With the 10-megawatt Dover Sun Park and the 15-megawatt Milford Solar Park, Kent County produces 27.7 megawatts of solar energy, according to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
Kent County doesn’t have a hydroelectric dam. It boasts no coal-fired power plants and there isn’t a single wind turbine along its skyline.
But it is leading the pack when it comes to one form of energy production.
Kent County produces nearly 28 megawatts of solar energy, an amount slightly less than New Castle and Sussex counties’ combined output of just over 32 megawatts, according to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).
Most of that success is because Milford and Dover are home to the First State’s first- and second-largest solar arrays, respectively.
The 10-megawatt Dover Sun Park was developed in 2011 by White Oak Energy, a Delaware subsidiary of New Jersey-based LS Power. The park occupies about 103 acres in Dover’s Garrison Oak Technology Park off White Oak Road.
Meanwhile, the 15-megawatt Milford Solar Farm is located on an 80-acre property off Milford-Harrington Highway. Owned by a subsidiary of the New Jersey-based Public Service Enterprise Group, it came online in 2013.
While the remainder of solar energy produced in Kent County comes from solar arrays attached to businesses and homes, its the two solar farms that have enabled Kent County to become a solar power leader on the national level, as well.
Milford is first and Dover is seventh in the nation in terms of cumulative solar watts per customer, according to a 2013 report by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), a nonprofit that helps utilities integrate solar energy into their portfolios.
“Milford customers get more solar delivered to their home than any other customers in the country,” explained Miriam Makhyoun, a researcher with SEPA.
The presence of those solar parks means Kent County is playing a major role in helping Delaware energy suppliers meet a state-mandated goal of providing 25 percent of their total power from renewable sources.
That goal, or Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), was created to help the state develop cleaner sources of energy. Currently, Delaware gets 75 percent of its energy from natural gas and 21 percent from coal, with most of that power produced outside the state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The RPS was first instituted by the General Assembly in 2005 with a 10-percent renewable source goal by 2019. In 2010, that goal was changed to 25 percent by 2025 with annual benchmarks along the way. This year, suppliers such as Delmarva Power must purchase 11.5 percent of the electricity they sell in Delaware from renewable sources, 0.8 percent of which must come from solar sources.
According the state portfolio law, each megawatt-hour of solar energy creates one renewable energy credit. Energy suppliers can meet the annual benchmarks either by purchasing solar power from a Delaware-based provider, by purchasing a credit associated with power generated elsewhere or by making a direct payment to the Delaware Green Energy Fund.
Those requirements have helped spur solar energy production in Delaware since the portfolio law was created.
According to the renewable energy lobbyist Environment America Research & Policy Center, Delaware’s solar energy production has grown from 2 megawatts in 2008 to more than 60 megawatts in 2014. Last year, the center ranked Delaware seventh in the nation in terms of solar installations per capita.
And nearly half of the state’s total solar energy output is produced by the two utility-scale parks in Kent County.
“Delaware has really come a long way in installing solar and promoting clean energy and Kent County’s been a big part of that,” said Robert Underwood, an energy programs administrator with DNREC.
While Delmarva Power is meeting its annual solar energy goal mostly by purchasing the credits alone, the Delaware Municipal Electric Corporation (DEMEC) is receiving the majority of its credits by purchasing actual energy produced by Kent County’s two solar farms.
“We’ve definitely been using the Milford and Dover parks in the beginning years as the resources that have been getting us (to the goals),”said Scott Lynch, energy services manager with DEMEC, which represents nine municipal electric distribution utilities in the state, including Clayton, Dover, Smyrna and Milford. “As the years go on, we recognized that we’ll have to be adding new resources and we’re working on that now.”
Lynch said DEMEC is currently in negotiations with a company to develop a 1.5-megawatt facility on a six-acre site in the Smyrna Corporate Center.
“We’re hoping to get that project installed and online this year,” he said.
Lynch attributed the county’s success in attracting major solar parks to a confluence of two factors.
“First, these parks are located in municipalities. Why? Because those municipalities already had much of the infrastructure in place, including electric departments that know their systems and have the ability to receive the energy produced by those solar fields,” he said. “Second, Milford, Dover and Smyrna had adequate space available for those parks.”
While the presence of the two solar parks in Kent County is helping utilities meet their state-mandated goals, the solar energy they produce does not directly translate into savings for customers.
That’s because it’s a less efficient source of power than coal or natural gas.
Some of that is a factor of nonrenewables being available 24 hours a day. Natural gas and coal are more easily stored and can be used when needed, while solar power is intermittent because the sun does not shine all day, every day.
“So far this fiscal year, it’s cost us $365,000 more to buy power from the solar field than it would have to buy an equal amount of energy off the grid,” Dover City Manager Scott Koenig said. “Over the course of the year, we expect to pay about $1.5 million more over the cost of fossil fuel power.”
Yet Underwood said the tradeoff is not so black and white.
“If you look at the impact on the environment and public health and other issues, those numbers look very different,” he said.
“[The benefit] goes with your feelings on environmental stewardship and if you want to be a good steward, you need to develop alternative power sources,” he said. “While we don’t currently offer it now, we’ve had a mix of residential and commercial customers ask us about being supplied with all-green energy, because to them, energy diversification and solar power is worth the price.
While solar energy’s impact on customers’ bills might not be immediate, Lynch said the inclusion of renewable energy sources can indirectly lower consumer costs, particularly when it comes to peak charges.
“Every kilowatt hour you can add to your portfolio is one less that you’re pulling off the grid,” he said. “So overall, it helps keep those peak costs down.”
Former Milford City Manager Richard Carmean noted that solar energy also is produced locally, which can help offset its cost when compared to energy produced from nonrenewable sources, most of which comes from outside the state.
“One of the reasons, on the [Delmarva] peninsula, that our costs are higher than, say maybe somewhere in the Midwest or even the south, is because we have no generation here accept for [the Indian River Power Plant near Millsboro], which is not running anywhere near the capacity it did, so all of our energy has to be brought in here,” he said. “The energy that [the Kent County solar parks] generate doesn’t have to come clear across the country.”
Despite the overall greater cost for solar energy, Koenig said there have been times when it was actually less expensive that energy produced from fossil fuels.
“Last January when we were dealing with the polar vortex, for instance, the price for energy off the grid was outrageous,” he said. “During that time, solar power actually made money for us because we were able to purchase it at a lower market price. And as energy prices continue to go up over time, the cost of solar becomes relatively less expensive.”