FREDERICK -- BP Solar broke ground yesterday on a $97 million expansion that will more than double the capacity of its Maryland solar panel manufacturing plant, a development that officials heralded as a major step toward making the state a leader in renewable energy.
The plant is the largest integrated solar panel manufacturing facility in North America. After the expansion, it will be able to produce enough panels annually to generate 400 megawatts, roughly the output of the C.P. Crane coal-fired power plant in Baltimore County.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who attended the groundbreaking, praised BP's investment as a sign that manufacturing renewable energy products can complement economic development. The expansion is projected to add 70 jobs to the plant, which employs more than 400.
"This is not a ... choice between being sustainable and green and having a strong economic future," O'Malley said. "They go hand in glove."
Lee Edwards, the president of BP Solar, a subsidiary of the oil giant BP, said a new state law that took effect in Maryland July 1 helped make the economic case for the expansion.
The law requires utilities in Maryland to procure an increasing share of their power from solar sources, up to 2 percent of the state's total energy load by 2022. That would be the equivalent of three of the state's coal-fired power plants.
Most incentives that governments have approved in the past have been too short-term for manufacturers to make long-term business decisions based upon them, Edwards said. But Maryland's law and similar statutes being considered in other states mean the market for solar panels will grow.
"That gives us confidence that we can make long-term investments in building and equipment and infrastructure," Edwards said.
The company had initially announced a $70 million expansion in Frederick but raised the amount to $97 million in response to increasing world- wide demand for renewable energy.
The company also is expanding solar plants in India and Spain.
The Frederick expansion is being designed so that another manufacturing floor could be built on top of it, which would give the plant the capacity to build solar panels able to generate 1,500 megawatts annually.
BP Solar announced yesterday that it would donate $100,000 to a new state initiative to outfit schools with solar panels and to teach children about renewable energy.
The company will pay for solar panels at a Frederick County school, and O'Malley said he hopes to equip schools across the state within the year.
Edwards said that besides manufacturing a product that will help protect the environment, the plant expansion would meet green building standards. It will have advanced storm-water management and recycling systems and an environmentally friendly roof that includes a garden. And, like the existing plant in Frederick, the expansion will be covered with solar panels.