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.

Maryland Takes Big Step Towards Community Solar Gardens

Things are looking good for the future of community solar in Maryland. After months of stakeholder meetings and research, the Public Service Commission (PSC) staff has crafted draft regulations that will spark a robust community solar market in the state. The 26 pages of regulations cover, sometimes in detail, the structure of a pilot program to develop 300MW or more of community solar over the next three years.  For the most part, the draft regulations come out very favorable towards those like yours truly who want this market to take off.

Community solar, or “solar gardens,” is a central solar project that serves multiple customers who cannot otherwise get solar on their roof.  Likely customers include renters, small businesses, homeowners with shaded or old roofs, and low to moderate income residents. It’s this last category of potential consumer that’s the most exciting. Imagine a world where everyone, not just affluent suburbanites, can get affordable clean, renewable energy.

The way the system is shaping up in Maryland, there are a few salient points to keep in mind.

  • Subscribers to the community solar project will get credit for full retail rate for the solar they purchase, meaning they will very likely save money on their electricity bills.
  • Commercial customers can participate, but one large customer cannot account for more than 60% of the project’s output.
  • The utilities will be required to facilitate the subscription by giving customers credits on their electricity bills.
  • There are many consumer protections in the regulations, to ensure a fair market. However, some of the regulations may inadvertently dampen the market and need to be adjusted in the final regulations.

Deeper Green is gearing up to become a big player in the Maryland community solar market. Our aim is to bring solar to the communities that have not had it before.  Stay tuned for more news on that front.