Growing Green Energy in Maryland

Growing Green Energy in Maryland

Maryland renewable energy goals are increasing, and to meet the demands of this environmentally-focused ambition, thousands of acres of agricultural land throughout the state may take priority for conversion to solar power systems. The trade-off between green energy and economic sustainability of agricultural land has been an on-going controversy, and the debate continues as researchers come together to understand the legalities and implications.

A recent grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (USDA-AFRI) is making it possible for UMD Extension (UME) legal specialist Paul Goeringer to lead a team through the groundwork of assessing the impact of this major changeover and how it might affect the farmers, the landowners, and the land itself.

“People are very passionate about this issue of solar power on agricultural land, but it is confusing for farmers and landowners. And only a handful of attorneys in Maryland have any experience with the legalities involved,” said Goeringer. “What are the legal and economic implications for solar power on agricultural land? Being able to say, ‘Here is what a good lease looks like for your land, here are jobs lost and created, here are the impacts to communities’—we can give people a better and more well-rounded view of how solar development would impact their lives.”

Currently, renewable energy goals for Maryland are at 50%, with 14.5% of that coming from solar power by 2030, said Drew Schiavone, energy conservation and technology specialist with UME. “It’s hard to escape the ag land issue. It’s going to be those large utility-scale solar systems to meet that goal, and we’re going to have to use ag land.”

Although large-scale systems that support communitywide energy needs are controversial, farmers are not typically the landowners leasing to those ventures, said Schiavone. “Landowners are leasing to farmers for $100 an acre, and in some cases, solar pays $1000 an acre, so there’s a greater return on those utility-scale solar systems from a landowner’s perspective.”

Farmers looking for a greater return on their own energy use are opting for small-scale solar power
systems to supplement grid electricity in Maryland. “A ‘solar farm’ is what you think of with those largescale systems which are regulated by the state,” said Schiavone. “But solar for farms—those are smaller systems for folks who want to use the energy to offset their own costs. You still have all of the zoning issues to go through, but it’s by far a simpler system than those large-scale solar farms.”

Schiavone’s work with the farming community starts not with the solar power systems, but with energy conservation. “The money you save through behavioral changes—like turning the lights off, or getting more efficient pumps and motors in place—that’s going to give the best return on investment. People want to skip that part, but I focus my programming on the efficiency up front, then we design a solar system to support that use,” he said. “Solar is a very expensive technology. You don’t just go to Home Depot and buy a solar panel—it’s a custom fit to what you’re trying to achieve. Anywhere you can save on efficiency, you can save on the cost of the system requirements.”

What each farm intends to achieve is also unique, Schiavone said. For some, goals are solely environmentally focused, while others may be interested in economic investment. Some are simply looking for resiliency and the ability to maintain production when grid technology is unavailable.

“I never try to sell someone on the technology; I don’t think it’s a silver bullet technology that’s going to work out for everyone,” said Schiavone. “It’s a lovely technology and it has a lot of environmental benefits, but if we’re talking about sustainability, it also has to be economically sustainable for a small business owner.” Schiavone’s work with on-site energy efficiency for farmers provides the information small business operations need to decide whether it’s a sustainable technology for their operation and financial needs.

By Laura Wormuth