Solar: Practicality versus emotion (Editorial)

(Feb. 21, 2017) During a policy discussion at the 2016 annual convention of the Maryland Farm Bureau, a discussion emerged on how to handle the ongoing crush of applications for large-scale solar installations.
Should farmers sign leases with the solar companies? There is enormous pressure on the industry. Crop prices are bottoming out, the cost of seed and supplies and equipment continues to rise, a basic lack of understanding of agriculture pervades the urban-dominated General Assembly. It is time to bail out and go to Florida?
A farmer rose on the discussion at the MFB convention.
“If the farmer owns that land,” he said, “he should be able to do what he wants with it.”
That’s the practical approach, of course.
But there is an often dominating emotional attachment to their land by many farmers, an affection that disdains the idea of despoiling farmland with an array of solar panels.
It was that sense of protective ownership that emerged in the MFB’s policy for 2017.
The Maryland Farm Bureau took a firm stand against large installations absorbing “prime and productive farmland.”
The policy declares in part: “We oppose commercial solar energy facilities being considered as an agricultural activity and receiving the same exemptions as an agricultural structure or ag land. This would also include receiving the agricultural tax assessment.
“We oppose the use of ‘farm’ when referring to an alternative energy generation facility ... We oppose the State of Maryland preemption of local and county land use policy for renewable energy generation projects. ... We support removing large scale commercial solar energy generating facilities from the RPS carve-out for solar energy… We do not support commercial solar energy facilities being built on prime and productive farmland.”
Urban legislators roaming the halls of the Capitol in Annapolis do not share that allegiance. They appear intent on clearing the way for Maryland to meet its self-established goal of achieving 25 percent of its energy from alternate sources by the year 2020.
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 pledge the state’s endorsement of “a thriving solar industry.”
Then a few days later, Del. Kumar Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, introduced a bill that would allow solar development on lands otherwise protected by a conservation easement. It’s called The Right to Solar Farm. If adopted, that will open thousands of farmland acres across the state, and particularly the Eastern Shore, to solar production.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture is scurrying to tighten the schedule of hearings required for applications to override conservation easement protection.
Two Montgomery County senators are behind a bill that would disqualify several agricultural sources of alternative energy from a state tax credit program. Under the bill, only businesses that produce energy from wind, solar, marine or hydrokinetic sources would qualify for the state’s Clean Energy Incentive Tax Credit.
Waste-to-energy projects, among others, would no longer qualify. There are a few already in service and others planned on farms across the Eastern Shore.
Among them is a first-of-its-kind $25 million industrial plant designed to turn poultry litter into electricity and return most of what’s left to the farmers as nitrogen and phosphorous. It is planned for construction this spring near Westover in Somerset County. It will be the first of four — already in the planning and design stage — to be built elsewhere on Delmarva by Clean Bay Renewables, a three-year-old company that envisions perhaps as many as 10 plants in the region somewhere down the line.
The fully integrated system relies on technology known as thermophilic anaerobic digestion and what is known as SNR, struvite nutrient recovery. It captures the nitrogen and the phosphorous continuing to circulate in the water and converts the nutrients, in each case, to granulated or pelletized organic fertilizer.
“It is insane,” said a Clean Energy Renewables stakeholder of the wind-solar-only bill. “It’s an effort by the solar and wind folks to hog all of the credits. We are lobbying to kill the bill, even though the program has not been funded. It would set a very bad precedent suggesting that our type of project is not a ‘clean’ renewable energy.”
The Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Alliance and the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy have been alerted to the rising tide of solar development.
And the ESLC has been weighing its role in the debate. In a recent statement, it offered this cogent observation:
“The Eastern Shore has the potential to be the undisputed leader in Maryland renewables, but it can’t be done without thoughtfully balancing the expense to resources like tillable acreage, wildlife habitat, rural vistas and more.”