Apex’s Mills Branch Solar fights for approval of 60-MW project in Maryland

Mills Branch Solar LLC filed a Sept. 6 post-hearing brief with the Maryland Public Service Commission defending its December 2015 application for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) to construct a 60-MW (nominal) solar facility on 370 acres of agriculturally-zoned land in Kent County, Maryland.

The company wrote: “The solar project proposed by Mills Branch Solar, LLC (‘Mills Branch’) (the ‘Project’ or the ‘Mills Branch Project’) will deliver safe, clean, renewable electricity in support of State policy, particularly as expressed through the State’s Renewable Portfolio Standards. It will provide significant environmental benefits. The magnitude of the significant environmental benefits is in large part a consequence of the site selected for the Project. From an environmental perspective, the site is essentially ideal. No wetlands will be affected. No Chesapeake Bay critical areas would be affected. No federal- or state-listed species will be affected, and there will be no loss of habitat; to the contrary, new, beneficial habitat will be created. No forests will be cleared; again, to the contrary, trees will be planted.”

The brief added: “The Project will also contribute to the stability and reliability of the electrical system in general, and particularly to the efficiency and “green-ness” of electric distribution in Kent County and its vicinity, by adding a source of clean, renewable energy to Kent County and reducing both the need for importation of power into Kent County and the line losses that come with such importation.”

It said that two matters have been raised by opponents of the project: the agricultural zoning and use of the site, and the historic/heritage value of the central Eastern Shore as a whole. Neither matter justifies denial of a certificate for the project, the company said. The amount of agricultural land temporarily displaced is completely immaterial in the context of agricultural land in Maryland or on the Eastern Shore generally, or in Kent County specifically.  Meanwhile, there is no evidence of any impact whatsoever to any historic resources. The Maryland Historic Trust determined that the project would have “no effect on historic properties eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.”

The project site is in Kent County, on two parcels along State Route 290, totaling approximately 370 acres. The project site’s perimeter is composed of Route 290 to the east, a large commercial tree nursery (Angelica Nurseries Inc.) to the south and west, a railroad track and distribution line to the north, and a lot with a forest stand along the property line to the northeast.

The project will connect to the Delmarva Power & Light electric distribution system, which is part of the PJM Interconnection system. The point of interconnection will be at the project site, to the existing 69-kV Delmarva distribution line that runs along the north of the property.

The Maryland Office of People’s Counsel filed a Sept. 6 brief that was sharply critical of the project. “For years, Apex Clean Energy has been expending money, time and effort to purchase or lease land to construct a renewable energy project in Kent County. Apex continued its quest in the face of widespread and well organized opposition from the citizens and elected officials of the County. When it became clear that its initially planned wind turbine project likely would not get built, it changed tactics and proposed instead the Mills Branch Solar project that is the subject of this proceeding.

“It is important to recognize that the proposed project is not the result of any demonstrated ‘need’ to serve electricity to Maryland residents,” the office added. “The ‘necessity’ for the project does not arise out of any Integrated Resource Planning to ensure that the lights stay on or that rates stay low. In fact, that type of planning for ‘need’ diminished with the onset of deregulation in 1999. Instead, this project is intended to be a ‘merchant plant.’ The operator of Mills Branch will sell the output generated by the solar array into the PJM wholesale market to create revenues for Apex Clean Energy or its successors. There is no direct public interest benefit to Maryland ratepayers such as increased reliability or lower bills. There is only the ancillary benefit of the potential of getting closer to meeting the State’s renewable energy goals.

“Often, solar energy projects of the type proposed here are welcome additions to a county tax base. This project is notable for the fact that the County itself opposes it despite its progressive approach to renewable energy projects through its Comprehensive Plan.”

The Maryland PSC staff, in a Sept. 6 brief, wrote: “No party has shown that the proposed Mills Branch solar generating facility will have any clear, substantial, or certain adverse effect on the Stories of Chesapeake Heritage Area (‘Heritage Area’). Although the Commission’s authority to grant a CPCN preempts local zoning codes, the Commission is required to give due consideration to ‘the recommendation of the governing body of county or municipal corporation in which any portion of the construction of the generating station … is proposed to be located.’ The Commission is also required to implement the renewable portfolio standard (‘RP’”) set forth in §7-703 of the PUA, including the requirement that by 2020, two percent of the electricity sold in Maryland be derived from solar energy.”

Staff added: “The evidence put forth by Mills Branch and PPRP indicates that the proposed solar generating facility will have both economic benefits and net environmental benefits beyond those inherent in replacing a portion of conventional electricity generation with renewable power, particularly if the conditions proposed by PPRP are adopted. Staff witness Wilson has found that so long as the project meets the interconnection requirements of PJM Interconnection, LLC (‘PJM’) and Delmarva Power and Light Company (‘DPL’), ‘the additional generating capability of the project would be of benefit to Maryland and the PJM system.’ The project would also contribute towards meeting the overall and solar goals of the RPS. In furtherance of these benefits, if a CPCN is granted, it should incorporate the conditions set forth by Staff, as well as those recommended by PPRP. Based upon the record, and because of the net benefits of the project, and the lack of tangible adverse effects, Staff recommends that the PULJ and the Commission grant the requested CPCN, subject to the conditions set forth by PPRP and Staff.”

The “PRPP” referred to is the Power Plant Research Program of the state Department of Natural Resources.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.