‘Solar gardens’ blossom as Md. approves regulations

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Sunday, June 19, 2016

Maryland this week became the 11th state to adopt formal policies requiring utilities to purchase power from community solar projects.

The three-year pilot program, approved by the Maryland Public Service Commission, sets in motion one of the first state-sanctioned community solar programs in the Mid-Atlantic, following similar initiatives in a half-dozen East Coast states from Maine to New York and Washington, D.C.

The final regulations will be published July 8 and are set to take effect July 18, according to Phillip VanderHeyden, director of the Maryland PSC’s electricity division.

Utilities required to participate in the program include Maryland’s investor-owned utilities — Exelon Corp. subsidiaries Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Pepco, and Delmarva Power and Control Inc. — and Potomac Edison, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp. Cooperatives and municipally owned utilities will be able to choose to participate, VanderHeyden said.

The program allows Maryland electricity ratepayers without access or rights to rooftops to purchase shares of a community solar project at a remote location and then earn credits on their utility bills for the panels’ electrical output.

More than a third of the 200 megawatts of community solar allowed under the program will be reserved for low- and moderate-income customers of the state’s primary utilities, according to the final regulations.

In addition, the program “will encourage private investment in Maryland’s solar industry and diversify the state’s energy resource mix to meet the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act goals,” PSC Chairman W. Kevin Hughes said in a statement.

The program, which will be funded by utility tariffs, also encourages the construction of solar gardens at brownfields and other sites that are not suitable for other uses or development, officials said

“Done the right way, community solar projects strengthen communities, clean up our air, speed our transition to 100 percent renewable energy — all while keeping utility bills affordable,” Susan Stevens Miller, staff attorney for Earthjustice’s Clean Energy Program, said in a statement endorsing the PSC action.

The new regulations follow legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly last year to create a regulated community solar program. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, 25 states currently support at least one community solar project, or “solar garden,” but only 11 states have adopted laws to encourage such projects.

Earthjustice was among a number of groups, along with a state-based coalition called MD SUN, that lobbied Maryland lawmakers to formalize government supports for community solar.

According to the D.C.-based Coalition for Community Solar Access, solar gardens represent a rapidly growing renewable energy market, one that Department of Energy studies have suggested could attract up to $16 billion in investment by 2020.

“Successful community solar models, like the one approved in Maryland, are already operating across the country creating productive partnerships between subscribers, developers, and utilities,” Jeff Cramer, CCSA’s executive director, said in a statement.