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It might be winter, but the county can think about soaking up the sun as plans for a solar farm in Hughesville moved forward last week.

The Charles County Board of Appeals granted SMECO Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, a special exception to build a 5.5 megawatt solar farm on 48.5 acres south of Route 5 near the highway’s intersection with Gallant Green Road.

SMECO will own and operate the solar farm, co-op spokesman Tom Dennison said.

The solar farm will enable SMECO to meet state requirements for utilities to use renewable energy as well as meet a demand for solar energy in the county, Dennison said.

“From our perspective, this is a significant and very proud moment for SMECO and for Charles County. We have received a lot of support from the county and a lot of interest from the county. We are looking forward to providing this renewable energy source for our customers. ... This is a step forward in renewable energy for our region,” Dennison said.

The Hughesville Business and Civic Alliance, the county commissioners and the county’s state delegation have submitted letters of support for the project.

Alliance President Pauleen Brewer said her organization worked with solar panel vendors to find appropriate sites in Hughesville and other parts of the county for the project.

“We were thrilled to learn that the Hughesville site will be the host of Charles County’s first solar farm,” Brewer said.

The county commissioners expressed their support in a letter Dec. 6.

“We support the efforts undertaken by SMECO to build this facility, which will provide a clean, renewable source of electricity to fulfill the Cooperative’s Renewable Portfolio Standard requirements and demonstrate their willingness to lead the way in solar development for our Southern Maryland region,” the letter states.

Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said Thursday that he has supported the project since SMECO indicated that it would go in the direction of solar energy.

“I am extremely pleased that they chose a site in Charles County,” he said.

Robinson said the county’s Office of Economic Development helped bring the solar farm to Charles County, and praised the economic benefits of reducing the use of fossil fuels.

“Energy reliability is critical, and as we move forward, anything we do to move forward from fossil fuels is a plus,” Robinson said.

Del. Peter F. Murphy (D-Charles), writing on behalf of the Charles County delegation to the General Assembly, also submitted a letter of support.

Dennison said SMECO wanted to be a leader in the solar energy field and solicited a request for proposals last year.

SunEdison, a solar power developer with an office in Beltsville, will develop the solar farm.

The estimated cost to produce the solar farm is around $20 million, Dennison said.

The power to be generated from the solar farm is equivalent to the power needed to run St. Charles Towne Center mall in Waldorf, the solar farm’s Project Manager Ron Fuller said.

Ten percent of the energy produced at the solar farm will go to SMECO’s new engineering and operations center, which will be located next to the solar farm, Dennison said. The rest will go to customers in the utility’s grid.

Fuller said that the Maryland Public Service Commission requires utilities to include solar power in 0.1 percent of its portfolio in 2012 and 2 percent in 2022.

Fuller said SMECO is aiming to generate 2.3 megawatts of solar power in 2012 and 4.6 megawatts in 2013, which the solar farm would satisfy.

SMECO has contacted neighboring landowners and groups, receiving support back from them, Fuller said.

The solar farm will produce 8,700 megawatt hours, or about 2 percent of SMECO’s projected load for early 2013.

Emily Struck of SunEdison said the solar farm will be mounted on the ground, with the panels facing away from Route 5 in order to prevent glare from distracting drivers.

The solar farm likely will take up between 35 and 40 acres on the property, Dennison said.

The solar farm also will include a security fence, likely 8 feet tall, and an 8-foot earth berm to protect the solar farm and provide visual appeal to the solar farm, Rene Friedman of Bohler Engineering said.

The county government still will need to approve the solar’s farm site development plans, but Dennison said the energy cooperative is hopeful to start construction in the summer and have the solar farm in service by the fourth quarter of 2012 or the first quarter of 2013.

Friedman said that a resource protection zone with wetlands on the southern portion of the property will remain protected.

Staff writer Jeff Newman contributed to this report.

pwarner@somdnews.com