Despite Maryland’s ambitious commitment to renewable energy, solar power continues to generate friction across the state. Large utility-scale projects have been bogged down in regulatory reviews and lawsuits, as farming interests, local governments and conservation groups push back against placing photovoltaic panels on cropland and pasture.
Last year, to fight climate change and reduce fossil fuel use, Maryland lawmakers voted to require half of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2030, joining just seven other states at that time in aiming that high. They also increased the mandated share of the state’s energy mix that must come from the sun from 2.5% to 14.5%, a similarly lofty goal.
Climate activists who thought that would unleash a wave of new solar development in the state have been disappointed as disputes over siting have dogged many. Earlier this year, Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, published an op-ed in The Washington Post complaining that more than 40 solar projects have been tied up in regulatory reviews and “red tape.”
“I don’t know how we’re going to meet our solar [energy] goals,” Tidwell said. “We’ve got to put solar somewhere.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan formed a task force last year to seek recommendations for “responsible siting” of renewable energy projects. In its final report issued in August, the panel noted that most of the solar projects under construction or review are on farmland, and it cited agriculture’s economic and cultural importance to the state and the efforts made at public expense to preserve farmland from development.
Based on development trends to date, the task force estimated that utility-scale solar projects could consume anywhere from 7,750 to 33,000 acres of Maryland’s farmland over the next decade. Up to 2.9% of the state’s prime farmland could be lost, it estimated, because solar developers tend to favor flat terrain, which often has the most fertile soil for growing crops.
Maryland is losing far more than that to housing and commercial development. From 2007 to 2012 alone, bulldozers cleared nearly 15,000 acres of farmland and 19,000 acres of forest, the task force noted.
Even so, for at least the last few years, controversies over lost farmland and scenic vistas have challenged proposals for large ground-mounted solar projects from Washington County to the Eastern Shore, where its flat land is especially attractive.
Some counties have responded by trying to zone where such projects could be built or by limiting the overall number of acres of land that could be given over to photovoltaic panels. But under state law, the Public Service Commission regulates the siting of all solar projects more than 2 megawatts.
In response, state lawmakers have directed the commission to take local views into account. That’s led to a regulatory backup, with dozens of projects waiting an average of 1.5 years to get a decision. A big part of the problem, solar developers say, is that the Department of Natural Resources power plant review program has withheld its recommendations to the commission unless or until projects get local approval.
The state’s highest court last year ruled in a closely watched Washington County case that the state, not local government, has the final say. That hasn’t ended the tug-of-war, though. A solar project proposed three years ago on 151 acres of Frederick County farmland won the commission’s approval recently, even though it had been denied zoning approval by the county. The county has appealed the decision.
Even getting local approval is no guarantee that a project will move forward. Last year, the Maryland Department of the Environment blocked two projects in Charles County that together would have installed nearly 200,000 solar panels. The county supported both, but the MDE denied permits after birders and environmentalists objected to the loss of 400 acres of privately owned woodlands on the sites.
Conservationists contend there are plenty of better places to put solar panels. A recent report by the Chesapeake Conservancy found there were nearly 34,000 acres of “potential optimal sites” in Baltimore city and county alone on rooftops, parking lots and degraded lands. It found another 3,400 acres of open land it said could be used for ground-mounted solar without touching any prime farmland.
The conservancy report was underwritten by the Valleys Planning Council, which has fought for years to limit development in rural northern Baltimore County. “We went to all this trouble to protect farmland, preserve it and subsidize it,” said Teresa Moore, the nonprofit group’s executive director. “Now we’re supporting another industry to come in and convert it?”
But solar developers say such “optimal” siting exercises are misleading because the number of places where PV arrays can be connected to the electrical transmission grid are very limited.
Plus, it can cost two to three times as much to put solar arrays on a brownfield, landfill or parking structure, said Cyrus Tashakkori, president of Open Road Renewables, a Texas-based developer of several projects in Maryland. New programs would be needed to make them commercially viable, he said.
The governor’s task force laid out 14 recommendations for steering solar developers away from farmland.
Among other things, it suggested streamlining the permitting of rooftop solar projects and providing incentives such as tax credits and fee waivers. It also suggested requiring solar developers to offset the loss of any farmland they propose to use by preserving land elsewhere.
Andrew Cassilly, a senior adviser to Maryland’s governor, said in a recent webinar that the task force report “has already drawn interest from some legislators.”
Solar and climate advocates say the pathway to develop renewable energy projects needs to be smoothed out soon if Maryland is to meet its goals.
To meet its solar energy goals, the state needs to be adding 500 megawatts of electric generation capacity a year, said David Murray, executive director of the Maryland-DC-Delaware-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association. Yet it’s only adding about 200 megawatts annually now, he said.
“The year 2030 is not that far away,” said Chesapeake Climate Action’s Tidwell. “If we’re going to get these projects developed and up, we can’t have three, four or five more years of fighting like this.”
This article originally appeared on BayJournal.com on November 3, 2020, and is republished with permission.