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Going Green? Maybe Not, Virginia

In 2013, the Solar Energy Industries Association says installations were up 41% nationwide, with North Carolina ranking third for installed solar capacity and Maryland 16th, but neighboring Virginia was far down the list at number 26. 

Thirty states, including West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, have land-based wind farms, but Virginia has none. 

Like Virginia, the state of Maryland is known for delicious crustaceans from the Chesapeake Bay.  For decades, watermen have hauled crabs to shore, and chefs have made the most of their meat, but over the last decade, something surprising has happened in Maryland according to Energy Director Abigail Hopper.
“Maryland actually employs more people in the solar industry than in the crab industry.  Obviously crabs and Maryland go together.  It’s kind of an iconic symbol of our state, but we see solar as a new and burgeoning industry," she says.

The table was set for a transition and creation of 2,000 new jobs in 1998, when the state deregulated its utilities.  Unlike Virginia, where Dominion and Appalachian Power operate as monopolies, Maryland created a competitive marketplace where many companies could generate electricity.

“You can choose in Maryland to have your electricity supplied by someone who is 100% renewable.  You can choose to have just the lowest price.  You can choose to have a whole variety of options.”  At Mom’s Organic Market – a chain of seven stores around Washington, DC, founder Scott Nash embraced the chance to go green.  He put solar panels on the roof of one store and arranged to buy the rest of the energy he needed from wind farms. "Good things start happening when you start doing the right thing – whether it’s employee morale, employee retention, recruiting, customer loyalty -- the brand gets much stronger.”

At Friends Community School in College Park, parents and neighbors signed up to get their power from wind farms when a supplier offered to pay the school  for each new customer.  Leo Shapiro, whose son attends the school, was glad for the chance to do something about climate change. “More than a car’s worth of greenhouse gases is removed when you switch an average household, so it’s an easy way to neutralize the impact of a car.”

The desire to combat climate change isn’t the only force propelling renewables in Maryland.   Unlike Virginia, the state’s governor and legislature put requirements on utilities and offered rewards to green energy investors.  Tony Clifford is CEO of a company called Standard Solar.

“The utilities have to procure a certain portion of their power from solar. Now they can build this themselves, or they can purchase renewable energy credits from somebody that actually owns a solar power plant, for example, so if you put a system on your house in Maryland, not only do you get the power that comes out of it, you also get an S-REC for every one megawatt of power that you produce – so you can sell these.   It’s a significant piece of the financing is the expected monies that you’re going to get from S-RECs over the life of the program.”

And the state put no limits on who could produce and sell power back to the grid.  Even if you rent an apartment or live under shady trees, you can get in on the action, buying shares in a solar array  elsewhere in the state. Fred Ugast is president of a Frederick company called U.S. Photovoltaics. “If I pay $1,000 to buy four panels, and those panels generate 1,200 kilowatt hours a year, I’m going to receive a credit on my electric bill for those 1,200 kilowatt hours at the same rate I would pay for them, so it’s just as good as me having solar on my roof.”

He estimates there are 4,000 solar arrays in Maryland, and the state expects to have a large wind farm ten miles offshore from Ocean City in about three years.  In our next report, we’ll look at why Virginia isn’t pushing solar development, and why our utilities have very modest expectations for wind.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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