On-farm solar growth continues in Maryland

Managing Editor

KENNEDYVILLE, Md. (Feb. 17, 2015) — Four years ago, conversations with solar installers made Kent County farmer Jennifer Debnam “a little leary” about investing in the renewable energy system.
But after seeing projects work on other farms and working with Chestertown, Md.,-based Sunrise Solar, she and siblings and farming partners Bill Langenfelder and Kristen Nickerson felt more comfortable moving forward with an installation on their farm.
Their 378 kilowatt system was sized to produce nearly all the energy the used on the farm, aggregating 10 electric meters together.
With their solar system coming online in December, the siblings became part of a growing list of farmers in Maryland investing in solar on their farms. 
“We’re staying pretty busy and the majority of our customers are on farms,” said Ken Donithan, owner of Earth and Air Technologies based in Hampstead, Md.
Donithan said farmers spreading the word about adding solar panels to their operations has driven a lot of business for him.
“When things work farmers talk and when things don’t work, farmers talk,” Donithan said. “They’re seeing that it’s the real deal and not some voodoo technology.”
Along with better controlling energy prices, incentives to install solar systems have been attractive to farmers, including the 30 percent tax credit and USDA Rural Development’s grant program which can fund 25 percent of the project up to $500,000.
“That’s a big selling point,” Donithan said of the tax credit. “When a farm is making money and has a larger tax liability, that tax credit is really attractive.”
Selling renewable energy credits from solar power generation also shortens the payback period for a farm and credits in Maryland are among the highest in the Mid-Atlantic.
Donithan added that while the tax credit is scheduled to drop to 10 percent in 2017 which may cause a drop in new solar projects going in, a positive effect might be an increase in value of the credits due to a more limited supply.
Richard Stolzfus, owner of Sunrise Solar said industry projections show a dip in solar projects after the tax credit is lowered but then a strong recovery in the years following 2017.
“In the ag part of it, I think it’s strengthened,” Stoltzfus said.
Baltimore County sheep farmer, David Greene said he looked into getting solar panels on the farm in 2013 and talked to several farmers who had already installed systems.
Last April, his 19.3 kilowatt system stated making energy and remembers the excitement of watching his electric meter turn backwards.
“You get kind of a thrill about that,” he said.
“I could only see the price of electricity going up,” Greene said, adding that since he was 72 years old, the 4.3 year estimated payback period was appealing as an investment. “I think it’s very fast expanding in this area because of the payback.”
Farmers in Delaware don’t appear to be taking the solar power route as rapidly as Maryland, said Bruce Weaver, business and commercial program specialist with USDA Rural Development.
This year, USDA allotted Delaware just under $1 million for renewable energy grants and Weaver said applications are slowly coming in. In Maryland, with applications rolled over from last year and new applications, Weaver expects the funding to be used quickly.
“Maryland’s not going to be a problem,” Weaver said. “Delaware’s going to be a little slower.”
Applications for the first cycle of funding are due April 30 and a deadline for the second cycle is June 30. For more information, contact Weaver at 302-857-3626.