Huge solar projects face local roadblocks

Senior Editor

(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a planned series of reports on utility-scale solar projects in the region. Other reports in the series not only cover other solar developments in the Mid-Atlantic but also will detail cautions landowners should take if they are approached for a lease on their lands.)
Solar power companies planning huge utility scale installations on the farmland and other open fields of the Eastern Shore of Maryland are finding that the welcome mat is not always out.
Some are finding that well organized citizen groups are able to lock the door.
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 And the solar firm, Apex Clean Energy, abandoning the project, announced that it would not appeal.
However, not far away, on the outskirts of Chestertown, a firm called Urban Grid has filed application for a solar array on Morganec Road.
It was scheduled to receive a preliminary hearing today, Tuesday, Jan, 31, before the Maryland Public Service Commission.
And down in Dorchester County, the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition anxiously awaits a decision from the county’s Planning and Zoning Board of Appeals on a proposed installation near Linkwood.
The project, known as Sunnee Bee Solar and advanced by One Energy Renewables, 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.
One Energy needs approval of the Sunnee Bee project as a whole, the construction of a substation for the project and the authorization to build an eight-foot fence around the array of solar panels.
The board gave no indication when a decision might be expected.
The Mills Branch project in Kent County was envisioned on two farm fields, totaling 370 acres, about midway between Chestertown and Kennedyville. The solar firm for Apex Clean Energy, estimated the cost between $110,000 and $150,000 million and requires the installation of 250,776, 325-megawatt solar panels.
In abandoning the project, Blaine Loos, project developer, Apex, while obviously lamenting the verdict, issued this statement:
“Apex Clean Energy has elected not to appeal the decision denying Mills Branch Solar’s application for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. Though we strongly disagree with the ruling, this was ultimately a business decision.
“As a consequence of the project’s rejection, 60 megawatts of clean, safe renewable energy will not be built in Maryland. This decision means that the climate and health benefits from the equivalent of replacing 18,000 train car loads of coal over the project’s life, will not be realized, and this decision means that Maryland is that much farther away from meeting its renewable energy goals.
“Over 200 Marylanders signed letters of support for Mills Branch Solar, and over half of those were from residents of Kent County, including all adjacent neighbors. We’re disappointed that our supporters in the county and throughout the state will not see this clean energy project become a reality.”
At the hearing before the Dorchester County Board of Appeals on Jan. 19, the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition made its case against the Sunnee Bee project before a standing-room-only audience.
NDNC organizer, Tracy Whitby-Fairall, whose home would overlook one of the massive arrays of solar panels, offered this assessment:
“We currently reside in an area that is surrounded by hundreds of acres that are currently farmed and have been for many years. If this project is permitted, we will become surrounded by hundreds of acres of chain link fence topped by barbed wire, surrounding hundreds of rows of solar panels installed on racking systems that are motorized so that they can rotate to catch the sun. Inverters will be placed throughout the system to collect the energy produced and pass it to the 69kv interconnection. This type of land use does not fit the rural character of North Dorchester.
“I recognize the need for renewable energy and understand Maryland’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard requirements. With that said, I strongly believe that the RPS goals can be met without sacrificing Maryland’s natural resources like productive agricultural land.”
Among a litany of specific objections to the Sunnee Bee project, Whitby-Fairall cited its total incompatibility with the area.
State Route 392 is a branch of the Chesapeake Country Scenic Byway and ties in with State Route 16, which is known and respected as the Harriett Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, she said.
“This location will have an impact on these respected byways as it is situated to be within the viewshed of each of them.”
She noted, for the Dorchester board, the verdict in the Kent County Mills Branch case.
“There was a recent ruling of denial on a utility scale solar case in Kent County,” she said, “in which the judge paid particular attention to potential impacts on the cultural areas that were set to be within close proximity of that project. The judge ruled that the damage to the historical areas could not be mitigated.”