Nixon's Farm in West Friendship has for 50 years been a fine place for country weddings in the converted 19th-century barn amid the grassy hills — "centrally isolated," the website calls the spot. Soon, though, a portion of the grounds off Route 32 could become the county's largest solar electricity generator, and the first built strictly to sell power to a utility.
A Baltimore-based energy engineering and consulting company has Howard County's permission to build an array of 10,400 solar panels designed to generate up to 2 megawatts, enough power for hundreds of houses. If a separate application for a zoning change is approved by the County Council, it would enable the company to expand the operation to 10 megawatts.
"We believe it's a new industry that should be encouraged," said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, which supports Bith Energy Inc.'s zoning request, with a few changes. The company's request was taken up in a Planning Board meeting this week and will next go before the council, which has final say on zoning changes.
While the 2-megawatt solar project conforms to current zoning and was approved this month, it still must receive approval from the Maryland Public Service Commission. It would be the first operation of its kind in the county, McLaughlin said.
The PSC says a solar farm in Western Maryland and two others under construction are selling power to utilities in Maryland other than Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
William B. Pino, BGE's director of electric supply, says the Bith Energy project would be the first solar operation in the state built strictly to sell power to his company. He says there are other solar generators built to supply electricity to a business that also sell some power to BGE, but the utility is not their primary customer.
Representatives of Bith Energy did not respond to several messages seeking comment, but information filed with the county briefly describes the company's plan.
Bith Energy wants to use nearly 10 acres of the 109-acre Nixon's Farm property for a solar array that "will be connected to the BGE grid," according to paperwork in the file. The tract is surrounded on three sides by woods and lies far enough from the existing catering business to allow it "to continue to operate unimpeded."
About two acres of woods are to be cleared for the project, but the impact would be "much less than what would have occurred had the property been developed as a residential subdivision," the application says. Other than the occasional visit by a maintenance worker, there would be no increase in vehicle traffic.
The project is called "Nixon Farms Solar Phase 1," but the only reference to a second phase appears in an engineering consultant's report on how the project would handle storm water: "Future phases are planned to construct a total final capacity of 10 MW," or megawatts.
For that, the developer would need a zoning change, as the rules now allow utilities only up to 2 megawatts. The proposed change, which would put commercial solar operations into the code for the first time, would affect rural land only, about two-thirds of the county's area, roughly 94,000 acres.
The rules proposed by the Department of Planning and Zoning establish a 10-acre minimum for a solar operation, and any buildings have to be set at least 75 feet back from property lines. No solar operation could be built on land under agricultural preservation, and each would be considered a "conditional use." That means applications would not be granted by right and would have to go before a hearing officer.
According to Bith Energy's website, the company was established as part of the Bith Group around 2005 and given its first contract to handle utility bills for the Maryland Department of General Services in 2007. Last year, the company finished work on a solar system for the Baltimore headquarters of Chimes International Inc., an organization that provides services for the disabled. The system at the campus off Northern Parkway in the Gwynn Oak area consists of three rooftop and one ground-mounted field of solar panels generating 670 kilowatts, about two-thirds of the headquarters' electricity needs, according to a company statement.
Pino says 2 megawatts would be enough to power about 550 homes for a year. Bith Energy's proposal says 1,000 homes and offers the county the option of buying power at a discount.
The project would add to about 100 megawatts of solar generating capacity in the state expected to be operating by late this year or early next year, according to the Maryland Energy Administration. By late 2013, the agency expects that capacity to rise to 130 megawatts.
That output would still be small compared with a conventional power plant. The Brandon Shores coal-fired plant in Anne Arundel County, for instance, has two generators, each producing about 650 megawatts.
While there are many rooftop solar panels for private home use in Howard County, and at least one farm that uses solar energy to power part of its operations, the county code must be updated to reflect the new technology and the potential expansion of the industry, says Kimberly Flowers, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.
"We are embracing and trying to support more green technology as a county," she said.