Solar Ambitions

All of Maryland will benefit from one man’s quest to bring solar power into his own community.

Kids play in Baltimore's Paterson Park on May 14, 2015.
The Paterson Park area of Baltimore may benefit from Maryland's new community solar legislation. (Matt Roth for Earthjustice)

Update: On Feb. 22, the Maryland Public Service Commission proposed draft regulations to guide the state’s three year community solar pilot project. (See details of the proposal.) The proposal was adopted as final on June 14.

Inspiration can strike like a finger snap at the oddest moments—like on Nick Woodman’s surfboard when he dreamt up the GoPro, or in the trunk of Ingvar Kamprad’s car, where the idea for IKEA was born.

Or, for that matter, on a Washington, D.C., street seven years ago where David Brosch suddenly found the solution to a life puzzle gleaming from the roofs of row houses. He knew from attending meetings held there that residents had formed a co-op to install solar panels that produced clean, cheap renewable energy that reduced the community’s dependence on fossil fuels.

“I thought, we could do that in our neighborhood in Maryland,” says Brosch, an energy auditor and environmentalist who—at age 60—had been struggling with how he could make a difference in the fight against climate change. Inspired, Brosch set out on what he thought was a simple project to make solar power accessible to his neighbors.

In reality, Brosch had actually embarked on a seven-year quest that would lead far from his neighborhood to the state capital, where this calm, methodical man helped change state law to open up solar access for citizens throughout Maryland.

“He sort of MacGyvered the system.”

The search began as Brosch looked for a rooftop that faced south into the sun, a challenge in his tree-lined neighborhood. After being rejected by the local school and a shopping center, he found a church willing to install the solar panels, and he began fundraising.

In just six weeks, Brosch and his neighbors raised more than $130,000 from investors and formed a company so the nonprofit church could take a renewable tax benefit. It took two more years before the solar panels were finally installed.

“He sort of MacGyvered the system,” cobbling together what he needed to create a model and a business for solar power, says Earthjustice senior legislative representative Jessica Ennis.

The project now generates 27,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, roughly 25 percent more than what the church needs, and serves as an example for other communities interested in buying solar power.

But Brosch and his colleagues weren’t done. They wanted to make so-called “community solar” projects accessible to everyone in the state—without the growing pains.

Even though Maryland has historically been a national leader in solar energy, 80 percent of the population is shut off from using it. Many are renters, but many others are homeowners who don’t have roofs facing south or are shaded by trees. Some can’t afford to install solar.

Bringing Community Solar To Maryland

Brosch began advocating for legislation to change that, but he could only go so far on his own. He connected with Earthjustice’s Ennis to show the difficulties of accessing solar and help push for a plan.

The message resounded with Maryland state delegate Luke Clippinger, who was in a position to legislate solutions.

Clippinger lives in a row house. Built wall-to-wall, the historic homes that dominate some Baltimore neighborhoods aren’t always suited for solar panel installation, one reason why the state needs solar co-ops. Clippinger spoke with neighbors, attended solar co-op meetings and met people who couldn’t participate because their homes didn’t get enough sunlight.

“They’re perfect candidates for community solar,” he says.

So last year, motivated by its benefits for members in his community, many of whom are minorities and have limited incomes, he proposed legislation to fix the problems.

It wasn’t the first time a bill on the subject made it to the floor. Maryland legislators had proposed similar bills over previous sessions, all without much success. Utility companies wary of crediting consumers for solar fought it behind the scenes and the bill withered.

This year, environmental and social justice groups advocated hard for the law. Earthjustice’s Ennis extolled the benefits of projects like Brosch’s in meetings with lawmakers and worked with other organizations like the Sierra Club and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. A wide variety of stakeholders also submitted supportive testimony, like the Maryland chapter of the NAACP, Enterprise Community Partners and Interfaith Power & Light. The organizations mobilized their membership, rallied residents throughout the state, and brought a groundswell of public opinion into legislators’ offices.

In March, Brosch and other advocates provided testimony to Maryland’s Senate Finance and House Economic Matters Committees in support of a community solar bill.

Clippinger saw an opportunity to pass the legislation. Soon other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle also saw its merits: it gives consumers an energy choice, creates jobs, cuts greenhouse gas emissions and benefits people—at no cost to Maryland taxpayers.

To maximize support, lawmakers agreed to begin Maryland’s community solar program as a three-year pilot, coupled with a study of the effects of these projects on utilities and ratepayers. After these negotiations, the bill passed with bipartisan support, giving the state’s nearly six million residents the ability to participate in community solar projects.

“I think with anything in the legislature sometimes you have to keep coming back and refine the bill and refine it again and again,” says Clippinger. “You slowly but surely get to a place where people can feel more comfortable with it.”

Even though the current bill is only for a pilot program, it’s a critical step forward. “It’s a foot in the door and a path to the future of more solar,” says Brosch.

Cleaner Energy—And Better Health

Maryland’s bills follow comparable laws signed in Washington, D.C., and nine other states, including Colorado, California and Massachusetts. In each state, agreements between the solar providers and the utility companies differ. In Maryland, the renewable energy portfolio standard requires the state to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewables like wind and solar by 2023. In the next five years, the law says two percent of that energy must come from solar. The new law will not only help the state reach its renewable energy goal, but it gives anyone a chance to buy power from a solar company.

“We’re a country of opportunity and we should be trying to think of ways to expand that opportunity to everyone,” says Stephanie Riddick, a Maryland resident who recently studied solar design and testified in support of the bill. In her testimony, Riddick quoted an NAACP resolution that supports community solar projects as a way to increase affordable access to clean energy.

Solar companies will install panels on roofs of grocery stores, schools, and in parking lots—anywhere appropriate for a solar system—in the way Brosch did at the Church of the Brethren.

Homeowners and renters can then buy the renewable energy generated by those arrays directly from the solar provider. The utility company gives those subscribers a credit on their electricity bills. That rate could be lower and more stable than average energy costs.

Most people also understand the connection between clean energy and better health and want both for their families, says Riddick. “I think the perception out there is that minority and low-income communities are not interested in environmental issues, and that’s not true.”

The ten panels on her roof generate 40 percent of the energy she needs, and whenever Riddick produces more energy than she can use she gets a credit on her electricity bill from her utility company.

“Any opportunity to lower those costs and at the same time protect the environment could only be an opportunity for everyone,” she says.

Brosch is already working on a number of new solar energy projects. He would have seen the governor sign the bill had he not been at a solar conference in D.C.

“I feel elated,” he says. “If we can get some projects going, and we can do them right, then in a couple years we can have a complete law that will allow us to do a multitude of projects in every part of the state.”

The more the better. He has three kids and a grandchild and wants to help create a clean energy future for them, he says. To him, that’s the biggest benefit of community solar projects. And he plans to continue installing them for as long as he can.

“I’d be pretty bored just sitting in my rocking chair,” says Brosch, “I hope to be doing this for the next couple decades.”

Epilogue: On June 14, 2016, the Maryland Public Service Commission adopted the proposed regulations for the Maryland Community Solar Pilot Project as final.

The final regulations include 30% of the dedicated community solar capacity to be set aside for low and moderate income projects, ensuring that communities of all income levels will have the opportunity to participate and reap the benefits of solar energy. Community solar project development will also be set aside at brownfield sites, encouraging a positive use of environmentally-damaged property.

Projects may begin to be submitted to the utility for interconnection starting in the fall of 2016.