Baltimore, MD-4/21/14-Wilber Vasquez, a solar installer with RCS, puts edge guards on the racking of the solar panels on the roof of a Domino Sugar building.
Baltimore, MD-4/21/14-Wilber Vasquez, a solar installer with RCS, puts edge guards on the racking of the solar panels on the roof of a Domino Sugar building. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Marylanders who rent apartments or have shaded roofs will be able to buy solar energy under rules being finalized this week by the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Under the community solar program, any business, utility, individual, organization or nonprofit can install solar panels on its property and sell the energy.

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The program is intended to expand access to renewable energy to low- and moderate-income customers who can't afford to buy solar panels, and for renters who aren't allowed to install solar panels where they live.

The three-year pilot program, established by lawmakers earlier this year, starts in May. Though the General Assembly will review the program again in 2019 before making it permanent, community solar projects established during the pilot will be allowed to operate until 2044, offering operators the stability of potential continuing revenue beyond the length of the pilot, said Phil VanderHeyden, the PSC's electricity division director.

The PSC is hammering out some of the program details in rulemaking sessions Monday and Tuesday.

Traditional rooftop solar arrays use a billing mechanism called net metering for which customers are credited for the energy they send back to the electric grid.

"A [Baltimore Gas and Electric] customer, for example, they're able to subscribe to a solar array constructed either somewhere else in the city or out in the county, and they would receive the energy as if it were something constructed on their roof," VanderHeyden said. "The desire is to expand the accessibility of net metering to customers who don't own their own home. A program like this may make it easier to offer it to customers who have bad credit or may not have the capital to make the investment in solar panels."

So far, BGE said it has gotten one application for a community solar program. Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced last month he is launching a nonprofit community solar program aimed at low-income customers called Power52. BGE officials estimate customers who participate in Power52 can save $28 a month on their electric bills.

Companies such as SolarCity began offering rooftop solar systems for rent in recent years, which helped expand access to something that had previously been limited to residents with the means to shell out thousands to buy solar panels.

There are currently 275 megawatts of solar energy installed in Maryland, or enough to power about 30,000 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

But some customers can't buy solar power because trees on their property block the sun's rays or because they rent an apartment.

Depending on how the company or nonprofit running the project sets it up, customers could purchase the power generated by the solar panels or a share of the solar panels themselves, VanderHeyden said.

Such a payment would be separate from the customer's utility bill. Electric providers would deduct the kilowatt hours produced by their participation in the program from the customer's overall energy usage, or give the customer a bill credit.

States including California, Colorado and Minnesota also have established community solar programs.

The community solar program is limited to a combined total of no more than 300 megawatts of solar power, plus an additional 100 megawatts of solar power for low and moderate income customers.

Solar facilities allowed under the program would be relatively small — up to two megawatts, or enough to power about 2,000 homes. Even smaller systems on community buildings or spread across several roofs also would be allowed.

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Paul Stankus, a Rockville resident who is vice chair of the King Farm homeowners association, wrote to the PSC in hopes that the regulatory body can help his organization start a community solar project.

The homeowners association was interested in starting one, Stankus said, but the residents realized they wouldn't be able to get the 30 percent federal income tax credit available to individual owners of solar panels. Stankus said the state should seek other federal incentives to help nonprofits and businesses defray the costs.

"More nonprofits would be happy to participate in the program," Stankus said. "Ultimately in order for the state to meet their renewable energy mandates, community solar is going to be a big part of that."

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