Solar farm rush has ag groups mulling policy

Associate Editor

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Aug. 23, 2016) — Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder said this month he’d like to see the fast-growing solar farm industry focus its efforts on property ripe for redevelopment such as industrial brownfields rather than the state’s shrinking mass of productive farmland.
“We have a lot of absentee owners of farms who say, ‘You mean, I can get 150,000 (dollars) in rent from that farm?’” Bartenfelder said during a visit to the Maryland Agricultural Commission’s Aug. 10 meeting. “It makes their ears perk up.”
He said his staff is working with the governor’s office and other state officials to those ends. Over the last year, the solar industry has moved quickly to regions of the state, gobbling up tracts of land through leases to build solar panel farms. But, he said, the state should continue to encourage agricultural production and urge the solar industry to favor land “underutilized and soiled by development” before it looked to the rural expanses of the Eastern Shore or northern and western Maryland.
The Maryland Farm Bureau is also contemplating the same issue and expects to have a firm position on it by its December convention, said Valerie Connelly, the Farm Bureau’s executive director. The organization already disagrees with energy companies that use the state’s Public Service Commission to seek approval for large wind and solar projects, sometimes against the wishes of local residents and government bodies.
The Public Service Commission regulates public utility and transportation service, including approvals for large energy projects.
“We think that solar or any other energy activity should be considered under local zoning rules,” Connelly said. “Someone shouldn’t try and take productive agricultural land.”
The convention, she said, will feature a discussion on the solar industry and agriculture.
Agricultural officials have been startled by the size and number of solar farms planned or in operation across the state. 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 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 one of the largest solar farm east of the Mississippi River.
In western Maryland, residents and the Washington County government is protesting a plan to install 42,000 solar panels on 86 acres of farmland in Cearfoss. Also, local leaders in Talbot County recently placed a moratorium on solar arrays larger than two acres after Apex Clean Energy, a Charlottesville, Va., company, proposed a 370-acre solar project on land zoned for agricultural use.
Meanwhile, the state’s total farm acreage continues its decline. In 1987, the USDA’s agricultural census showed nearly 2.4 million Maryland acres in farms. That declined to 2.02 million last year, according to the state agriculture department — a 16 percent drop. Still, that represents nearly a third of the state’s total land area.