Konterra headquarters

The new solar microgrid at Konterra headquarters is in one of the company's parking lots. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / October 15, 2013)

New solar panels unveiled last week at a real estate developer's Laurel headquarters come with an unusual twist — an energy storage system, the first such commercial setup in the state and one of the first in the country.

That drew a crowd. But regular solar-energy projects? Not so much.

"You don't see many solar dedications now, and it's for a good reason: It's because solar is becoming more mainstream," said Thomas Leyden, CEO of Philadelphia-based Solar Grid Storage, which worked on the Laurel project. "It's run of the mill now."

That's true in an increasing number of states, including Maryland, the country's eighth-largest solar-installation market last year. And it's not just about panels on government roofs or environmentalists' homes. Corporate America's on board.

Big-box retailers in particular are hitting the accelerator on solar, putting their expansive roofs to work. Manufacturers, grocery stores and a variety of other businesses are tapping the electricity-generating potential of the sun, too.

Commercial-scale solar projects in Maryland didn't even add up to 1.5 megawatts combined in 2008, the Maryland Energy Administration says. Now they top 60 megawatts, more than two-fifths of the state's solar-power capacity, with homes and utility-scale projects accounting for the rest.

Another big increase is coming. As part of its acquisition of Baltimore's Constellation Energy, Exelon Corp. agreed to develop 30 megawatts of solar power in Maryland by 2016.

While businesses are happy to get credit for environmental friendliness, advocates say that's not the only reason — or even the main one — now driving solar.

"I think the most interesting aspect of this story is that you're seeing more and more companies turn to solar as a smart economic investment," said Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade group.

Firms partly want to hedge against rising energy prices, Resch said. But plummeting installation costs — thanks to technological advances and efficiency improvements that come with greater scale — are another big reason. The average photovoltaic system costs commercial users about $3.70 a watt to install now, down from more than $7 in 2009, SEIA said.

And unlike the early years, companies don't have to shell out up-front. They can pay monthly for the energy with a long-term power purchase agreement and let a solar company or a third party own and maintain the system.

"You're committed, don't get me wrong, but it's basically like paying your monthly electric bill," said Shawn W. Kravetz, president of Esplanade Capital, a Boston investment management firm that focuses on solar and a handful of other sectors. "You're just saving a little bit of money and doing something you can really believe in. It is the financing arrangements that we think have really begun to change the game in this country at the consumer level … but also at the commercial and industrial level."

Walmart is among the companies doing purchase-power deals. It now has about 240 solar installations worldwide, including 10 added atop Maryland stores within the last year.

David Ozment, Walmart's senior director of energy, said solar power has saved the company more than $2 million in energy expenses since late 2007.

"We're demonstrating that we can install solar … truly at or below utility prices," he said.

Federal and state incentives still play a big role in making that happen, though solar advocates say the industry is closer to true "grid parity" than it used to be.

The federal income tax credit for solar is worth 30 percent of the system's cost. And Maryland, which wants 2 percent of retail electricity sales coming from solar power by 2020, requires utilities and retail energy providers to tap solar for a portion of their power.

That's created a revenue stream for solar producers and made projects financially attractive for firms, including those just looking for a good power-purchase deal.

McCormick & Co., which has solar on its Sparks headquarters, its Hunt Valley manufacturing complex and its Belcamp distribution center, said it consistently saves money on electricity bills. But it's not pursuing solar on facilities in states that haven't jump-started a market by setting minimum requirements.

"Solar's not feasible there," said Jeff Blankman, McCormick's sustainable manufacturing manager.