Now Coming to Your Neighborhood, Straight from the Sun

The least you need to know about solar power

      The sun’s energy is free, natural, infinitely renewable and completely clean. Getting our energy from the sun seems like a no-brainer.
      The Maryland General Assembly thinks so, too. Two years ago, lawmakers passed the Clean Energy Jobs Act increasing renewable sources, including wind and sun. But good as the switch to sun and wind seems, the devil is in the details — details that have bedeviled wind proposals for Maryland’s mountains and oceans.
      Now, proposals for solar facilities in our own back yards are yielding successes, including a plan for the nation’s biggest landfill-based solar operation, west of Annapolis.
      But the switch also is proving full of little gremlins, chiefly concerns about spoiling rural vistas and turning over Maryland farmland to energy production.
That’s where solar energy becomes “a complicated issue,” says Phil Hager, Anne Arundel County Planning and Zoning officer. 
      “People who are usually on the same side of issues are on opposite sides of this one,” he said.
     Maryland’s Clean Energy Act is titled a Jobs Act because the business of providing jobs helped sell it. The 2016 law gives special opportunities to small businesses and women and minority-owned businesses that provide clean energy jobs.
      And this driving feature: It requires that a quarter of Maryland’s energy come from renewable sources by 2020. Maryland is well on its way to meeting that goal, with solar playing its part.
 
Solar’s Renewable Role
      Coal, oil and gas are finite. Eventually, we will run out of them all. Wind, sun, tides and rivers will always be with us. So the energy we can get from them is renewable. Most sources of renewable energy do not require us to burn anything. Thus they do not produce greenhouse gases, and they don’t promote climate change.
      Wind and solar energy are the renewable energy sources under development in Maryland. Wind will ultimately provide more energy in the mountains and offshore. Closer to home, the hot issue is solar.
       Solar panels give us the technology to capture the sun’s energy. When sunlight hits the panels’ many photovoltaic cells, it knocks electrons loose. Their flow provides electricity.
      To meet Maryland goals, solar must provide 2.5 percent of all energy used in the state by 2020. 
      Much solar development is likely to come from commercial projects of the kind the Clean Energy Jobs Act hopes to inspire. Solar entrepreneurs that include CleanChoice Energy, Community Energy Solar and TPE Maryland Solar Land Holdings bring the expertise and the financial backing to put up arrays of panels in Anne Arundel, connect them to the grid and maintain them.
 
Bringing the Sun Home
      Solar farms of 100 acres or more are running in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore. Anne Arundel County can’t support such a huge influx of electricity in one place on the grid.
      Maryland’s pilot Community Solar Program fills the gap, enabling smaller projects to bring electricity to people that couldn’t otherwise get it.
      As Community Solar facilities are built, any electricity user in the region can sign up to purchase solar energy. As customers, we get a stable energy bill and confidence that our power use does not contribute to climate change. (Find out more at www.solarunitedneighbors.org/maryland/learn-the-issues-in-maryland/commu....) 
       Where should those advantageous, smaller projects go? That’s where the technology that seems like a no-brainer gets complicated and contentious.
      To make the sun and its economics work, projects must go on unshaded, fairly flat, 15- to 20-acre parcels accessible to the grid. Filling the bill are landfills, brownfields (former industrial sites that may be environmentally contaminated), parking lots and — at less cost and complication— farms and forests.
 
The Contenders: Disturbed Land
       There’s enormous potential for solar on already disturbed land: landfills, brownfields, commercial rooftops and parking lots. In each case, getting from potential to practice is likely to take policy incentives because each solution is constrained by its own set of problem.
      Landfills: Closed landfills make nice empty spaces, typically flat except for protruding pipes that vent the methane generated below ground. But they are always more expensive to develop because they need more monitoring and have more liabilities.
          Our capital city is proving it can be done. This summer, Annapolis Renewable Energy Park will open on the old city landfill west of Annapolis. 
       “Covering nearly 80 acres and providing 16.8 megawatts of power,” according to Annapolis Public Works Director David Jarrell, it will be the nation’s largest solar project on a closed landfill.
      Despite the promising model, Anne Arundel County got no takers in 2015, when it offered two landfills for solar development.
       Brownfields: These former industrial sites are wastelands that could be returned to productive use as solar energy fields. When sites are contaminated, both their owner and the solar developer must be willing to take on cleanup with its expense and environmental risks. More promising — and plentiful in Anne Arundel — are sites like old gravel pits or railroad beds. Several have been recommended to developers by the county’s Planning and Zoning officer Phil Hager. 
        Parking lots: Building solar arrays above parking areas is more expensive than developing open land because the work takes more steel. It requires more insurance, too, because people walk under and around them. 
       The government’s stimulus program in 2011 gave Anne Arundel Community College the funding to build a solar array on one of its parking lots.
       That incentive made the difference, according to college Administrative Services Director Maury Chaput, who notes that the solar superstructure brought another benefit.
        “Because it’s covered, it’s the most popular parking lot on campus,” he said.
       Large business rooftops: Some companies specialize in building solar on the roofs of large businesses. Anne Arundel has solar facilities on several county buildings. And many private businesses have them as well. Again, incentives often make the difference. Most of these required some financial assistance through Maryland Energy Administration grants.
       Realizing the solar potential of more disturbed land is possible, with more incentives. Revised zoning laws could remove some restrictions. For example, solar developers might require a less rigorous permitting for landfills and get advantages on brownfields not allowed on farms. 
       But money talks loudest. Typically, that means offering financial incentives — though not on the scale Maryland is offering to lure a second Amazon headquarters — or passing some costs along to ratepayers. Neither is a popular solution.
 
Farmland As a Contender
       Anne Arundel County farms are the easiest places for developers to meet the many requirements to put up a solar facility. Income from solar development can make the prospect attractive to farmland owners. Given the lack of options, it is likely that some farmland will be part of the solar solution. It’s a likely alternative, but not a simple one.
         Preserving Southern Anne Arundel County as countryside is a community value, written into the county’s General Development Plan. Thus laying solar panels on any productive land ought to be done planfully.
        Citizen and environmental groups and farmers have said that planning should respect three primary values: farms, views and landowners’ rights. The hard work is respecting all those values in one solution. 
       “It’s threading the needle,” Planning and Zoning’s Hager said.
       A possible compromise is restricting the percent of a farm that can go solar. 
Covering up to 80 percent of a farm with solar panels, as current guidelines allow, pretty much stops farming on that land. Reducing that to 25 percent protects farmland while allowing profit. Owners who rent their land would still get a share of the higher prices solar development pays, while farmers who work rented land would not lose their livelihood. Farmers who work their own land would benefit from having stable income that could help working farms stay successful.
        Taking another approach, Talbot County has written zoning laws to discourage development specifically on prime farmland. This keeps the land with the best soils free from solar development. Such a policy means that some landowners wouldn’t be able to rent to solar developers at all.
       Either method of limiting solar development on farms would reduce or eliminate property rights of landowners. Many property owners are not happy at this prospect.
        Protecting views, another value, has gained ground in Eastern Shore counties that have written zoning laws requiring solar developers to plant visual buffers of trees and shrubs around solar facilities. 
       What will Anne Arundel will do to protect views, preserve farms and respect property rights? As you read, that is being considered. 
 
Working It Out
       Amid local contention, Anne Arundel County took an eight-month time-out from permitting projects to consider how they will work out in real life. Through June, the Dispersed Energy Committee — a subgroup of citizens working on the area’s agrotourism plans — is listening to people and working with Planning and Zoning to amend current solar laws to make it work better.
       A public meeting will be announced before recommendations are made to the County Council. Once recommendations are made, around June, the Council considers the committee’s proposed zoning laws, bringing a second round of public hearings. 
 
 
Birgit Sharp, a retired biology teacher, is an environmental and solar analyst for Advocates for Herring Bay.
 

Solar Forests?
       Forestland is another option being considered for solar development.
      Many Maryland counties have zoning laws discouraging the use of forests for solar development. Queen Anne’s County prohibits the removal of forests in specially preserved forest areas. Any acre of forest that is removed must be replaced with one-quarter of an acre of trees. Caroline County does not allow more than two percent of a property to be cleared of forests.
      Anne Arundel County — which has lost 14 percent of its forests and has less than 115,000 acres remaining — needs to hear your voice on what our laws should be.

Calvert County’s Solar Picture
     Calvert County is not seeing an influx of solar projects. Only two solar projects have been proposed in Calvert, and neither project was completed, according to Calvert Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Mary Beth Cook.
       Most of Calvert County gets its electricity from SMECO. The utility is increasing its renewable portfolio but has not chosen to participate in the Community Solar Program that has brought so much solar development to Anne Arundel. 
      This does not mean that Calvert customers can’t get solar energy. On 33 acres in Hughesville, SMECO has a solar facility that feeds into the grid. The Southern Maryland utility company also encourages and facilitates the placement of solar panels on customers’ homes.
      Still, those who can’t get panels on their homes will not have direct access to solar energy and its reduced prices.