Solar Power to the People
Todd Chason got in on the ground floor of Maryland’s solar industry
Published in 2022 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine on December 17, 2021
Todd Chason always assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a litigator. But in 2003, soon after he began in Gordon Feinblatt’s litigation group, he found himself more tuned in to the challenge and intrigue he saw in the firm’s work in the ever-evolving energy and environmental space.
“My mother always joked, ‘What kind of real law are you doing if you’re not in the courtroom?’” says Chason. “But I found it fun to be able to see the physical manifestation of the work. So much of my work has been development-related, and seeing a building built on a former field, or touring condos that used to be a factory or seeing a natural resource that needs to be protected—I thought that was very interesting.”
Chason, now the firm’s COO, cut his teeth on a variety of environmental and natural resource issues. So when Maryland created incentives for businesses to incorporate solar power, he was perfectly positioned to advocate for the fledgling industry.
“Solar requires so much land,” he says, “so it impacts natural resources. But because of its greenhouse gas emission advantages, the solar industry and solar development also helps to preserve those resources. It’s a bit circular in that sense.”
Five acres of land typically produces one megawatt of power, which, at continuous capacity, can power 400 to 900 homes per year. Anything larger than two megawatts is considered utility-scale. In 2011, Maryland permitted its first utility-scale project in Hagerstown: a solar field that produces 20 megawatts of power. Chason handled the permitting process.
Since passing its first solar incentives in the early 2000s, Maryland continues to level up. “It’s now one of the most advanced markets in the country,” says Chason. “Whether it’s the Legislature trying to incentivize greenhouse gas initiatives, or for business purposes or so on, Maryland has been very forward-thinking. Our solar industry has become a very successful model. I think a lot of other states look at Maryland and say, ‘We’d like to have something like what they have.’”
One of the state’s pilot programs, called Community Solar, is designed to reach low- or middle-income residential customers who can’t purchase solar panels for their properties—either because it’s cost-prohibitive or because they don’t own the property. But with this initiative, participants can sign up for a subscription to a small solar field.
“The notion here is that you plant the solar field relatively close to the end-users,” Chason says. “For example, if a user can’t afford panels, or the house is shaded or there isn’t enough space, instead of just saying, ‘The heck with it, I’ll buy power from the utility,’ you could subscribe to one of these fields, which will be located in the same service territory you live in. Your subscription entitles you to a certain amount of the output from the project.”
While blazing a trail on the cutting edge of a new industry is exciting, it can also create friction.
“People are generally afraid of what they don’t know or understand,” says Chason. “If the communities neighboring a project are not properly approached and worked with early on, it’s very tough to overcome that. There is a constant educational battle to show that what we’re doing is necessary [while also showing] that it can be done in a way that is not harming the surrounding community or the environment.”
He adds, “There’s that notion of, ‘I want solar, but not next door.’”
Although solar fields do require a lot of space, they do not necessarily affect the viewshed, and can be kept out of residents’ line of sight by selective panel-placement or tree-planting.
“Many of these projects will plant pollinator species to attract bees and butterflies and so on,” says Chason. “Once these projects are done and it’s clear that it isn’t going to overrun the community or be an eyesore, most folks are glad it’s there.”
Living in harmony with nature is important to Chason. His charming home in northern Baltimore County is a converted general store that dates back to the 1800s with a barn on two acres. Half the barn had been set up as a workshop by the previous owner, and Chason, who enjoys working with his hands, uses the space to tackle woodworking projects.
“It’s a pleasant way to fill the time,” he says. “I see it as a different type of problem-solving from my day job, but problem-solving nonetheless.”