Getting Solar Siting Right in Maryland

September 2019 / Abell Reports / Community Development, Environment
image of solar panels
Maryland has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase its renewable energy capacity and protect vital agricultural land. How should the state and its counties proceed? What must we do to get solar siting right?

In 2019, Maryland set ambitious goals for renewable energy with the passage of the Clean Energy Jobs Act. The new law set a goal of achieving 50% of the state’s electric needs from renewable energy by 2030 and examining ways to achieve 100% clean power by 2040. Specifically, this law created a new requirement for solar arrays to produce 14.5% of electric power by 2030, up from the current goal of 2.5% by 2020.

Until recently, most of Maryland’s solar energy was produced on rooftops with a small number of solar panels, which help reduce utility bills for residents and small businesses but are limited in scope. As large solar arrays have become more popular, they raise questions about land use, zoning, and local control. To achieve the goals in the Clean Energy Jobs Act, Maryland needs more and better options for generating solar energy.

“An Opportunity for Maryland to Get Solar Siting Right” examines the current challenges and opportunities for solar siting in Maryland, what is working in other states, and recommendations for moving forward.

Key findings in the report include:

  • Maryland should find ways to preserve the best agricultural lands for farming, while devoting less-fertile acres for energy.
  • Contaminated lands, such as brownfields and landfills, can play a key role in producing green energy, but siting solar on these sites is more complicated and more expensive than on a farm field. Maryland should take a creative approach to incentivizing these projects.
  • Rooftop solar arrays are terrific job generators, but we’ll need to include new buildings with large rooftops, such as warehouse and big box stores, to meet our solar energy goals.
  • Sprawling parking lots that surround active and closed shopping centers can be put back to use and generate income with installation of solar arrays.
  • Each county in Maryland has the authority to plan and regulate its own land use and development but they need to provide clarity as to where these solar projects can and cannot be sited to avoid regulatory and legal battles.

Maryland needs a plan to achieve its renewable energy goals. The recommendations in this report will help the state address the current challenges in siting solar arrays and chart its path forward.

  1. Determine annually the amount of net new solar production needed under different future scenarios and make this publicly available.
  2. Complete a detailed analysis of the opportunities for solar development on rooftops, parking lots, disturbed land, and less productive farmland and map preferred land for solar siting to enable the state to achieve renewable energy targets.
  3. Articulate policy to ensure that renewable energy benefits are shared between residential, commercial/community, and utility scale and for all income levels to safeguard against certain communities bearing the brunt of renewable energy generation.
  4. Improve citizen participation in local siting decisions, especially for large-scale solar projects.
  5. Clear regulatory hurdles to make developing on disturbed lands faster and less expensive.
  6. Identify energy grid infrastructure limits, especially in urban areas, that cap the amount of solar production. Adding capacity in these areas should be prioritized over rural grid expansion.
  7. Utilize Maryland Solar Renewable Energy Credits as a policy tool to incentivize use for projects on already developed sites and limit use for projects on sensitive lands. The state should also identify any additional incentives that make solar projects on already-developed or disturbed land cost-effective.
  8. Require new large commercial buildings to include solar systems, and large new energy users—shopping centers, warehouses, and commercial building—to generate a significant portion of energy needs from onsite renewable energy.
  9. Improve the DG+ power plant siting tool by adding additional data layers that include more preserved land and designated “priority preservation areas.”
  10. Improve data access and transparency to more easily—and more accurately—track renewable energy generation from different sources.