Utilities Sing Same Old Tune on Community Solar in Maryland

 

The same week 196 nations came together in Paris to agree on a pledge to fight climate change, a gathering of a different sort in Baltimore witnessed the “we can’t do it” crowd reprise their deny, delay, and cast-doubt performance that has been going on since the start of this millennium. The gathering in Baltimore was the Public Service Commission (PSC) hearing on proposed regulations to start a community solar pilot program in Maryland. While solar has been growing rapidly in the state, bringing jobs and clean energy, not to mention reducing demand on the grid, there are some who think we need to still study solar a bit more before deciding whether it makes sense for us. Who are these star actors in the “can’t do it caucus?” Shockingly (no not really), it’s our very own utilities and a few other kindred spirits.

The utilities main message at the hearing was that Maryland isn’t quite ready to do community solar and we need more time to study solar before embarking on a program. Yes, we’ve already installed 300MW as a state, but they are apparently still learning what this new-fangled technology means. For example, it would seem to be common sense for the utilities to look at their grids and let the solar industry know where good points on the grid to build are and where are points where it should not be built. This advanced knowledge would save a lot of time and energy for solar developers. Sadly, no such maps exist. In the current system, solar developers secure a site, do some work on it, and then apply for what’s called an interconnection agreement with the utility. After months of waiting and money invested, they are told whether they can in fact affordably interconnect their system to the grid at the site they’ve chosen. The utilities need to do better.

When it comes to billing customers for this new community solar program, the utilities fall back on the line they’ve been using for any new program since I started following this stuff back at the turn of the century – ‘we can’t do it.’ These days, it would seem fairly easy to figure out an automated billing system for a few hundred new customers a year. One panelist at the PSC hearing even suggested the utilities could buy a software package off the shelf to do their billing. But no, these stalwarts of the ‘can’t do’ attitude say it’s complicated and they’re not sure they can figure it out. And if they do figure it out, they warned, they may need to raise our electric rates to pay for all the billing contractors they’ll need to hire to implement a new system.

They’re not alone in their desire to prevent solar from becoming too popular. State Senator Hershey (“I love solar as much as the next guy, but……”) and the new Director of the Maryland Energy Administration both chimed in with concerns that basically said community solar could become too successful, and then what will we do?

Thankfully, our local solar industry was well represented, as were environmental advocates and even a representative from the Montgomery County Dept. of Environmental Protection. They all forcefully demonstrated how community solar will help Maryland get more clean energy, more jobs, and more grid stability. Most importantly, they showed how community solar can finally bring the promise of solar energy to the vast majority of people in our state who have not yet had access to it, particularly the low to moderate income community. The PSC commissioners will have to decide which path they want Maryland to follow. Let’s hope they choose the path of the world at Paris in saying yes to a cleaner, greener future for us and our children.

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