Providing green power-and a neat and tidy solar project site
Pennsylvania's Susquehanna University has opted for green power in a major way, with the completion of a new 3-MW solar power project that is delivering power to the university?"with a bonus that the project site is kept neat and tidy by a flock of s
By Tony Kryzanowski
Pennsylvania is known for its coal and natural gas industries, so it should really come as no surprise that the state's Susquehanna University faced some headwinds to construct its 3-megawatt (MW) solar power project.
Completed last summer, it now supplies 30 percent of the power to the liberal arts college, which was established in 1858 along the banks of the Susquehanna River.
The ground-mounted, fixed solar array is the largest on a university campus in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the state. It was limited to 3.9-MW DC (3-MW AC) due to available land and the cap set by the state to qualify for net metering.
The solar array consists of 12,204 Heliene Inc. 325-watt solar modules. They were installed on a 25-degree tilt and cover nearly 15 acres owned by the university, located next to its Center for Environmental Education and Research (CEER).
No state or federal grants were provided for the construction of the $5 million project owned and operated by WGL Energy Systems, although the state has recently taken a few important steps toward being more open to renewables development.
Pennsylvania has legislated an Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard target, requiring public and private utilities to generate 18 percent of their power from renewables by 2021. However, the solar component is only half-a-percent.
Chris Bailey, director of Facilities at Susquehanna University, says it was the university's own desire to show leadership in greater uses of renewables that drove the solar project. It is one of a long list of projects advanced by the university in support of sustainability and reducing the institution's carbon footprint, which has included converting an old, coal-fired power plant to high efficiency natural gas.
"This is a major step forward in the university's commitment to implementing earth-friendly initiatives that are at the heart of responsible living in our interdependent world," says Jonathan D. Green, president of Susquehanna University.
Situated next to the CEER facility, the solar array also offers potential additional educational and research opportunities for both students and staff.
Although the project was something the university had been contemplating for more than a decade, Bailey says it still had to make financial sense.
The solar modules were installed on a 25-degree tilt and cover nearly 15 acres owned by the university, located next to its Center for Environmental Education and Research.
"The stars had to align from the university standpoint of the cost per kilowatt hour installed that we would actually be paying going forward, so that it would have to be at least on par with what we could get off the grid," he says. "There had to be an economic neutrality to it, at least."
The university noticed that the price for installed solar power generation was declining significantly and felt it was time to put out a request for proposals (RFP) to attract interest in building and maintaining a solar project to sell power to the university on land it already had available.
As it turns out, there were minimal upfront costs to the university to install and tie in the project to the campus power switchgear when they signed a 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with WGL Energy, who won the RFQ to design, build, maintain, and operate the solar power array.
According to Bailey, the project is beneficial as a hedge against future power cost increases while being budget-neutral in that it will not cost the institution no more power than it was paying from the grid. It will allow the university to offset a significant amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—equivalent to approximately 787 cars per year.
WGL Energy teamed up with SGC Power to provide the engineering, project, and construction management (EPC) for this solar farm. Jack Copus, Partner-Development with SGC, says that this is one of many projects they have delivered to WGL Energy over the years, including several university and school projects.
As a solar resource, Copus describes Pennsylvania generally as a middle-of-the-spectrum location compared to other states. But he adds that the Susquehanna University site was ideal, with only a two to five percent grade requiring minimal grading, few impediments on the site other than some scrub brush removal, and a southwest exposure.
While landowners adjacent to the solar project are getting used to a new and different landscape, they are still going to witness a small taste of agriculture in action—the university has hired Owens Farms to provide a flock of up to 30 sheep to keep the solar project site neat and tidy.
Construction began in February 2018 and was completed about six months later.
SGC Power worked closely with Susquehanna University throughout the design, permitting, and zoning process, which took about a year. It was something new for local approving authorities to consider.
"Given the size of the project and it being on the ground as opposed to being on a rooftop, there was a lot of zoning, permitting, and special exception hearings that we had to attend to ensure that we built it according to the guidelines of the county or township," says Copus. "A lot of counties and towns in Pennsylvania do not have existing regulations, so there was a lot of education involved."
The site was also ideal in that SGC was able to use a separate, designated access road, which meant there was good access for component delivery and no disruption of university traffic flow.
What streamlined this project for both the university and WGL Energy was working with electrical construction and services provider, Edwin L Heim Company, headquartered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with whom they both had a previous relationship and which over the years has provided and installed a high percentage of the electrical infrastructure on the university campus. Partnering with Heim simplified the process of tying the solar power production array into the university's transmission system. The solar power is used on a priority basis, with power purchased off the grid to supplement the institution's entire needs.
WGL Energy teamed up with SGC Power to provide the engineering, project, and construction management (EPC) for the university's solar farm. Construction began in February 2018 and was completed about six months later.
"Not only was WGL Energy bringing in Heim, but they also gave the most competitive project in terms of the schedule of pricing going forward, and the terms of the actual agreement that was the most attractive to the university," says Bailey.
Converting what was essentially a hayfield to a solar farm was not entirely popular with neighbors, and the university heard about it at zoning hearings. Bailey says some landowners appreciated their farmland view and expressed their displeasure.
"It was a small minority of people, but it was the people living right behind the project," says Bailey. There was an effort put forward to provide some landscaping and fence choices to address their concerns.
While the landowners may be disappointed with the changing landscape, they are still going to witness a small taste of agriculture in action, as the university has hired Owens Farms to provide a flock of up to 30 sheep to keep the site neat and tidy.
The concept of using sheep to maintain the site was not something that WGL Energy had encountered before, and it definitely had a bit of concern about livestock meandering among the pedestals, wiring, and solar modules.
Bailey says that there was concern about the livestock perhaps damaging some of the array infrastructure. That's why sheep were hired for this task and not goats. Sheep only eat grass, but goats will eat anything and climb everywhere. Also, a specific type of sheep called hair sheep are being used.
This species of sheep tend to forage as individuals, which means less concern about clusters of sheep coming into contact with array components. Neighbors may no longer have a hayfield view, but they can expect to hear the baying of sheep within the solar array's fenced-in area this summer.
While Edwin L Heim Company was the electrical installer on the project, and Heliene provided the solar modules, Chint Power Systems (CPS) America provided the string inverters.
Lititz, Pennsylvania-based, landscape architect and engineering firm Derck & Edson LLC worked on the landscaping aspects of the project.
SCG Power says that it has several other solar projects in the works in Pennsylvania in the 1 to 3-MW range, some of which will include a continued partnership with Edwin L Heim Company and Derck & Edson.
Overall, it has been a positive project for the university—and one they can boast about.
"The solar project is performing well and as a hedge on our power costs," says Bailey. "It has been a win all the way around, from the marketing standpoint, from the reaction of the campus community, and also, bragging rights with our peer institutions is always nice."
Susquehanna University has had subsequent meetings with representatives from other universities to discuss how the project worked out, keeping in mind that educational institutions are notoriously risk-averse.
"Nobody wants to be the first, but everyone wants to be a quick second," Bailey says. "There are a lot of other institutions saying, wow, we have land, we have switchgear close by—it looks good if we can get a similar power purchase agreement."