Umes Plans To Plant 20-acre 'Solar Farm'

Project To Generate Power For 4,100-student Campus

August 08, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,

On one of the fields where students learn about agriculture, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore will soon be planting a new kind of crop with a constantly renewable yield - 20 acres' worth of photovoltaic panels, the largest solar farm in the state.

The 2.1-megawatt system, to be built by Beltsville-based SunEdison, will generate electricity for the 4,100-student campus in Princess Anne when it's finished, which is expected by the end of the year.

"We hope it will be a model for other universities as well as the surrounding businesses in the area," said Suzanne Street, the university's spokeswoman.

The solar farm, about the size of 22 football fields, should help stabilize electricity costs for the historically black university, its officials say. And in the process, they say, getting electricity from the sun should displace more than 100 million pounds of climate-warming carbon dioxide over the next 20 years that a coal-burning power plant would otherwise emit to keep the lights on on campus.

The project, announced this week, indicates renewed interest in the fledgling solar power industry, which had seen new installations slowed since last fall by the slumping economy, industry officials say.

"It's a good sign that they're starting to come back," said Peter Lowenthal, a renewable energy consultant in Washington and regional director for the Solar Energy Industry Association.

Energy incentives in states like Maryland, in addition to increasingly generous federal ones, are turning the Mid-Atlantic region into a hot spot for new solar projects, said Monique Hanis, spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

"We expect it to vie with California for becoming one of the better regions for solar in the next five years," she said, noting that New Jersey has the second-largest amount of solar power generation installed.

Maryland has a long way to go to challenge other states for solar supremacy. Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas boasts the largest photovoltaic system in the nation for now, a 14-megawatt array spread across 140 arid Nevada acres. A batch of much larger ones are in the works.

But by itself, the university project will nearly double the state's solar generating capacity of about 3 megawatts, says Christina Twomey, spokeswoman for the Maryland Energy Administration. The next largest is a roughly 1 megawatt photovoltaic system installed by Constellation Energy last year on the roof of McCormick & Co.'s mill and distribution center in Hunt Valley.

"For one system, that's a pretty significant accomplishment and a good step forward," said Joseph Verrengia, spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. Although the Sunbelt is seeing some huge solar farms proposed, Verrengia said that systems can convert sunlight to electricity efficiently even in more northerly places like Maryland.

"Maryland is really coming on strong," said Matthew Dickey, SunEdison's sales manager, who noted that his company has installed solar arrays on four Montgomery County schools and has a contract to do four more.

Officials at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore say their first concern was economics. The university's annual electricity expenses jumped by more than $1 million a couple of years ago when rates shot up by 50 percent, said Ronald Forsythe, vice president for technology and commercialization. "At that point, we said we've got to find a way to stabilize energy costs and do it quickly," Forsythe said. So the university began negotiating with SunEdison.

A 2-megawatt solar farm normally would cost about $12 million to build, Dickey said, but the company offered to finance it so the university would not have to pay anything upfront. In return, the school signed a 20-year agreement to pay SunEdison for the electricity generated at a fixed but gradually rising price.

Such no-money-down "power purchase agreements" have helped overcome the intimidating costs of installing solar systems, said the industry association's Hanis. The company is able to do it with the help of federal tax credits worth up to 30 percent of the construction cost. Solar projects get a boost in states like Maryland, where they're able to sell "renewable energy credits" to power companies, which are required to generate a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar and hydropower.

School officials say it's a good deal for them. The initial rate is 8.75 cents per kilowatt-hour, Forsythe said, well below the 9.9 cents the university now pays. After the first year, the charge will rise 2 percent annually, Forsythe said, but that escalation seemed reasonable, he contended, because electricity costs historically have been rising 5 percent a year in the state.

Forsythe said he hopes having the photovoltaic system, which should furnish about 10 percent to 15 percent of the university's electricity, might give the school leverage in negotiating a better deal for the rest of its power.

Some mega-solar projects are generating disputes over the amount of land needed to accommodate them. Forsythe said the UMES project would require professors to move some research they had been conducting in fields behind the water tower to other sites on the 745-acre campus.

When the university's solar farm is finished, Dickey said, it will stand as the largest commercial photovoltaic array in the Mid-Atlantic - for maybe a year, when he expects the company to finish building a 17.5-megawatt system in North Carolina.

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