Seize the chance to give Maryland a brighter future with solar power

August 25, 2005|By Ralph Brave

THE BP SOLAR plant in Frederick is rapidly expanding its production capacity and work force to meet the global demand for solar electric panels.

In Baltimore, SunEdison LLC recently received an infusion of $60 million from Goldman Sachs and Hudson United Bank to finance installation of solar electric panels on commercial buildings such as Whole Foods Markets and Staples.

But very few of those solar panels and none of that solar financing will be implemented in Maryland. That's because Maryland remains retrograde in its grasp of solar energy, deficient in its support for the technology and crippled in the minimal programs and policies that are supposed to promote solar.

The inclusion in the just-signed national energy bill of a 30 percent tax credit for solar systems in residences and businesses offers Maryland a new opportunity to get its solar programs on track. But the tax credit expires in two years, so now is the time for those who care about the state's energy and environmental future to take action.

The major obstacle to widespread use of solar is the high front-end cost of the panels. With a 30 percent solar tax credit, the federal government is offering to pay $3 of every $10 needed for that equipment. If the state offered an additional $1 or $2 toward every $10 of cost, the electricity produced by solar panels would be competitive with most utility rates over seven to 10 years. With the lifting of caps on utility electric rates next year, solar power could prove to be even more competitive than currently expected.

Just as in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and elsewhere, a minor charge of a dime or so on Maryland utility bills could create the multimillion-dollar clean energy fund that could help finance these solar systems.

Most states with such a clean energy fund enacted their programs during the restructuring of the utility market in the late 1990s. In Maryland, the utility lobby, with the cooperation of the legislative leadership, buried a similar effort, and with the cooperation of the Public Service Commission, it did so again last year.

There are so many benefits to solar energy - from cleaning the air to removing volatility in electric prices to increasing jobs to easing peak pressures on the electric grid - that the issue should be actively reopened and the governor and legislature encouraged to step into the sunlight. The current $103,000 solar grant program run by the Maryland Energy Administration and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s self-promoting "Energy Star" appliance advertising are not a substitute for a genuine renewable energy policy with substantive programmatic goals.

There are other changes to existing law that could also help.

Most states have a "net metering" law, whereby if a solar electric panel produces more kilowatts than needed by the house or business, the owner can get credit over the next year for feeding that energy back into the electric grid for use elsewhere. Under Maryland's net metering law, no one can get credit beyond his or her 30-day usage. Maryland utilities such as the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. can take any excess electricity without paying for it.

Maryland has the basic ingredients to become one of the solar energy capitals of the world. What's needed is leadership to enact policies and programs that will result in "sustained orderly development," as industry members term it, of the solar market. With such an approach, the need for federal or state subsidies fades and then disappears as the market matures.

Maryland's solar opportunity can be met with relative ease. No radical measures or technical breakthroughs are required. What has been missing in Maryland is an effective champion for solar energy. The new substantial federal solar tax credit is the signal for Maryland's solar champions to emerge.

Ralph Brave is a science writer who has been covering Maryland's renewable-energy sector for the City Paper.

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