tougher and tougher every year.”
Hundreds of acres of farmland across the Eastern Shore are now shifting from traditional crops to solar farming.
Agricultural land is ideal for the energy projects because it is wide and flat, and already cleared, said Sebastien Houde, an assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Maryland, College Park. And solar developers know they can match or exceed farmers’ income per acre, Houde said.
The only limitation is distance to the electrical grid. It can cost millions of dollars to build a connection to transmission lines.
“Ideally we’d be producing power right at the load centers like Baltimore and Annapolis,” said Ryan Gilchrist, a project developer for Coronal Development Services in Charlottesville, Va. “But it’s hard to find open land there.”
The solar industry has boomed across the country, as technology and materials get cheaper and tax credits and incentive programs increase potential profit. Costs have declined by more than half over the past decade, while a federal tax credit that had been set to expire at the end of this year was extended through 2022, giving the industry more confidence that investments would pay off over time.
Those forces have driven a surge in solar projects in Maryland. More than 275 megawatts of solar projects – the generating capacity of a medium-sized natural gas-fired plant – are under construction in the state, according to PJM Interconnection, the organization that operates the grid that covers the state and a dozen others.
Companies are eyeing enough new generation to more than double the state’s renewable energy supply, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration pegged at about 1,000 megawatts as of July.
Nationwide, 7.8 gigawatts of solar generation at large-scale farms is expected to come online across the country by the end of the year. That means the nation will gain as much solar power capacity in the second half of 2016 as it did in 2014 and 2015 combined, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
The surge has caught many Maryland communities flat-footed. They never developed regulations to govern an industry that until recently was thought to be viable only in the Sun Belt.
Large generation projects proposed for Maryland are instead vetted by the state’s Power Plant Research Program and the Public Service Commission. That authority dates to the early 1970s, when the state was considering the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant and broader environmental impacts on the Chesapeake Bay.
Before siting a power plant, the commission reviews local and environmental impact, and holds public hearings in communities that would be affected. But it has the authority to override local objections and pre-empt local regulations.
Commission officials declined to comment for this article.
Now, as solar companies scour the state for land, county officials across Maryland are expressing frustration with how little power they have in the process.
Kent County officials designated a commercial and industrial zone years ago for renewable energy projects and other new industries. But at least one solar developer is looking outside it. Now the county is leading a fight against the commission’s power.
Talbot County officials imposed a temporary ban on new solar farms this summer to gain time to craft zoning preferences. The Baltimore County Council is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to do the same.
“We feel like we need time to adjust to the new reality,” said Bartlett, of the Talbot council. He acknowledged that the Public Service Commission could still override the ban.
The success of the industry in Maryland will likely depend on how the state answers larger questions about energy and land-use policies.
As Kent officials challenge state regulators’ authority at the Public Service Commission, Allegany County officials are raising complaints in the state’s highest courts, and a coalition of local governments plans to ask the General Assembly to step in.
Along a Kent County road that was once the main route to Philadelphia, Apex Clean Energy wants to install solar panels across more than 300 acres of farmland.
The facility, named Mills Branch Solar, would generate up to 60 megawatts of power – enough for every household in the county, officials for the Charlottesville-based company say. They call the site ideal because it doesn’t require any clearing, has no environmental concerns and is close to a transmission line.
The problem for Kent officials and residents isn’t that it’s a massive solar farm – it’s that it’s not in the right place.
The county studied how it might approach proposals for renewable energy generation back in 2010, and again more recently as farmers began receiving calls from solar companies, said Amy Moredock, the county planning director.
With the support of concerned residents, county officials set zoning rules encouraging such facilities to go in an area zoned for commercial and industrial use – not on agricultural land.
The county, joined by the state People’s Counsel, a consumer advocate, and the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance, has argued to the Public Service Commission that it should not be able to unilaterally overrule local zoning.
“It’s not that you can’t have solar,” said Janet Christensen-Lewis, vice chairwoman of the alliance. “Our farmland is precious.”
In Allegany, Dan’s Mountain Wind Force wants to build 17 wind turbines along the county’s highest ridge.
The group, a subsidiary of Laurel Renewable Partners LLC in Greensburg, Pa., originally planned more, but scaled back amid eight years of back-and-forth with Allegany officials concerned about impacts to scenic mountain vistas and the county’s 911 communications antenna.
The county denied zoning approval for the project last December.
The developer is petitioning the commission for a permit overruling local rules, as it appeals the zoning decision in court.
In filings with the commission, Allegany officials say they don’t necessarily even oppose the wind project. But they “vehemently” object to what a lawyer for the county calls “efforts to circumvent Allegany County’s land use and zoning authority.”
David Friend, Laurel’s CEO, says the state authority is key because any change or extra hurdle imposed at the county level could chill the development of new projects.
“These development processes take a long time,” he said. “If they change the rules, you’ll never build another power station or power line in Maryland again.”
The Maryland Association of Counties is preparing policy proposals for the 2017 legislative session in Annapolis aimed at settling such conflicts.
“I think what we would look for is a simple acknowledgment that these types of facilities should be subject to local zoning,” said Les Knapp, legal and policy council for MACo. “Their location should be considered and in line with how counties are growing and developing.”
The General Assembly is expected to take up legislation to encourage further renewable energy. Lawmakers passed a bill this year that would have accelerated goals for expanding green energy, but Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed it. Lawmakers are expected to try to override the veto after they reconvene in January.
The Maryland Farm Bureau is surveying its membership about solar farms on agricultural land, with some disagreement to sort out: While some farmers oppose the loss of tillable land, others want the stable income of a solar lease.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture said the issue is a local one, unless solar farms are being proposed on land that is preserved for farming under a state easement program. The Maryland Energy Administration has not taken a position.
There are signs that not all of the hundreds of acres of solar panels on the table will actually materialize. The flood of solar power supply to the state has cut the income that companies can earn from renewable energy credits. Because the state is expected to exceed a goal that 0.7 percent of its electricity come from solar this year, the prices of the credits have fallen from $120 to $20 this year.
Solar industry advocates say measures to limit their development are unnecessary if the objective is to limit loss of farmland. Even if developers used crop fields for all of the solar generation needed to meet the state goal, they say, it would take up a fraction of 1 percent of the land.
Howard County officials have embraced the conversion of farmland for solar energy. They have passed a law that will allow farmers to lease land for solar panels even if the county has paid for an easement on it to preserve agricultural use.
Solar industry officials said they want to cooperate with local communities as they seize new opportunities.
“The industry is really willing to work with the counties,” said Dana Sleeper, executive director of the Maryland Solar Energy Industries Association. “Folks get a little bit scared when there’s something new.”
Other states have faced the same challenges.
In New Jersey, officials adopted incentives for developing solar farms on brownfields and limits on development of large-scale projects on farmland. That helped to stabilize the industry, said Fred Rohs, general manager for energy production for Marina Energy, which owns the solar farm in Hebron.
The Hebron project is one of the biggest in the state, but it had a smooth permitting process. And with a good fence that screens it from surrounding forest and field, Rohs said, he hasn’t heard any complaints from neighbors.
When he isn’t working on the companies’ generation projects in solar fields or at landfills, he calls himself a “hobby farmer.” From that perspective, he thinks there shouldn’t be a conflict.
“We’re all solar farmers,” he said. “We’re doing the exact same thing. Just trying to harness the sun’s rays and make it usable.”
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