The fact that solar energy is becoming a more accepted power source became clear again this week as two solar projects in Frederick County moved forward.
In the first, the city of Frederick considered a long-term lease agreement to buy solar power, and in the second, a group of Frederick County homeowners looked to form a solar co-op.
The city government is projected to save $3 million over 25 years on its energy costs by contracting for 10 acres of solar panels outside the city limits on agriculturally zoned land, said Brian Quinlan, president of Calvert Energy, a Gaithersburg company that the city has hired to help with its solar bid process. Quinlan said his company did more than a year of financial analysis to advise the city.
The homeowners’ group is also considering a 25-year solar contract. But the homeowners had fewer concerns about the length of those contracts than did city officials.
The city was on the fence about whether it wants to own the solar array at the end of its 25-year leasing contract.
“I don’t disagree that 25 years is a long time to enter into a relationship with someone,” said Alderman Michael O’Connor as the board discussed the solar leasing contract.
The price of energy could drop and technology could improve during the life span of the agreements. These are risks both groups will have to weigh.
Alderwoman Kelly Russell raised the question of what would happen to the solar array at the end of the 25-year contract or if the city terminated the agreement early.
“We have not talked about the city purchasing a solar field. What we’ve talked about ... is purchasing power and not owning it,” Russell said. “And that is the appealing part of it. That the city will not have that to own and maintain.”
Shams Solar Energy Center LLC will manage the solar array, which will be installed on a 12-acre field leased from the Islamic Waqf of Maryland Inc., which is the property division of the Islamic Center of Maryland, which owns mosques locally.
Currently, the mosques lease the land to a farmer on an annual basis, Quinlan said. The array has already been approved as a community solar project and is exempt from the rules of the county’s current solar moratorium, he said.
The city would pay 6 cents a kilowatt-hour, with no distribution costs, through the contract. The energy will be applied to government buildings with the highest distribution costs, even though they are not the largest energy users. This will have the largest savings for the city, Quinlan said.
Calvert Energy will pay $100,000 to connect the city’s array to the distribution network and there will be annual fees to maintain that connection, Quinlan said.
Also on Wednesday evening, more than 50 homeowners attended the Community Power Network’s solar co-op information session to see if going solar was right for them.
Community Power Network, or MD SUN, is organizing the county’s solar co-op. The expectation is that buying solar panels in bulk through a single contractor will reduce the price of each panel for each homeowner by 10 to 20 percent and make the systems more affordable, said Corey Ramsden, the program director.
Steve Bruns, who attended the solar co-op meeting, has owned a house in Spring Ridge for the past 24 years. He is interested in putting a 3-kilowatt solar system on his home, which would meet all his electrical needs. The average Maryland residence consumed 1,012 kilowatt-hours a month in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Maryland is one of the best places for renewables and Frederick County’s current administration is pro-renewables, Bruns said. He worried, however, that future administrations and lobbying by energy companies could affect these conditions.
Bruns has been charged fees and received power line insurance policy options from his energy companies over the past few years. If fees continue to grow, they may negate solar savings.
“These big energy companies aren’t going to give up without a fight,” Bruns said.
Karl Bickel, who ran for Frederick County sheriff in 2014 and has been a homeowner in Monrovia for 36 years, said the co-op was a way to unify people to eventually fight rising fees. Co-op members are not legally bound together in any way, but share a common goal of going solar. Bickel is one of the 37 people signed on as a member of the co-op.
Rising fees would be applied to everyone, not just those who go solar, Bickel said. He is optimistic there will be people to fight to maintain renewable incentives. “Everyone would have skin in the game,” Bickel said.