(Nov. 29, 2019) Worcester County Commissioner Ted Elder hopes the county will take a deeper look into how large-scale solar farms affect agricultural and rural land.
He brought up the issue on Nov. 5 during the commissioner’s meeting, explaining that the solar farms were taking up agricultural land and harming the rural nature of the county.
“It’s our heritage here and consistent with our planning documents that we retain as much of the rural atmosphere and rural farmland as we can keep,” Elder said in post-meeting comments.
He would like to ban large scale solar farms and limit solar panels to rooftops, parking lots, driveways and other impervious surfaces. Ed Tudor, director of review and permitting, clarified that any solar installation two megawatts and larger requires a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the Maryland Public Service Commission.
The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed that the Public Service Commission preempts local zoning in regards to solar farms two megawatts and larger. This issue had come to the Maryland Court of Appeals in a dispute between the Washington County Commissioners and Perennial Solar.
According to Tudor, there are 10 commercial solar installations in Worcester County of various sizes. There are two regulated by the Public Service Commission – one project is 2.49 megawatts and is located north of the county roads facility on Route 113 in Snow Hill. The 7,224 panels are enclosed in a 3.48-acre fenced area.
The other project, Gateway Solar Farm, is 10 megawatts and covers 113 acres of the 426-acre lease in Berlin. Constellation Energy began construction on the project in August 2018 and brought the solar farm to full production in May 2019. It now powers Ocean City buildings and the water plant for 25 percent of Ocean City. In comparison, the county has 176,361 acres of agriculturally zoned land.
Elder is not against solar energy, but is not a fan of its sprawl potential.
“It’s a form of energy that doesn’t spew anything into the atmosphere,” Elder said. “I feel that there’s way you can control it so it doesn’t destroy the environment. We need smart policies.”
Brendon Quinlivan, executive director of distributed energy origination at Constellation, said that solar projects provide many customers with a long-term cost-predictable power source.
“This is a way in which Ocean City, specifically, but also other customers, can source a significant amount of their energy from a renewable energy source,” Quinlivan said. “Where they’re limited for land otherwise, like they are as you get closer to the downtown Ocean City area, this construct allows a sizable system to be constructed that actually meets the needs of their larger energy load.”
According to Quinlivan, the project is powering as expected, which should provide six million kilowatt-hours of electricity in the first year, thus saving Ocean City government $125,000 a year. He added that to his knowledge, the land leased for the project was privately owned but not fertile enough for traditional farming or agricultural purposes.
“It’s generating renewable energy within the county and generating tax revenue for the county,” Quinlivan said. “Otherwise, it was receiving minimal tax revenue. I think there’s a healthy medium between, of course, remaining vigilant on the protection of agricultural lands but also looking at where there are opportunities to deploy renewable energy.”
Worcester County Treasurer Phil Thompson previously commented in a county commissioner meeting that solar farms typically pay higher taxes because the land has a higher value than agricultural land. After the Nov. 5 meeting, Thompson added that the value of solar land is determined on a case-by-case basis by the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.
Quinlivan added that the reason solar land is valued higher is generally because the land was previously unimproved.
“It’s just vacant land, which is usually taxed at a lower rate,” Quinlivan said. “Whereas land that is improved, and those improvements could be an energy system, or a retail shopping center, or residential – any improved land has a higher taxable base.”
Other concerns Elder noted was the stormwater run-off from solar panels and solar companies going out of business and leaving the county to clean up the equipment. The Public Service Commission requires that solar equipment be removed at the end of life.
Elder believes that if the county can prove to the commission that it can provide more than enough electricity with solar panels only occupying rooftops, parking lots, driveways and other impervious surfaces, it cannot preempt local zoning regulations.
“I hope that the other commissioners will join me in a deeper discussion about these items and look to the future of the county years ahead and not just what’s expedient right now,” Elder said.