As massive solar farms blossom, officials face conflict between state energy policy and local preferences

— On an isolated 100 acres of farmland where corn and soybeans once grew, a different sort of crop has sprouted — one that hums quietly when skies are clear.

The garden of thousands of photovoltaic panels, creaking occasionally as each one pivots like a sunflower watching the sun cross the sky, this year began powering 13,000 homes as one of the largest solar farms in the state, for now.

Energy companies, lured by a state policy that encourages renewable electricity generation and riding a larger industry boom, are flocking to Maryland farmland to build massive solar installations. Developers proposed 11,000 new solar projects in the state last year, more than twice as many as in 2014, and some of them would dwarf this Eastern Shore facility.

But now the industry’s rapid rise is threatened by the revival of a conflict that had laid dormant for decades — since most of the state’s large power plants were built.

While clean energy advocates and regulators are trying to help the state manage its power supply, local officials and the homeowners they represent are wary of massive new installations rising in their communities.

Kent County officials designated a commercial and industrial zone years ago for renewable energy projects and other new industries. But at least one solar developer is looking outside it. Now the county is leading a fight against the commission’s power.

Talbot County officials imposed a temporary ban on new solar farms this summer to gain time to craft zoning preferences. The Baltimore County Council is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to do the same.

“We feel like we need time to adjust to the new reality,” said Bartlett, of the Talbot council. He acknowledged that the Public Service Commission could still override the ban.

The success of the industry in Maryland will likely depend on how the state answers larger questions about energy and land-use policies.

As Kent officials challenge state regulators’ authority at the Public Service Commission, Allegany County officials are raising complaints in the state’s highest courts, and a coalition of local governments plans to ask the General Assembly to step in.

Along a Kent County road that was once the main route to Philadelphia, Apex Clean Energy wants to install solar panels across more than 300 acres of farmland.

The facility, named Mills Branch Solar, would generate up to 60 megawatts of power — enough for every household in the county, officials for the Charlottesville-based company say. They call the site ideal because it doesn’t require any clearing, has no environmental concerns and is close to a transmission line.

The problem for Kent officials and residents isn’t that it’s a massive solar farm — it’s that it’s not in the right place.

The county studied how it might approach proposals for renewable energy generation back in 2010, and again more recently as farmers began receiving calls from solar companies, said Amy Moredock, the county planning director.

With the support of concerned residents, county officials set zoning rules encouraging such facilities to go in an area zoned for commercial and industrial use — not on agricultural land.

The county, joined by the state People’s Counsel, a consumer advocate, and the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance, has argued to the Public Service Commission that it should not be able to unilaterally overrule local zoning.

“It’s not that you can’t have solar,” said Janet Christensen-Lewis, vice chairwoman of the alliance. “Our farmland is precious.”

In Allegany, Dan’s Mountain Wind Force wants to build 17 wind turbines along the county’s highest ridge.

The group, a subsidiary of Laurel Renewable Partners LLC in Greensburg, Pa., originally planned more, but scaled back amid eight years of back-and-forth with Allegany officials concerned about impacts to scenic mountain vistas and the county’s 911 communications antenna.

The county denied zoning approval for the project last December.

The developer is petitioning the commission for a permit overruling local rules, as it appeals the zoning decision in court.

In filings with the commission, Allegany officials say they don’t necessarily even oppose the wind project. But they “vehemently” object to what a lawyer for the county calls “efforts to circumvent Allegany County’s land use and zoning authority.”

David Friend, Laurel’s CEO, says the state authority is key because any change or extra hurdle imposed at the county level could chill the development of new projects.

“These development processes take a long time,” he said. “If they change the rules, you’ll never build another power station or power line in Maryland again.”

The Maryland Association of Counties is preparing policy proposals for the 2017 legislative session in Annapolis aimed at settling such conflicts.

“I think what we would look for is a simple acknowledgment that these types of facilities should be subject to local zoning,” said Les Knapp, legal and policy council for MACo. “Their location should be considered and in line with how counties are growing and developing.”

The General Assembly is expected to take up legislation to encourage further renewable energy. Lawmakers passed a bill this year that would have accelerated goals for expanding green energy, but Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed it. Lawmakers are expected to try to override the veto after they reconvene in January.

The Maryland Farm Bureau is surveying its membership about solar farms on agricultural land, with some disagreement to sort out: While some farmers oppose the loss of tillable land, others want the stable income of a solar lease.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture said the issue is a local one, unless solar farms are being proposed on land that is preserved for farming under a state easement program. The Maryland Energy Administration has not taken a position.

There are signs that not all of the hundreds of acres of solar panels on the table will actually materialize. The flood of solar power supply to the state has cut the income that companies can earn from renewable energy credits. Because the state is expected to exceed a goal that 0.7 percent of its electricity come from solar this year, the prices of the credits have fallen from $120 to $20 this year.

Solar industry advocates say measures to limit their development are unnecessary if the objective is to limit loss of farmland. Even if developers used crop fields for all of the solar generation needed to meet the state goal, they say, it would take up a fraction of 1 percent of the land.

Howard County officials have embraced the conversion of farmland for solar energy. They have passed a law that will allow farmers to lease land for solar panels even if the county has paid for an easement on it to preserve agricultural use.

Solar industry officials said they want to cooperate with local communities as they seize new opportunities.

“The industry is really willing to work with the counties,” said Dana Sleeper, executive director of the Maryland Solar Energy Industries Association. “Folks get a little bit scared when there’s something new.”

Other states have faced the same challenges.

In New Jersey, officials adopted incentives for developing solar farms on brownfields and limits on development of large-scale projects on farmland. That helped to stabilize the industry, said Fred Rohs, general manager for energy production for Marina Energy, which owns the solar farm in Hebron.

The Hebron project is one of the biggest in the state, but it had a smooth permitting process. And with a good fence that screens it from surrounding forest and field, Rohs said, he hasn’t heard any complaints from neighbors.

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