Commentary: Maryland’s community solar bill must pass this year

Program vital to ensure equity, energy generation, economic benefits

Published 3/22/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 3/22/2023 9:42 a.m. EDT

Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore City Democrat, listens to floor debate at the Maryland State House on Monday, March 20, also known as Crossover Day in Annapolis. General Assembly session rules require bills to pass one chamber — either the House of Delegates or the state Senate — by the end of the day on Monday, to ensure the other chamber will consider it.
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Maryland was a trailblazer among U.S. states when it enacted the Community Solar Energy Pilot Program more than seven years ago. Through this program, homeowners, renters and businesses without the ability to install their own solar panels have equal access to the economic and environmental benefits of solar energy.

Community solar projects are local, mid-scale solar facilities shared by multiple subscribers receiving a credit on their electric bills for their share of the power produced. This model for solar is being rapidly adopted nationwide.

Since Maryland adopted its innovative program, about half the states and the District of Columbia now have laws that support community solar. In addition, community solar generating facilities are now in about 40 states. In those states, the community solar programs are already permanent, not pilots.

The Maryland Community Solar Pilot Program sunsets next year, and without enactment of legislation this year, the community solar development market would experience substantial disruption. Even waiting until the 2024 General Assembly to enact legislation would lead to a grinding halt of community solar development in Maryland due to the significant lead time regulatory approvals and planning that must occur to develop a project.

The bottom line: We have to pass legislation during the 2023 General Assembly session to ensure the continuity of community solar in Maryland. Passage of HB 908/SB 613 would do so, as it makes the Maryland Community Solar Pilot Program permanent.

Our bill also brings in the best practices learned from other states to further improve the Maryland program. These improvements will accomplish critical objectives regarding equity, energy generation and economic benefits.

The legislation would require developers to dedicate at least 40% of a community solar project’s capacity to low- and moderate-income families and those in overburdened and underserved communities. This will ensure that electricity cost-savings will reach those who need it most. It’s an ambitious goal but one we can meet with a few additional tools utilized in other states.

First, consolidated billing is needed for community solar subscribers. This means that Marylanders would receive one electric bill — instead of two — to realize the benefits of community solar. Consolidated billing, which is currently done for retail electric suppliers so consumers get one bill, would provide broader participation and an easier experience for participating community solar customers. Community solar consolidated billing legislation passed the House overwhelmingly with bipartisan support just last year. It is already being used in states including Illinois, New York, Oregon and Virginia.

Second, the bill makes it easier for low- and moderate-income Marylanders to participate in the community solar program by allowing self-attestation of such status.

Gov. Moore has committed to reaching 100% renewable energy generation by 2035, furthering the ambitious 50% by 2030 target set by the 2019 Clean Energy Jobs Act. HB 908/SB 613 will play a critical role in helping Maryland meet its climate and renewable portfolio standard objectives, particularly with Maryland’s current solar undersupply.

The bill also expands and clarifies co-location requirements to further incentivize projects in difficult to build areas — such as rooftops, industrial zones, brownfields and parking lots. In addition, it would allow co-location on farmland in which agrivoltaics are used. Agrivoltaics is the simultaneous use of land for both solar power generation and active agriculture. Co-location means that a developer could build more than 5 megawatts (MWs) for these difficult-to-build areas to gain greater economies of scale for such solar energy generation.

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With billions of federal dollars up for grabs by the states, the enactment of HB 908/SB 613 will position Maryland to attract private investment by leveraging such federal monies. Community solar creates jobs — both construction and ongoing maintenance. It also generates local tax revenues.

It also means more money in Maryland ratepayers’ pockets. Subscribers of community solar save money on their electric bills. In addition, community solar reduces peak demand electricity, which means all ratepayers save money on their electric bills.

The passage of this legislation is a top priority of the broad community of environmental advocates, including the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. In addition, consumer organizations such as AARP and community advocates are also supporting the legislation.

While rigorous requirements will be imposed on the solar development community, solar developers also support the bill. It’s time for Maryland to ensure that community solar is made permanent in Maryland.

Del. Luke Clippinger chairs the House Judiciary Committee and sponsored the original Community Solar Pilot Program in 2015.

Sen. Ben Brooks is a member of the Senate Education, Energy, and the Environment Committee; previously, he served as a delegate and as chair of the House Economic Matters Subcommittee on Utilities, where he shepherded prior community solar improvement bills.