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Penn State powers up-with solar

Penn State, in partnership with Lightsource bp, has completed one of the largest solar projects in Pennsylvania, a 70-megawatt, 150,000 solar panel project that will meet 25 percent of the university's electricity needs.

By Robin Brunet

In many instances, shared values between stakeholders are as important as the technology itself in the successful completion of renewable energy projects.

In the case of a new 70-megawatt solar farm developed under a partnership between Penn State and Lightsource bp in Pennsylvania, it could be argued that such like-mindedness is crucial, considering the latter has committed to providing 25 percent of the university's purchased electricity over the next 25 years.

"We were looking to build a long-term relationship with a partner that planned to retain ownership of the project, and Lightsource bp distinguished itself from many candidates by exhibiting values and intentions that matched our own, including being open to academic involvement such as student projects and site tours," said Rob Cooper, senior director of energy and engineering in Penn State's Office of Physical Plant.

Kevin Smith, CEO of the Americas for Lightsource, added: "The proposal Penn State had developed for the solar farm was very much focused on biodiversity issues, which made the partnership perfect for us. And when it came time to actually build the farm, the university was heavily involved in the planning, right down to the seed mix to be used on the site to accommodate future livestock grazing and pollinator habitat.

"It really was a terrific collaboration," said Smith.

It's estimated the three-phase farm on 500 acres leased from local landowners will save Penn State a minimum of $14 million over the contract term due to solar's low cost of electricity. When fully operational, the farm will also lower the university's greenhouse gas emissions by 57,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent of taking 12,100 fuel-burning cars off the road annually. It will also further support Pennsylvania's goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent by 2025 while increasing security via locally generated power.

Lightsource bp has always excelled as a utility-scale solar project developer, on the firm belief that the delivery of solar in conjunction with other alternative energy solutions will guide the future of global energy provision.

 

Lightsource bp installed more than 150,000 solar panels across three locations in Franklin County for the Penn State solar project. It used multiple panel suppliers, mainly to ensure they met the delivery schedules of the three phases. Solar panels were supplied by Talesun on site 1, JA Solar on site 2, and Canadian Solar on site 3.

 
  

The company distinguishes itself from competitors by typically being the owner as well as the planner, developer, operator, and manager of projects.

Significantly, with regard to Penn State, one of its main ongoing goals is making sure its solar power installations have a positive effect on the local environment.

"We're dedicated to boosting biodiversity," Smith says. "Solar farms in general allow the opportunity to establish a wide range of habitats to support conservation, and because our farms are protected from development for decades, we plant our sites with species-rich seed mixes to create habitats for pollinators as well as local flora and fauna." (In fact, to augment this initiative, Lightsource in 2015 began installing beehives on the boundaries of its United Kingdom sites).

Penn State, according to its sen-ior vice president for finance and business/treasurer David Gray, has long been concerned with the issues of climate change and sustainability. "We are recognized as a national leader among higher education institutions for our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce our waste stream through a massive composting facility and related recycling efforts, and conserve energy, with our most recent frontier being sustainable energy sourcing."

 
 

Penn State has long been concerned with the issues of climate change and sustainability, and is recognized for its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce its waste stream through a massive composting facility and related recycling efforts, and conserve energy—with its most recent frontier being sustainable energy sourcing.

  

Starting in 2006, the university focused on energy conservation and efficiency projects to lower its carbon footprint. "We soon realized that we couldn't conserve our way to meeting our carbon reduction goals," Cooper said. "We knew we had to invest in renewable energy sources, so we spent years monitoring the cost of wind, solar, and other renewable electric generation sources. It wasn't until 2018 that the cost of solar generated electricity dropped to near break-even with our purchased cost of fossil fuel-generated electricity."

Solar's efficacy and cost led to the creation in 2018 of a cross-campus committee that not only examined solar farms from the viewpoint of expense and carbon reduction, but also from the benefits to be had from site planting, research, and teaching opportunities.

"We had already invested in the conversion from coal to natural gas on campus, but underscoring our culture of commitment was a pragmatic approach that balances many things. While we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we also need to be mindful of our fiscal responsibilities, hence our scrupulous vetting of solar," said Bill Sitzabee, vice president of Facilities Planning and Management & chief facilities officer. "I also challenged our team to make this project happen in Pennsylvania if at all possible."

 

The solar farm will lower Penn State's greenhouse gas emissions by 57,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent of taking 12,100 fuel-burning cars off the road annually.

 
  

In a classic case of serendipity, Lightsource bp's Americas division had in 2018 begun initial planning of a solar farm on three separate sites in that state. "Pennsylvania's regulatory structure along with its available sites suited our needs, and when Penn State issued a request to market for their project, we informed them of our activities," Smith says.

Meghan Hoskins, director of operations and partnerships at Penn State's Sustainability Institute, notes that the university already had a 2-MW solar project installed on the campus. "But to achieve the electricity requirements we were after, a larger project was necessary off-campus. Lightsource bp's off-campus development on farmland that was not producing sufficiently for the farmers to be able to keep the land in the family made it desirable."

Lightsource bp would sell the electricity it generated back to Penn State. Once the partnership was ratified, engineering firm Stantec was hired by Lightsource bp to provide electrical, structural, and civil engineering design services. "The design was modified slightly from its original concept to minimize grading," Cooper says. "That way the top soil would be minimally disturbed, and the land could easily be returned to farming at the end of the project's life, if need be."

In September 2019, Lightsource bp began the task of installing more than 150,000 solar panels across three locations in Franklin County, making this one of the largest solar projects in Pennsylvania. "We relied on multiple suppliers, not just one, mainly to ensure we met the delivery schedules of the first phase being ready for operation in December of 2019, phase two operational in July of 2020, and the third phase launching the following month," says Smith.

 

It's estimated the three-phase solar farm on 500 acres leased from local landowners will save Penn State a minimum of $14 million over the contract term, due to solar's low cost of electricity.

 
  

The farms were built using monofacial solar panels mounted on single-axis trackers to follow the path of the sun. Given that the minimal increase in energy provided by panels on dual-axis trackers rarely if ever outweighs the additional land, installation, and operations and maintenance costs required, the single-axis trackers were deemed a cost-effective way of ensuring the farm's optimal energy-gathering capabilities.

Solar panels were supplied by Talesun on site 1, JA Solar on site 2, and Canadian Solar on site 3, with inverters for the project supplied by Sungrow. Array Technologies provided the tracking on the project, and Rosendin Electric was the electrical contractor.

Each phase employed about 100 workers, and construction unfolded without incident. "The weather cooperated even during the first phase and winter, and the Pennsylvania spring rains didn't pose significant problems," Smith says. Fortunately, neither did the government-mandated lockdowns that occurred as a response to COVID-19: "There was a slowdown of about two weeks, but solar being an outdoor form of construction spread over hundreds of acres meant we weren't unduly hampered."

Through Penn State's Solar power purchase agreement (PPA) with Lightsource bp, student internships were made available at all campuses, both during construction of the project and after the solar array was commissioned, and they catered to students from many disciplines including engineering, the sciences, and business. Additionally, Penn State students and researchers from all disciplines have the opportunity to propose their own research projects involving the solar array.

Of this learning and researching component, Smith says, "We're already conducting tours, with some students travelling two hours to see what we've developed. They regard the solar farm as a living lab."

Hoskins credits Lightsource bp for wholeheartedly embracing student involvement. "Last year they funded three student-oriented projects involving solar, and this summer they hired three interns, undertook sponsorships, and worked with a class in our business school. Plus, we've received inquiries from many Penn State researchers interested in different facets of the site, and Lightsource bp has been open and considerate to all of their ideas."

Sitzabee says the initial success of the farm has encouraged Penn State's senior leadership and board of trustees to consider developing similar types of projects in the futurecalong with those employing other forms of clean sustainable power generation.

On that score, Dr. Eric Barron, president of Penn State, summarizes the value of the university's collaboration with organizations such as Lightsource bp. "Our goal is to create energy security by making energy safe, affordable, abundant, and sustainable," he says. "We're doing that through research to generate the knowledge and technology that will drive the next energy revolution. We are educating and preparing a workforce that is highly trained, highly adaptable, and ready for global careers and collaboration. And we are partnering with industry to address urgent, real-world needs for energy production and policy."

 


Summer 2020