Solar projects blossoming across Md., Del.

Associate Editor

(July 19, 2016) If it seems like you’re hearing about a new solar energy project in Maryland and the Delmarva region every other day, you’re not mistaken.
Solar energy is exploding across the state.
Fueled by federal and state incentive programs and a cheaper cost of production, solar projects, commercial and residential, have spread dramatically over the last several years, according to industry data. It’s also rapidly moving into the agricultural industry as farmers increasingly move to add solar to their operations or lease land to companies looking to build solar farms.
“It all kind of hit right around March,” said Paul Goeringer, the University of Maryland Extension’s legal specialist, referring to farmers who have been approached by solar companies looking for access to land to start solar farms.
The total amount of added solar capacity in the state has grown rapidly over the last six years, according to a 2014 report from The Solar Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes the industry. In 2010, the state added less than 10 megawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity from residential, non-residential and utility efforts, the report said. In 2014, it was projected to add nearly 80 megawatts.
Last year — 2015 — promised more than 100 megawatts of expansion.
That includes huge solar projects such as one approved in Somerset County, Md., in March. Built by Canadian firm Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp., the farm will reportedly generate up to 150 megawatts on nearly 1,000 acres of leased land comprised of former corn and soybean fields. It stands to be the largest solar farm east of the Mississippi River.
In western Maryland, residents are protesting a plan to install 42,000 solar panels on 86 acres of farmland in Cearfoss. Local leaders in Talbot County placed a moratorium on any solar arrays larger than two acres last month after Apex Clean Energy, a Charlottesville, Va., company, proposed a 370-acre solar project on land zoned for agricultural use.
And those just scratch the surface of projects — large and small — under consideration.
The number of people the industry is hiring in the state is growing rapidly as well. More than 3,000 people worked in the state solar industry in 2014, a 29 percent increase over the previous year.
Dana Sleeper, executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Washington regional chapter, points to three factors fueling the expansion. First, solar panels are much cheaper to make than they were two decades ago, and the technology has also improved. Second, Congress extended last year a 30 percent tax credit for residential and commercial solar projects. And third, Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which powers one of the most ambitious state renewable energy programs in the nation. The program, which requires electricity suppliers to produce a minimum of retail electricity sales from renewable sources, works toward the goal of having 20 percent of the state’s energy produced from renewable sources by 2022.
“Those three things have been pretty big factors,” she said. “Even though (my organization is) 30 years old, solar energy has not really taken off until recently. … Without the (portfolio standard), there’s not much really driving that large-scale development.”
Goeringer and the Extension have held at least one workshop for farmers dealing with solar companies and plan to hold more across the Eastern Shore.
He compares the flood of interest in solar power to the explosion of natural gas speculation that gripped western Maryland (and many farmland owners) before the recession and a state gas moratorium killed the market.
Goeringer said he wants farmers to be informed when they’re considering working with solar companies. Solar structures and their contracts can limit what a landowner can do with their property, and there are other countless issues as well, such as whether a conservation easement even allows for a solar lease.
“In many cases, landowners have never seen a contract this long,” he said. “On average, they’re 20 to 30 pages long.”
Garrett County officials held a tip session for farmers in May that reminded them to consider questions and issues related to whether a farmer should seek out legal advice concerning easements and covenants. They also suggested asking about whether the structures create issues soil or drainage damage.
“It’s mainly just making sure that people are aware of what they’re getting into,” Goeringer said.