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Safari Energy successful in hunt for solar power in Pennsylvania

Safari Energy has completed Pennsylvania's largest municipal solar project, a 15-megawatt, 86-acre facility that will meet 10 percent of the electricity needs of the Borough of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

By Robin Brunet

It's a testament to the growing influence of renewable energy that the historic mining and oil/natural gas mecca of Pennsylvania is taking great strides to reinvent itself as solar friendly—to the point where an initiative was recently announced that will produce nearly 50 percent of the state government's electricity through seven new major solar arrays.

Augmenting this—and building upon Pennsylvania's 'green' branding—is the state's largest municipal solar project: the 50,000-plus panel array in the Borough of Chambersburg, the largest of Pennsylvania's 35 municipalities, that delivers electric service to 20,500 residents.

The new facility is owned and operated by Safari Energy (a PPL company) and will provide 100 percent of its power to the borough under a long-term power purchase agreement. The system covers 86 acres and is expected to produce enough electricity for more than 2,600 homes, or 10 percent of the borough's annual electricity needs.

A great deal of expertise and in some cases serendipity converged to make this project a success, and Garrett Saunders, Project Manager-Solar Development at Allentown, Pennsylvania-based PPL Renewables, says, “It's always great to work on a project in our home state.

“Solar in Pennsylvania is starting to gain momentum, and we're happy to be a part of that shift. In fact, having the site so close to our offices allowed for many members of our team to be onsite and see one of these projects first-hand.”

As part of PPL, Safari Energy supports the corporate objective of advancing a sustainable energy future, and since 2008 it has developed or acquired more than 500 solar projects in 24 states as well as in Washington, D.C. It owns 120 solar projects in nine states nationwide, totalling more than 170 megawatts of capacity.


The Chambersburg project got underway in 2019, when the borough issued an RFP for solar projects (it had begun investing in green energy a few years' prior and was deriving some of its power from landfill gas). Civic leaders were motivated to move forward with solar thanks to a $500,000 alternative energy grant from the state, which the borough matched with money from an existing bond.

“Together, with that and the landfill gas, about 25 percent of our power will be renewable and created right here in Chambersburg, at a cheaper price than we could get it from a non-environmentally friendly way,” said Chambersburg council president Alice Elia, adding that ratepayers began to see immediate savings when the project was completed in 2021.

Elia went on to note that the goal was to find a site near the borough “where a system could be constructed and connected directly into the borough power grid, bypassing the need for wholesale power purchases from what can be a volatile marketplace. We wanted a renewable energy source that exemplified our commitment to environmental stewardship, but also made economic sense for ratepayers.”

Virginia-based Sun Tribe Development was among over a dozen firms that responded to the RFP, and it was subsequently awarded the PPA in early 2020. “The PPL Renewables and Safari Energy teams first became aware of this project in early 2020, through a connection at Sun Tribe, and we acquired the project in late 2020,” Saunders says.

In many cases, the proper location can reduce the amount of risk a project can incur during development, and Saunders credits the Borough of Chambersburg for selecting a pair of adjacent properties that were ideally situated for a project of this size, in Hamilton Township's Elk Ridge. Although this project is 'behind-the-meter,' it was developed as if it was a utility-scale undertaking. Sun Tribe led the project through the full scope of development, including environmental reviews and approvals, an interconnection study with the borough's electric department, surveys, geotech, and permitting. 

 Construction work on the Chambersburg solar project was sequenced so that when one activity was completed, the next activity began—so they had multiple crews working on various tasks throughout the site simultaneously.

The permitting process was unique, given that both properties have active mining permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (for shale extraction on the southern end of the properties). “Sun Tribe and the borough worked together with DEP to modify the existing mining permits and allow solar as an additional use,” Saunders explains. “To my knowledge, this is the first instance of a solar project being co-located on an active mining site in this state.” 

Also uncommon was the fact that environmental considerations proved to be minimal: PPL reported no significant issues, and Safari Energy was able to avoid interaction with wetland zones on the properties by modifying the design of the project. Also, the racking selected for the arrays allowed Safari to reduce the amount of civil work needed to prepare the site. Some storm water ponds had to be created and a few small zones needed to be graded, but the overall topography was left untouched.

In terms of getting project supplies on site at the Chambersburg solar project, Interstate 81 was only 2.5 miles away, giving construction crews easy access for vehicles and deliveries. Altogether, only 86 acres of the 130-acre site would be used for the solar project, so there was also plenty of space for staging. 

Altogether, only 86 acres of the 130-acre site would be used for the solar project, “so there was plenty of space for staging,” Saunders says. “Also, Interstate 81 was only 2.5 miles away, giving us easy access for construction vehicles and deliveries.”

About the only drawback during site prep was that because the geological conditions of the property were conducive to shale mining, shale lay near the surface and required the EPC contractor, CS Energy, to pre-drill each post location in order to penetrate the stone. This was accomplished while Chambersburg's electric department made modifications to an existing substation to accommodate the project. 

Construction began in February 2021 at the farthest point away from the site access and progressed toward the exit. “We sequenced the work so that when one activity was completed on a section of the project, the next activity began—and so we had multiple crews working on various tasks throughout the site simultaneously,” Saunders says, adding that crews experienced everything from blizzards to remnants of hurricanes. “Fortunately, the storm water measures in place allowed for site conditions to improve quickly after weather events, so construction could resume with minimal delay.”

 The 50,000-plus panel array in the Borough of Chambersburg, the largest of Pennsylvania's 35 municipalities, will deliver electric service to 20,500 residents, meeting about 10 percent of the borough's annual electricity needs.

As for the hardware, the modules selected were a combination of Vikram mono PERC and ZNShine bifacial units. Soltec's single axis tracker and Sungrow central inverters were deployed, with the main suppliers being Vikram, ZNShine, Soltec, and Sungrow. 

All told, 50,258 solar modules and 4,515 racking posts were installed (with 26.3 miles of DC wiring), in addition to 1.2 miles of access roads being constructed and 4.9 miles of fencing erected.

When asked to cite the single biggest challenge of the entire project, Saunders unhesitatingly replies: “The same challenge everyone has faced over the past two years. Building a project with all the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 was no easy task. Fortunately, the combined efforts and experience of the borough, Sun Tribe, CS Energy, and the Safari/PPL Renewables team enabled us to overcome health and safety concerns for the workers, as well as supply chain disruptions.”

With regards to the labor pool itself, Saunders credits CS Energy for relying on a combination of their own in-house resources and local and regional contractors to complete construction of the site.

The significance of the Chambersburg array to Safari is notable. Vijay Singh, president, PPL Renewables, says: “This project is the largest single-site solar system that Safari Energy has acquired, and we hope to build on this success with other projects and solar portfolios across the country.”

Indeed, Pennsylvania is losing no time in fortifying its renewables portfolio. Earlier this year, governor Tom Wolf announced the GreenGov challenge, an initiative to produce nearly 50 percent of the state government's electricity through seven new solar arrays. He pointed out that GreenGov includes “significantly reducing energy use and pursuing an ambitious goal of obtaining at least 40 percent of electricity from clean energy generated in state.”

Solar arrays will be built in seven locations in six counties: Columbia, Juniata, Montour, Northumberland, Snyder and York. When completed, the total 191-megawatt project is expected to deliver 361,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year, supplying 100 percent of electricity for 434 accounts across 16 state agencies.

In the meantime, the Chambersburg project is a shining example of public sector leaders embracing solar power at a time when tough budget choices are required, as a source of cost savings and long-term budget control. Singh concludes: “Working with partners like the Borough of Chambersburg is incredibly rewarding, as their innovative outlook and commitment to renewable energy align very much with our vision for a sustainable energy future.”

Q1 2022