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FirstEnergy to buy electricity from new solar farm near Md. prisons

December 01, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com

FirstEnergy Solutions has signed a 20-year agreement to buy power from a large solar-generating facility to be built south of Hagerstown, a move critical to the project's success, an official with the solar project said Thursday.

The solar project probably would not have moved forward without the purchase power agreement, said D. Bruce Poole, a local attorney representing Maryland Solar LLC. Financing for the project is contingent on the venture's success, he said.

If the purchase power agreement had not occurred, it would have put a "major stick in the wheel," Poole said.

Construction on the solar project is expected to begin before the end of the year and be finished in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to a FirstEnergy Corp. news release. FirstEnergy Solutions is a subsidiary of FirstEnergy.

With 175,000 solar panels, the Maryland Solar Farm will be built on state prison system land off Garis Shop and Roxbury roads south of Hagerstown. Construction costs are estimated to be $70 million.

A local family farming the land should be able to continue farming portions of the land even after the solar farm becomes operational, Poole said.

The solar farm is expected to become operational in 2013, according to the news release.

The deal will not affect rates for customers, FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said. FirstEnergy customers in the Tri-State area make their payments to Potomac Edison, West Penn Power or Mon Power, depending on where they live.

Durbin said the price for the deal was not being disclosed.

At peak output, the 20-megawatt project is expected to generate enough electricity to power about 2,250 homes, according to Maryland Solar Farm's website.

Averaged out over the course of a year, with peak and nonpeak times, 20 megawatts is enough to power about 13,000 to 14,000 residential customers, Durbin said.

Buying power from the Maryland Solar Farm is part of a commitment FirstEnergy made when it merged with Allegheny Energy last winter to develop renewable resources, Durbin said. It also will help the utility meet its solar renewable energy credit obligation in Maryland, he said.

FirstEnergy's strategy is not to build wind or solar farms, but buy power from them, Durbin said.

Other sources for the utility's power capacity include coal operations, nuclear power plants, natural gas, oil, hydro, and contracts with third-party wind suppliers.

The solar farm will be the largest solar facility in Maryland and one of the largest on the East Coast, according to the news release.

Hopefully the project will lead to other solar projects, Poole said. Maryland Solar is interested in doing more projects, he said.

Solar energy cannot be produced at a market rate right now, so the only way the project was going to work was with both the subsidy Maryland Solar gets from federal tax credits and to have a purchase power agreement, Poole said.

"Without that, it wouldn't be profitable for Maryland Solar and, therefore, there wouldn't be solar companies trying to do business in the state of Maryland," Poole said.

"I think everybody knows that with the problems we have with climate change and pollution and foreign wars that are often tied to the production of energy, it's in our interest to start creating alternative energy resources," Poole said.

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