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Higher Ed solar power in Pennsylvania

Vesper Energy has completed the Gaucho Solar project, located near the Pittsburgh International Airport, which will help reduce the University of Pittsburgh's greenhouse gas emissions, and save the university millions of dollars.

By Diane Mettler

The University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) and Vesper Energy recently completed work on a partnership solar project that not only helps to power the university but will also educate students and faculty on the benefits of renewable energy. The university will receive 100 percent of the project’s energy and environmental attributes over the next 20 years, helping Pitt reach its goal to achieve campus carbon neutrality by 2037.

Texas-based Vesper Energy developed the 20-megawatt project, called Gaucho Solar, which started operating in June of this year, from conception. Built on 68 acres on the border of Findlay and Independence Townships, it is one of the largest solar projects in Western Pennsylvania, with about 55,000 solar panels generating electricity.

The project will produce more than 35,700 megawatt-hours of electricity annually, providing 18 percent of the campus’ electricity per year and reducing Pitt’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15,452 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Because of solar energy’s low cost, the university will also save millions of dollars over the life of the contract.

“This is one of the earliest projects in this area at utility scale,” says Juan Suarez, Chief Development Officer at Vesper Energy. “Vesper Energy was one of the first developers really to focus on this territory.”

Originally, Vesper began developing the project hoping to sell the energy to the local utility. When that didn’t work out, the company persevered.

“We continued to look for a good commercial partner to buy the energy, which turned out to be the University of Pittsburgh,” says Suarez. “We discovered that the university was looking for renewable energy as part of their overall carbon-neutral plan. Then, we worked with the university to articulate why this was the right project for them, and how we could execute it.”

The project was unique in that it was a physical delivery Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), with the energy being delivered directly to the university. Because of that, the right location was a large factor in this project. The right location, however, proved to have a few challenges—it is on two working farms and near an airport and a river.

Fortunately, solar panels are fundamentally designed to absorb light, not reflect it, so there was no issue being located near an airport.


Sustainable landscaping: Vesper Energy worked closely with landscape architects and seeding providers to make sure the right mix of grass and flowers would grow high, but not too high to cover the solar panels.


“I’ve personally been involved in projects where solar projects have been constructed, developed, and installed next to a small regional airport just outside the runway,” says Suarez. “To ensure everything is safe, we follow a formal process with the Federal Aviation Administration where you submit the project for their review, and in this case, they approved it.”

Constructing solar operations on working farms, however, was a team sport. “We worked hard with our landowner partners so they could continue to operate their farms. It benefits them because they still receive revenue from the solar leases no matter what happens in the growing season,” says Suarez.

This specific project is also located in a more suburban environment. And because of its proximity to the Pittsburgh airport, managing traffic during the construction process was always a concern. But Suarez says managing construction traffic is a short-term problem, as once solar facilities are operating, they’re quiet. “You almost don’t know that they’re there, to be honest.”

The larger challenge was the facility’s location next to a river. “We had to cross the river to connect to the grid,” explains Suarez. “That meant we had to manage the water runoff. There are also biological resources that we needed to design around and maintain, like wetlands. Erosion during construction can be a big concern, so to combat this, we seeded and stabilized the soil before construction even started.”

The permitting process presented a new set of hurdles. “In Pennsylvania, the permitting is local, meaning that the townships are the ones that issue the permits,” says Suarez. “We had to create a solar ordinance just for the project to go forward. Working hand-in-hand with the two townships in this case, incorporating feedback from the community, and creating an ordinance that worked for everybody was a great learning experience for us and the project is better for this collaboration.”


Vesper Energy developed the 20-megawatt Gaucho Solar project, which started operating in June of this year, from conception. Built on 68 acres on the border of Findlay and Independence Townships, it is one of the largest solar projects in Western Pennsylvania, with about 55,000 solar panels generating electricity.


Vesper worked closely with landscape architects and seeding providers to make sure the right mix of grass and flowers would grow high, but not too high to cover the solar panels.

“We want to be good partners with the University of Pittsburgh, which has a commitment to sustainable landscaping. Making it a beautiful and sustainable power plant was a critical part of the story,” says Suarez.

JA Solar manufactured the bifacial solar panels. Bifacial panels were chosen because they generate energy from the sun hitting the top side, but in wintery snowing conditions they will also generate energy from the bottom side of the module. The string inverters on the site were manufactured by Sungrow and the racking manufacturer was GameChange Solar. “It’s a fixed tilt system,” says Suarez, “which was important, given the topography and site constraints.”

Vesper’s EPC contractor, The Ryan Company, sourced as much local labor as possible for the project. “By utilizing the strong workforce in the area, we were able to have over 120 local workers on site. They worked on nearly everything from racking and module placement to fencing, seeding and tree planting, civil work, and overhead lines. This project is a great example of partnership between the project and the local community,” adds Suarez

The bulk of the construction was done during the winter, from about November 2022 through March 2023. Due to the winter weather conditions, a lot of planning and execution had to be done to ensure the job was completed safely and efficiently.

But the weather was only one hurdle. The project was developed and constructed through COVID and the global supply chain issues that came along with it. Even more recently, the run-up in inflation and interest rates had huge impacts on this and other projects.


The Gaucho solar project’s location includes two working farms—Vesper Energy worked closely and co-operatively with the farm landowners in developing and building the solar project, and the farms continue to operate, with the farms receiving revenue from solar leases.


“A lot of projects that were signed had to be cancelled because they just couldn’t be financed and constructed without losing money,” says Suarez. “Pitt was an extremely valuable partner to us because they understood the larger issues that we had to work through. But getting projects done amid all those headwinds is a point of pride.”

The Gaucho Solar project will continue to provide for the community off the grid as well. Students had learning opportunities throughout the construction process and the facility will be incorporated into the school’s curriculum, providing educational opportunities for students today and into the future.

“We’ve conducted several site tours with different student groups for the project,” says Suarez. “We integrated an observation area into the facility as well as additional parking to provide points of access. Some of the professors at the university have applied for grants to study different technical aspects of the facility in developing new technologies. It’s been a great partnership across the board, and we look forward to seeing that continue.”

One of the goals of the university was to hit a certain sustainability level soon and there were also corporate environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) goals as well.

“A lot of the demand in the U.S. is driven by colleges, universities and corporate entities; they want renewable, sustainable energy to power their operations and facilities,” says Suarez. “And that’s what we do. We deliver that power and energy to those types of companies. And we can often do it in a more efficient way than the local utilities.”

The demand for solar is also growing for the simple fact that solar and wind energy are currently the lowest cost energy that you can buy in the U.S. and abroad. Suarez says there’s a larger energy transition going on that’s not just good for the environment, but will power the next stages of industry. “Renewable energy is really a prime energy source and is well-suited to deliver power to those types of facilities.”

Despite the lower cost, there is still a learning curve for some communities. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation in communities about solar generation,” says Suarez. “They don’t provide energy twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. But lower cost and higher efficiency batteries are increasing the value of solar energy. And standalone solar energy is an important factor in the overall energy mix and stability of the energy grid.

“Solar and renewables are valuable in lots of different ways,” adds Suarez. “They’re driving down the cost of energy. And there are obvious environmental benefits as well. But it’s also about bringing jobs, investment, and tax revenue into these local communities.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the renewable energy industry,” he says. “There’s incredible momentum, due in part to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and demand is at an all-time high. The entire Vesper team is energized to contribute to the global energy transition.”

 Q4 2023