Should solar projects on farmland see light of day?

Senior Editor

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a planned series of reports on utility-scale solar projects in the region. Other reports in the series not only will cover other solar developments in the Mid-Atlantic but also will detail cautions, which landowners should take if they are approached for a lease on their lands.)

(Jan. 24, 2017) Lured by thousands of acres of open farmland, solar energy companies, eager to build massive utility-scale solar installations, have descended on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
They have been approaching farmers and other landowners seeking energy leases, which typically require, on average, seven acres to produce a single megawatt of electricity, depending on equipment. 
Because of the amount of land required, farmland and open space are ideal for these solar projects.
And the solar companies are counting on the fact that current low commodity prices may make lease offers more attractive.
On the other hand, county planning and zoning restrictions and conservation easements may prohibit, or at least make more complicated the way for a huge solar installation.
Currently, there are at least two active projects under discussion on the Eastern Shore, one in Kent County and the other in Dorchester.
In Kent County, a judge for the Maryland Public Safety Commission just recently denied a solar development application for a project known as Mills Branch Solar, ruling, among other findings, that it would preempt local zoning.
The Dorchester County Planning and Zoning Board was scheduled last Thursday to hold a hearing on the application of One Energy Renewables for a project called SonnBee Solar.
It targets three parcels located south of the intersection of MD Route 392 and Linkwood Road in East New Market and would occupy approximately 180 acres of the three larger properties which total approximately 415-acres.
A citizens’ organization, the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition, with the support of both the county and state Farm Bureaus, stands in opposition to the project. The Mills Branch project is envisioned on two farm fields, totaling 370 acres, about midway between Chestertown and Kennedyville. It is estimated to cost between $110 and $150 million and require the installation of 250,776, 325-megawatt solar panels.
Public Utility Judge Dennis Bober ruled, among other findings, that the location of the project was “more negative than positive.” It is subject to appeal in the court system.
Another installation on the Eastern Shore is already in operation. It occupies 90 acres of the former 200-acre Windsor Hastings farm in Queen Anne’s County. It is reported to employ 44,000 solar panels.
At the 2016 annual meeting of the Maryland Farm Bureau, solar installation policy received some serious attention.
Delegates voted to oppose such facilities receiving an agricultural tax assessment, supported removing large-scale commercial facilities from the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard carve-out for solar energy and voted to “not support commercial solar energy facilities on prime and productive farmland.”
Delegates — those who spoke — agreed the issue should stay at the county level. However, it was added that the state’s Public Service Commission could override a county’s decision on an energy project.
With the solar industry subsidized through grants and tax credits, Harry Moreland of Caroline County, said “farmers are forced to compete against their own tax dollars to rent or lease farmland.”
Tom Noyes, Delaware’s principal planner for utility policy, said similar solar pressures are not a problem in the First State. He said activity for the most part is limited to commercial scale installations — five, 10 or 15 megawatts — designed for local use.
Solar activity in Delaware barely makes a dent in the state’s 490,000 farmland acres; he said, “it’s not a big deal here, and certainly not a problem.”
Large-scale operations generally feed the so-called regional PJM grid via the Delaware Power and Light Co.
On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a large solar installation was completed late last year, expected to generate 171,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year — enough to power 15,000 homes. The project covers about 1,000 acres in the area of Oak Hall, Va., and the power generated will be purchased by Amazon Web Services for its data centers in Northern Virginia.
Amazon Solar Farm US East was approved for a conditional use permit by a unanimous vote from the Accomack County Board of Supervisors. This was the first project ever approved under the Virginia Permit by Rule for Renewable Energy.
Leases for large-scale solar installations can run 20 pages and they demand close attention from the owner (or owners) of the property, caution University of Maryland Extension ag law specialists. Get an attorney, they advise and one who is familiar with solar energy issues.
“They will help protect landowners interests for the long term and prevent surprises down the line,” the ag law lawyers advise.