Community solar could shine in Western Maryland

“I love the entrepreneurial adventure. But I’m also an idealist, and I believe business should be a force for good.”
Gary Skulnik,
CEO of Neighborhood Sun

Gary Skulnik is working to bring solar energy to consumers who don’t have panels on their roofs.

Skulnik is CEO of Neighborhood Sun. The startup company, based in Silver Spring, Md., is signing up subscribers for what is known as a “community solar” project near Williamsport, Md. The 20-acre tract will host a 1,980-kilowatt facility, serving some 350 subscribers.

“This has been tried in a few states. It started in Colorado. … You don’t actually get the power from this solar plant. (The power) goes into the grid,” he said of community solar.

The idea is to replace “dirty” energy in the grid with power from renewable sources.

The retail power supplier — Potomac Edison, for example — then gives the consumer credit for the solar energy.

“The solar is going to offset about 100 percent of your usage. … It’s a big savings,” Skulnik said.

The Maryland General Assembly has OK’d a pilot program to bring solar power to people who can’t afford or do not want solar panels on their roofs.

The Maryland Public Service Commission has adopted regulations the pilot program, with an emphasis on providing renewable energy for low- and moderate-income customers. Skulnik added that some people’s homes are too shaded to benefit from roof-mounted panels. In other cases, as with historic structures, installing solar panels would be inappropriate.

The system also is designed to save money.

“Community solar customers are expected to see some savings on their electric bills and all Marylanders will benefit from more clean energy options,” the website states.

The program also is intended to encourage private investment in the state’s solar industry and “diversify the state’s energy resource mix to meet Renewable Portfolio Standard and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act goals.”

How it works

Skulnik’s company is signing up subscribers to support what will be known as the Rockdale solar project near Williamsport. It’s one of a several such facilities the company has in the works for Maryland.

Subscribers don’t pay a sign-up fee. They do sign a 20-year contract at a rate that Skulnik says is 10 percent below their current utility bills. An annual increase of 1 percent, “which is also very low,” is built into that contract.

The consumer will have two bills — a minimal charge from the retail power company, and the bill for the Rockdale system.

The Rockdale project will be owned by Community Energy Solar, a company that’s based in Radnor, Pa. It has led renewable energy development and the construction of more than 1,400 MW of wind and solar generating facilities across the nation.

The land itself has been leased for the solar field.

Skulnik acknowledges it will take confidence for consumers to sign on to the new approach. But he said he’s optimistic.

“We have to succeed,” he said. “We have to do what we promised to do.”

Skulnik, who has a degree in journalism, previously worked in “energy advocacy” and in other renewable energy efforts.

“I love the entrepreneurial adventure,” he said. “But I’m also an idealist, and I believe business should be a force for good.”

What about farms?

One criticism of solar fields is that they take up room traditionally used for agriculture.

“That seems to be the biggest question in Maryland today, across the state,” Skulnik acknowledged.

He answered the criticism with several points, saying that, even if the community solar program reached its maximum, it would take up less than 5 percent of the available land. He also noted that farmland is being converted into energy-using operations, from housing developments to commercial operations.

Skulnik said “it’s not necessarily an either/or,” noting that solar panels and some ag operations can go hand-in-hand. He also noted that it’s relatively easy to remove solar panels and return a field to farmland. Solar panels last for about 25 years, he said, at which point a decision can be made to upgrade the operation or take it apart.

“I understand. We don’t want any (power plants),” he said. “But also, let’s not put our heads in the sand. … There’s no such thing as a free lunch. The cleanest energy you can get is the energy you don’t use.”