Integrated into the roofing slates of Joe Gitchell’s Chevy Chase house are photovoltaic panels.
The small-scale solar system produces about 40 percent of his home’s energy needs and is saving him about $1,000 annually on utility bills, Gitchell said.
With some tweaking, the system can meet 80 percent to 90 percent of his energy-conscious family’s needs, he is convinced.
“At some level I do believe we are changing the earth and need to do what we can not to make it worse than we have to,” Gitchell said, adding that the solar panels also generate hot water.
Like the sun itself, the number of small solar electric and heating plants is soaring in Maryland.
While Montgomery County, where Gitchell lives, leads the pack in the number of solar power installations — followed by Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties — solar facilties are operating in each of Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore city.
In fact, applications to be certified as a solar renewable energy facility — at about 1,550 for the year so far, according to the state’s Public Service Commission — are on track to at least double the 922 received last year.
New regulations pending from the PSC will further define how suppliers must pay solar system owners if they generate more than they take out of the power grid.
Volume was one reason the PSC set up an online application portal in July. It automatically checks and notifies solar installation applicants of errors and missing information and has streamlined the process.
The growth in applications mirrors a plan by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to double the share of solar energy used in Maryland each year until it reaches 2 percent in 2022. A state standard requires the use of renewable resources to meet 20 percent of the state’s electricity demand by then.
Most of the 1,700 solar power installations in the state are home-based, and about 150 to 200 are commercial, said Kevin Lucas, director of energy marketing strategies for the Maryland Energy Administration.
Lucas’ estimate is based on his review of facilities registered with PJM, the regional organization that manages the movement of electricity in Maryland, the District of Columbia and all or part of 12 neighboring states.
Among them is a 1.8 megawatt system that spice and specialty food maker McCormick powered up in Belcamp in June — a second for the company that also operates a 1-megawatt facility in Hunt Valley.
Constellation Energy owns and operates the Belcamp facility through a 20-year power purchase agreement.
Maryland Solar has preliminary approval to build the state’s biggest solar facility, with a capacity of 20 megawatts, on about 250 acres near the Maryland Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown.
That facility would almost double the 26 megawatts of solar power capacity that the PSC says is currently installed in Maryland.
And the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative has asked the PSC for permission to proceed with plans to build a 5.5- megawatt solar facility on 47 acres of former tobacco farmland in Hughesville.
That’s just a sample of what’s already in place or in the works to raise Maryland’s solar quotient.
Boosting the solar growth are state and federal tax breaks, grants and the opportunity to sell energy suppliers the renewable credits associated with each megawatt hour generated.
In Maryland, suppliers must first look within the state to buy those credits.
To meet the 0.025 percent solar supply mandated for 2010, suppliers bought 63 percent of credits from generators within Maryland. The rest came from outside the state, and about 4 percent of the requirement was met with $400-per-megawatt-hour payments that utilities have the option of making in lieu of credits that they usually can buy for less. Next year, the credits must come from Maryland facilities generating solar power.
Without government incentives, energy produced by the solar systems would be more expensive than what comes out of the grid, Lucas said.
Plus, “a lot of interest is generated by the fact that Maryland has one of the highest utility rates in the nation,” said Mike Thompson of Hollywood. Thompson has retired from careers with Verizon and in architecture and found an avocation-cum-vocation in convincing people to consider solar and helping them figure out how to do it.
But solar holds promise beyond subsidies, which in some cases agencies have reduced to spread around limited funds when budgets are tight.
Not only are new means for harnessing the sun’s rays, such as solar films and slates, becoming more widely available, the cost of solar panels, the most widely used technology, has dropped, Lucas said.
One reason for the lower price is that costs for polysilicon, used to make most solar panels, have declined.
That was bad news for Solyndra, which declared bankruptcy Aug. 31 after receiving about a half-billion dollars in federal grants. Solyndra did not use polysilicon in its panels and assumed polysilicon prices would stay high. President Barack Obama has been criticized for supporting the California-based company, despite some warnings and after falling polysilicon prices already had eroded a large factor in Solyndra’s business plan.
For those who install solar systems now, “they are cost-effective on any scale,” although larger ones benefit from economies of scale, Lucas said.
As for system maintenence costs, in most cases those “issues are almost nil,” Thompson said.
Gitchell’s fairly high-end system in his Chevy Chase home cost about $65,000 but earned him about an $18,000 federal tax break, a $10,000 state grant and about $4,000 from the sale of current and future energy credits.
A typical six-kilowatt residential system costs about $50,000 to set up, and homeowners can get about $20,000 back in state and federal grants and tax breaks, Thompson said.
Such a system generates about seven renewable energy credits annually; a typical solar water heating system produces up to three credits, Lucas said.
The credits are a financial instrument that owners can try to sell themselves or can have an aggregator or broker sell for them, usually for a fee.
Thompson, who organized a tour of 14 solar facilities in Southern Maryland on Saturday, said he is more interested in the environmental benefits and homeowner savings the systems can provide than in consulting fees.
Ten years ago, there were 10 systems in SMECO’s service territory, Thompson said.
“We’ve got 100 systems now; I just want 1,000,” he said.
Suppliers’ option of making a $400 alternative payment instead has meant that credits seldom sell for more than about $350 and often range between $175 and $200, Lucas said.
Alternative payments go to the Maryland Strategic Energy Investment Fund, established for the purpose of decreasing energy demand and increasing the supply of affordable, reliable, clean energy.
Staff Writer Jeff Newman contributed to this report.