CHESTERTOWN — The company planning a controversial wind farm in Kent County went back to the drawing board and came up with a new proposition — a 330-acre solar array.
On Dec. 14, Mills Branch Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Charlottesville, Va.-based Apex Clean Energy, filed an application with the Maryland Public Service Commission for a 60-megawatt solar photovoltaic generating facility in the Chesterville area. The company seeks approval in time to begin construction in June and be online by the end of October, according to the filing.
Apex has spent several years conducting studies and trying to secure land leases for a wind farm in the same area. That project, which drew sharp criticism from some in the county, would have seen the construction of 25 to 35 500-foot wind turbines.
Keep Kent Scenic formed in opposition to what was called Mills Branch Wind. Opposition group members lobbied public officials, set up an information booth Saturday mornings at the Chestertown farmers market and posted signs around the county decrying the wind farm.
“Apex’s mission is to accelerate the shift to clean energy, and we are always trying to design the best projects possible for the specific communities in which we work. For the past year, we have been listening closely to community feedback about our proposed wind energy project,” said Blaine Loos, project developer with Apex Clean Energy, in a statement.
Speaking Friday, Dec. 18, Tyson Utt, Apex’s mid-Atlantic director of development, said the company recognized the opposition it faced to the wind project. He said it had its backers, too.
Still, Utt said the company shifted gears in an effort to find broader project support.
“We’re pretty excited about it,” he said of the new project.
In an interview Monday, Dec. 21, William Graham, a lead organizer of KKS, said the organization is cautiously pleased with Apex’s change in direction. He said KKS members met with Apex representatives Dec. 18.
“We are just delighted to find that Apex ... would seem to have dropped the wind here in Kent County,” Graham said. “But we’re going to have to stay vigilant.”
He said KKS is concerned that Apex retains lease options on proposed wind turbine sites, and those options could be sold to another developer. The organization also wants to see Mills Branch Solar comply with forthcoming county zoning regulation for utility-scale arrays.
“So right now, we’re not popping champagne corks,” Graham said. “When it moves in the solar direction, we want to do what’s right for the county and what makes sense.”
Utt said the state has strong policies supporting solar generation, and Apex is maintaining interconnection rights to transmission lines running through the original project area. He said that if successful, Mills Branch Solar would take the place of Mills Branch Wind.
“We have listened carefully as Kent County leaders have voiced support for bringing solar energy to this area,” Loos stated. “We are very pleased that we have found a way to offer the Mills Branch Solar project as a great opportunity to achieve all of our collective goals.”
This is the third utility-scale solar array in the works for Kent County. Seattle-based OneEnergy Blue Star Solar LLC is seeking PSC approval for a 30-plus-acre 6-MW array on a portion of a 129-acre parcel near Massey; Massey Solar LLC, of Radnor, Pa., filed for a 5-MW facility on a 55-acre portion of a 96-acre parcel neighboring the OneEnergy site.
According to a news release from Apex, Mills Branch Solar will generate enough electricity annually to meet the usage demands of all Kent County’s residents, while avoiding the emissions equivalent of burning 600 train-car loads of coal.
“Solar energy is clean, producing no air pollution, water pollution, or hazardous waste and emitting a minimal amount of noise,” the release states.
The county will benefit financially from the project, as well, according to the Mills Branch Solar website.
“Representing a private investment well in excess of $100 million, Mills Branch Solar will benefit the economy of Kent County in the near term with construction jobs and local purchasing of materials and services. In the long term, the project promises to bring sustained tax revenue to the county for the local government and schools, as well as 30 years of local purchasing, employment, and investment,” the website states.
The site covers two parcels, comprising 370 acres of land 1.6 miles north of Chesterville and 2.5 miles south of Galena, according to Mills Branch Solar’s PSC filing.
On Dec. 18, Apex representatives said 330 acres will be fenced in for the solar array, with the panels taking up less than 300 acres. They said the site will be set back at least 90 feet from the road and vegetation will be planted to buffer views.
“The area surrounding the site is rural in nature and comprised of agriculture and a few rural residential single-family homes,” the PSC filing states. “The site has been cleared and is used primarily for agricultural production.”
The panels are not to exceed 10 feet tall, a height the Apex team said is industry standard.
In addition to the solar arrays, Mills Branch Solar also seeks PSC approval for onsite interconnection substations, operation and maintenance facilities, stormwater management systems and access roads.
“While it is not always possible to earn unanimous support in a project community, in this case, we have found a window of opportunity to develop a solar energy project that we believe offers a positive outcome for both Apex and local stakeholders,” Loos stated.
One issue local officials had with Mills Branch Wind was that it did not conform to the county code. The wind turbines would have greatly exceeded height limits.
The PSC trumps local authority in such a case, though, and it will need to do so for Mills Branch Solar as well.
“In particular, among other preclusive requirements, Kent County’s ordinance would preclude any comparable solar project exceeding 5 acres,” the Mills Branch Solar filing with the PSC states. “Accordingly, the Commission is not required to find compliance with local land use requirements prior to granting a CPCN (Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity), and should not impose compliance with Kent County land use regulations as a condition to a CPCN for this Project.”
That does not mean Mills Branch Solar is disregarding all county land use regulations. Utt said that in some cases, including setbacks, the company is choosing to adhere to county regulations that are more stringent than state requirements.
On Dec. 21, Amy Moredock, Kent County’s director of planning, zoning and housing, spoke about local efforts to review utility-scale solar arrays in agricultural zoning districts. She said a special committee is meeting regularly to discuss the matter and associated issues.
Moredock said the other two solar arrasy — OneEnergy and Massey Solar — do not face the same 5-acre limitation as Mills Branch Solar. She said the Apex project is located in an agricultural zone, on which the county places a tighter size limitation, while the other two are located in employment centers with less stringent zoning for solar arrays.
For Mills Branch Solar to meet its construction timeline, the company is seeking a waiver from the state’s requirement that CPCN applications be filed two years before breaking ground. The filing states the PSC can approve such a waiver “upon a showing of good cause.”
“A two year (sic) notice requirement is unnecessary when, as here, the project’s impacts will not extend beyond the borders of the site. There are no emissions that will impact adjacent properties and the installation of the solar modules will not materially impact property values for nearby residents,” Mills Branch Solar states in its filing.
The company also hopes that by receiving PSC approval in April, Mills Branch Solar will “contribute to the Maryland Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard’s Solar Renewable Energy Credit requirements and qualify for the Federal solar Investment Tax Credit.”