UPPER MARLBORO — Renewable energy is making its way to the region of the county better known for power plants and gas as plans for two solar farms are set in motion.
Agricultural farmland may soon give way to an entirely new type of farming as Turning Point Energy begins the process of turning two sites in Southern Prince George’s County into solar farms. The energy company is working with the state on the Community Solar Program to bring the total amount of solar energy in Maryland to 2 percent.
The solar program was created as a pilot program with legislation adopted by the state in 2015 while regulations for the program were not adopted until 2016. Some of the goals for the program included decreasing dependency on fossil fuels for electricity and increasing public access to renewable options.
The application period for community solar plans opened in April 2017 and the two farms in District 9 are among some of the first community solar projects being proposed in the county and state, said Thomas Haller, attorney for Turning Point Energy.
“Eighty percent of the residents of Maryland do not have access to solar, either because they’re renters or because they can’t afford the solar panels on their house or because their homes are in the woods and they can’t support solar panels,” he said. “So these community solar programs give people the opportunity to be able to purchase their power through the solar energy production when they might not otherwise be able to do it.”
Plans for both of the proposed solar farms were before the county planning board on April 5 for review of their mandatory referrals. The first of the two for review was the one proposed off of Osborne Road near an existing shopping center with a Safeway. The second is proposed at10806 Croom Road, just off the road and intermixed with wooded areas.
Both plans are rather similar, both Haller and planning board staff Fatimah Hasan said, as both projects are proposed two-megawatt alternating current (AC) solar panel facilities on the designated farmland of statewide importance. The proposed projects both call for seven-foot fences with barbed wire, the planning of native pollinating plants around the solar panels and for a continuation of farming on any land not utilized by the solar farm. Leases on each of the sites are for 25 years with a possible five-year extension.
The Osborne Road project is slated to have 6,000 350-watt solar panels on 12 acres of a 31-acre plot of land. There will be 1,000 I-beams to hold the panels and more than 4,000 linear feet of fencing. The Croom Road farm is roughly the same, except it will have more than 10,000 linear feet of fencing on 23 acres used for the panels.
“It’s a three-year pilot program, so whether the state decides to continue it or not will be up to them- after they look at the results of all of the projects that get implemented,” Haller said.
The planning board unanimously approved both of the farms with several recommendations from planning staff. Hasan, who presented the staff findings said a number of the recommendations, or proposed alterations to the farm plans, were “cautionary” as they related to noise, lighting, solar glare and fencing.
Fencing was a surprisingly hot topic as Haller and Hasan disagree slightly on whether barbed wire should be used at the top of the fence and a neighbor to the Croom Road site asked that the fence height be raised by a foot to ensure local deer are not impaled on the barbed wire.
“Deer cannot breach an eight-foot fence. We have a lot of deer, and we don’t want them, but on the other hand, for them to die on barbed wire would be unpleasant and unfair,” Claudia Raskin said.
She also suggested the county take this pilot program as a chance to do something forward-thinking and outside of the box, rather than something that just meets requirements.
“So many times I feel that our county is on the cusp of doing something really great and then we kind of don’t do it,” she said.
In general, the public responded favorably to the idea of the solar farms, though the presidents of the Greater Baden-Aquasco Citizens Association noted that several of the residents in the immediate area are not PEPCO customers and would not see the benefit of the community solar farm. Though, he noted, the residents are happy the farms will not be visible from the road or impede the views of the area.
That was another issue worked through between Haller and Hasan as they debated what should be done about a slight hill in the Osborne project that would make some of the panels visible from the road.
“The viewshed analysis that staff did, did not presume any grading of that ridge. So they’re assuming that it's on top of that ridgeline and in reality we will be grading that ridge down, so that the panels will not be visible,” Haller said.
However, planning staff had suggested the energy company move the panels back off the ridgeline and instead put the buffer on the ridge, Hasan said. This would effectively ensure that no panels are visible from the road, but Haller said with the panels already residing more than 450 feet away from the street and the plans to grade the ridge line down, there would be no need to alter the plans.
He further explained that Turning Point Energy worries that if the panels are pushed back on the property, the would not be able to meet the watt capacity. He, however, agreed to work with planning staff on a solution and Board Chair Elizabeth Hewlett said they will work together to find a way to make it work.