Eastern Shore mostly targeted for new installations

Senior Editor

(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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 detail cautions landowners should take if they are approached for a lease on their lands.)

(Feb. 14, 2017) Across Maryland, there are 49 applications pending before the state’s Public Service Commission for utility scale solar power installations.
All but 10 of them are on the Eastern Shore.
The applications are seeking solar panel arrays to produce a total of 1,290 megawatts of energy. The rule of thumb in the industry is that it requires 10 acres of solar panels to produce 1 megawatt of power.
That means that those 49 applications, if each wins PSC approval, would consume 12,900 acres of Maryland farmland or other open space.
That’s a mere dent in the state’s estimated total farmland acreage of 2.2 million acres but, unless confined or restricted, worried conservation and land preservation enthusiasts warn it could result in the gradual erosion of agricultural production on the Eastern Shore and what one anti-solar activist called “death by a thousand cuts.”
Here is a rundown of recent developments.
The solar power invasion has now reached the floor of the Maryland General Assembly.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the Clean Energy Jobs Act of 2016 was overridden in the House by a vote 88-51 and in the Senate, 32-13.
The provisions of the act pledged the state’s endorsement, among other alleged earthly adjustments to combat climate change, “a thriving solar industry.”
Then a few days later, Del. Kuner Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, introduced a bill which would allow solar development on lands otherwise protected by a conservation easement. The bill’s summary reads like this:
“Exempting a specified facility that generates electricity by utilizing solar energy from specified development restrictions under an agricultural land preservation easement; altering the limitation on the percentage of the land subject to an agricultural land preservation easement that may be used for the generation of electricity from solar energy; and authorizing the Maryland Environmental Trust to lease properties for the generation of electricity under specified circumstances.”
If adopted, that would open thousands of farmland acres across the state to solar production. The bill is expected to draw major opposition.
In the wake of its successful opposition to the so-called Mills Branch project in Kent County, envisioned between Chestertown and Kennedyville, the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance is girding for another challenge, this one on the outskirts of Chestertown.
There, a firm called Urban Grid has filed application for a solar array on Morgnec Road.
It was scheduled to receive a preliminary hearing on Jan 31 before the Maryland Public Service Commission, but the hearing was postponed until the Mills Branch PSC denial becomes final.
And down in Dorchester County, the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition is preparing for a second hearing before the county’s Planning and Zoning Board of Appeals on a proposed installation near Linkwood. It is scheduled for Feb. 23.
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 leader of the opposition to the SunneeBee project and president of the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition is Tracy Whitby-Fairall whose home property near Linkwood would overlook one the paneled fields.
At the the initial hearing before the Dorchester Board of Appeals, she advanced a broad array of objections to the Sunnee Bee oroject, concluding with a caution about the loss of farmland.
“The developers state that after the lease is over and the panels have reached their end of life, they will be removed and the land is returned to the state it was prior to the installation,” she said.
“Most farmers will strongly disagree with this theory as years of solar by-products will, in all likelihood, destroy the land turning it into a brownfield never to return to its farming state.
“Utility scale solar is not considered a temporary use and will forever change the landscape. The land that has been identified by the developer for this project is actively farmed, located in an area identified as prime ag lands in the Comprehensive Plan that also happens to be located in close proximity to transmission lines. The domino effect to the economy due to loss of productive farmland is tremendous,” Whitby-Trafair said.
Janet Christensen-Lewis is president of the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance. As part of her presentations to the PSC during the agency’s deliberations in the Mills Branch project, she made this point:
“We continue to maintain that farmland is not the appropriate place to build utility scale solar projects. Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance is now advocating for legislation that will address the proliferation of utility scale solar on farmland and open up vast amounts of wasteland, identified by the EPA’s “Repowering America’s Land” at 100,000 acres in Maryland.   
“Capped landfills in Maryland alone represent over 6,000 acres, with many located in close proximity to population centers that represent high-energy demand.  Such land can be successfully used for renewable energy projects. New Jersey, California, Colorado and other states have proven that this approach works. 
It only works, however, if Maryland has the incentives in place to make it happen and actively urges such development.”
And she added this:
“Landowners on the Eastern Shore are seeing lease offers from solar development corporations that greatly exceed the profits available from farming. The acreage under target is astounding and is a threat to maintaining viable agriculture.
“As land devoted to farming disappears, the likelihood that farms can continue to survive decreases. Without policies to guide this massive land rush, there will be continued development of valuable farmland, deterioration of the agricultural economy and increased utility prices, driving already compromised consumers into energy poverty.”