MDE Denies Permits to Two Utility-Scale Solar Projects in Charles County

A Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) press release (2019-08-28) announced that MDE was denying permits to two proposed utility-scale solar developments in Charles County. The projects had been controversial due to their potential impacts on local streams, wetlands, and forests. The Shugart Valley project was proposed by Georgetown University while the Ripley Road project was proposed by the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO). Both projects would have been developed by Orgis Energy.

From the press release:

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles issued the following statement on the department’s decision to deny a wetlands and waterways application for the proposed Shugart Valley solar project and its determination that the proposed Ripley Road solar project does not satisfy water quality-related conditions in the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity issued by the Public Service Commission:

“While Maryland strongly supports the increased use of clean and renewable energy sources, these two proposed projects would harm the nearby high-quality stream in Charles County and threaten our continued restoration progress in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This is an unacceptable trade-off for the environmental benefits of clean energy. Maryland will continue to be a leader on clean and renewable energy that makes sense for our local communities and environment.”

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is denying MD Solar 1, LLC’s nontidal wetlands and waterways application for the Shugart Valley solar project. MDE determined the applicant failed to document and demonstrate that a serious effort was made to avoid, minimize and mitigate or otherwise offset the effects on water quality. Additionally, MDE does not consider the economic or social benefits of the proposed project to justify any decrease in water quality.

MDE also determined that MD Solar 2, LLC has not satisfied the conditions relating to the protection of “Tier II” high quality waters in the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity issued by the Public Service Commission for the Ripley Road solar project. MDE does not consider the economic or social benefits of the proposed project to justify any decrease in water quality.

Further background is provided by a Maryland Matters article (2019-08-28):

Both projects, located a few miles from each other near Nanjemoy in southwestern Charles County, were to be developed by Origis Energy, a solar power and energy storage company based in Miami, Fla. Both generated significant controversy in the community – particularly the Shugart Valley project, which would have required the clearing of more than 200 acres of forestland.

Georgetown administrators had planned to use the solar array to help meet the university’s goal of using 50 percent renewable energy by 2020, and estimated that the project could generate almost half the energy required to power its main campus. SMECO was also looking to the project to boost its portfolio of renewable energy. …

“State law mandates that SMECO purchase solar energy generated in Maryland as part of our power portfolio,” [SMECO Managing Director for Government and Public Affairs Thomas Dennison] said. “Our contract with Origis is tied directly to our compliance with this law, our philosophy to embrace and invest in renewable energy development in Southern Maryland and was consummated as a result of an extensive Request For Proposal process. SMECO’s solar obligations remain, and, as such, we will comply with them through the purchase of renewable energy credits.”

Previously, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) had urged MDE to deny the Shugart Valley permit. From a CBF press release (2019-08-27):

Thick forests composed of diverse plants are among the best water filters on earth. The trees in the forest also store carbon in their roots, trunks, and branches preventing carbon dioxide from migrating into the atmosphere. Neither Georgetown University nor their contractor Origis Energy have quantified the water filtering abilities of the forest they propose to cut down. …

The project also fails to address key environmental recommendations in Charles County’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan, which calls for protecting high quality streams and forested land greater than 100 acres from development.

CBF generally supports solar and other renewable energy projects to help transition from carbon-based power sources. However, not at the expense of high-quality forest, which Maryland is losing faster than can be replaced due to development and other pressures.

CBF applauded MDE’s action after the denial was made public.

MACo Position on Solar Siting

MACo supports solar energy development with local zoning and siting requirements as part of the project approval process. MACo recognizes that there needs to be a mix of rooftop, community, and utility-scale solar projects to meet Maryland’s renewable energy goals and has established the following prioritization for solar projects:

  1. rooftop solar;
  2. development of solar projects on brownfields, grayfields (such as parking lots and warehouse rooftops), industrial areas, and appropriate government-owned lands (such as landfills and wastewater treatment plants); and
  3. open space zoned for solar by local governments, with appropriate protections for prime farmland, forestlands, critical areas and wetlands, environmentally sensitive areas, and areas of cultural or historical importance.