Maryland's new community solar law means residents can invest together and buy solar at a remote location.
Maryland’s new community solar law allows residents to invest together and buy solar at a remote location. The solar energy is then credited back to their utility bill.
Maryland’s new community solar law allows residents to invest together and buy solar at a remote location. The solar energy is then credited back to their utility bill.

Maryland’s recently signed “community solar” legislation and Tesla’s new solar battery have paved the way for sun-powered energy to become a reality for all Marylanders.  This is good news for your pocketbook, and also great news for our it’s-getting-hot-in-here climate.

Solar has long been pooh-poohed as not being a viable energy option. The potential market share shrinks when you consider the ideal residential solar profile: a larger home with a roof that faces south and isn’t shaded by trees.  Since solar can be costly, a potential solar buyer also plans to own their home for the long term. Solar’s “ideal roof” cuts out people who rent, own smaller homes, own a condo, live in shaded neighborhoods, and are low income.

Add the fact that solar panels don’t generate energy on cloudy days or at nighttime, and the naysayers had a point.

Until now.

Harvesting Solar Gardens

Community solar, sometimes called a solar garden, is approved in ten states and DC. The idea is simple: any person who pays a utility bill has the option to buy, or invest, into a solar installation at another location. The solar energy generated by their portion of the offsite unit is credited back to their home’s utility bill. The sky’s the limit on community solar locations: commercial buildings, schools, and parking lots. Even open fields. 

Maryland is on the Forefront of Community Solar

Though four years in the making, the little-known Community Solar bill was just signed into law by Governor Hogan. According to Jessica Ennis at the non-profit Earthjustice, we’ll have to wait a few years for the state-wide program to be developed and launched.

“Maryland’s Community Solar bill lays out a four-year plan,” she said. “The first year will be spent crafting regulations with Maryland’s Public Service Commission. Then, three years will be devoted to launching and evaluating pilot programs. The hope is that in a few short years, community solar projects can be launched quickly and efficiently on a large scale in Maryland.”

Just chat with South and Southeast Baltimore’s Delegate Luke Clippinger about solar gardens and you quickly see the potential. Clippinger sponsored this year’s House version of community solar bill.

“Everyone will soon have access to renewable energy,” Clippinger said. “Even folks in my district where many want clean energy, but most live in row homes where the roof area is too small to make solar work.”

Solar battery backup finally arrives

Tesla’s recent launch of a viable solar battery may be what pushes solar past the tipping point. Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, also owns Solar City, the nation’s largest solar installation company, with about 40 percent market share.

Sunshine isn’t on a predictable schedule, but solar batteries clear up the clouds hanging over the issue. Having a quiet and reliable back-up system provides electricity when it’s overcast. Batteries also provide a critical overflow function when the sun is blazing but the unit’s power isn’t needed, and store excess energy for future demands.

Battery storage also allows homeowners and businesses to go “off the grid,” and now things get dicey with their local utility. 

Someone’s Not Happy

Community solar and solar batteries highlight the tension between utilities and renewable energy. Because of the sun’s variability, solar customers have relied on their utility as a backup when their panels aren’t cranking out kilowatts. More importantly, solar users sold their unit’s extra energy back to their utility. This buyback process is called net metering.

As you can imagine, utilities are not excited about customers using less of their product, or losing customers altogether. If you’re interested in the challenge utilities face with renewables cannibalizing their markets, read this humorous article by Grist’s cheeky David Roberts. Warning, he likes colorful language. 

It seems safe to predict that solar energy will soon be viable and will help “decarbonize” our world. Naysayers are already pointing out where solar isn’t perfect today, but I’d argue the writing is on the wall for renewables to succeed. To stay abreast of Maryland’s solar progress, check out MD SUN’s newsletter. It’s the insider’s source for info on our state’s solar energy progress.

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.