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West Virginia making the move to solar power

With almost 50,000 solar panels producing 19 MW, the Mon Power facility in West Virginia is now online, marking a solid move to renewable energy by the Appalachian Mountain state.

By Robin Brunet

Installing arrays on hilly rather than flat terrain was just one of several noteworthy aspects of FirstEnergy Corp.’s development of the 18.9 megawatt Mon Power solar power facility at Fort Martin in Monongalia County, West Virginia—the first of five planned utility-grade, utility-run fields in the works.

The 90-acre site, which contains almost 50,000 solar panels, is the largest of the five projects. Two sites were recently approved: a 27-acre parcel on a former ash disposal zone in Rivesville, intended for a 5.5 MW capacity array; and a 26-acre reclaimed ash disposal site in Berkeley County, where an array with a 5.8 MW capacity will be constructed. Pending approval are a 51-acre site in Hancock County and a 44-acre reclaimed strip mine property in Tucker County.

Hannah Catlett, spokesperson at Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy, says of the Fort Martin project: “It’s a prime example of the company employing local people to build the solar facility, with all of the panels, racking systems and other electrical equipment sourced within the U.S. instead of offshore.

“The whole point of our projects in addition to generating clean power is to make them something that positively impacts the local communities,” she added.

FirstEnergy’s 10 electric distribution companies form one of the largest investor-owned electric systems in the U.S.: approximately 24,000 miles of transmission lines that connect the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, and a regulated generating fleet with a total capacity of more than 3,500 megawatts. Mon Power, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy, serves about 395,000 customers in 34 West Virginia counties.

Catlett notes that the prospect of creating new solar farms in West Virginia came about in 2020, when the state legislature authorized utilities to own up to 200 MW of solar generation facilities to meet the growing needs for electrification in the state, “one of them being for transportation,” she says. “In November 2021, we received conditional approval for the five sites we had identified as viable for development, from the West Virginia Public Service Commission.”

The approval hinged on FirstEnergy’s ability to sign agreements with enough industrial, commercial and residential companies to use approximately 85 percent of the renewable energy produced by the sites.
Jim Myers, President of FirstEnergy’s West Virginia operations, told media when the first approvals were granted that “renewable energy is a large economic driver in attracting new industry to West Virginia, so it’s important to have this voluntary option available to customers.”


Essentially, Mon Power and its FirstEnergy sister Potomac Edison enrolled subscribers in their Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SREC) program, the credits being certificates representing the environmental attributes of solar power and proving that solar energy was generated on the purchasers’ behalf. For every megawatt hour of solar energy generated, one SREC is produced (meaning that 87,000 SRECs annually will be created when all five projects are completed).

At Fort Martin, the solar panels were installed across rolling hills next to Mon Power’s coal-fired Fort Martin Power Station.

“That’s the typical kind of topography in West Virginia, and while the panels would be arranged traditionally in straight rows, they would ebb and flow over the hills in a wave effect,” says FirstEnergy engineer Kayla Pauvlinch. “

However, we couldn’t exceed a 15 percent grade change, so we wound up doing some grading and tree removal, as well as creating gravel access roads.”

Additionally, ponds were dug across the site to act as sediment basins (required for the construction permit). They will be filled in when the site has 90 percent grass growth.

Pauvlinch points out that one of the more challenging aspects of the pandemic lockdowns—supply chain delays—was still an issue prior to pre-construction at Fort Martin in August 2023. “Delays in procurement mostly applied to electrical parts such as potential transformers, current transformers, breakers, and many other items,” she says. “So we identified specific material needs very early on and placed our orders way in advance. That way we were able to meet what was an aggressive fast-track installation schedule.”


FirstEnergy Corp.’s 18.9 megawatt Mon Power solar power facility at Fort Martin in Monongalia County, West Virginia is the first of five planned utility-grade, utility-run solar fields in the works. The 90-acre site, which contains almost 50,000 solar panels, is the largest of the five projects.


The solar panels chosen for the project were First Solar Series 6 Plus, along with GameChange Solar fixed tilt racking. The former is considered to have set the industry benchmark for reliable energy production, optimized design and environmental performance, with a superior temperature coefficient, spectral response and shading behaviour. Unlike crystalline silicon modules, First Solar’s thin film technology does not experience the losses associated with Light Induced Degradation (LID) and Light and elevated Temperature Induced Degradation (LeTID).

As for the GameChange racking, Pauvlinch says: “We chose fixed tilt because in West Virginia there would be no benefits to single axis—no great efficiency gains, but more parts to repair. Also, with First Solar based in Toledo and GameChange in Connecticut, we fulfilled our objective to sourcing materials within the U.S.”

Day & Zimmermann was selected as the primary contractor for the development and over 100 local union workers were recruited for the installation, mostly from the Morgantown and Parkersburg areas. This included 62 carpenters, 21 electricians, two iron workers, nine equipment operators, and nine laborers (all of whom would complete about 63,000 work hours at Fort Martin). “We also developed a solar-specific safety plan and training for them,” Catlett says.

Pile driving to a minimum of seven feet deep was undertaken, and at one point visitors to the site likened what they saw to the world’s largest drive-in movie theater, with thousands of piles resembling speaker posts rolling across the hills.


The Mon Power solar project included environmental upgrades, such as the planting of pollination gardens throughout the site.


When it came time to install the panels quickly, Pauvlinch admits everyone experienced a learning curve. “At first we weren’t achieving the desired output,” she says. “We tried a lot of things, and in the end we discovered that we didn’t need to hold the screws of the panels steady while the clips were being installed, instead we could simply drop them in. This resulted in us tripling our output to 1,300 panels daily and enabling us to keep up with our tight schedule.”

Taking advantage of the topography also improved efficiency. “Farm tractors with pallets of panels and fork trucks to lift the panels began unloading at the top of each hill and quickly made their way to the bottom,” Pauvlinch says. “These techniques will serve us well when we commence work on the other sites.”

Three different crews worked at Fort Martin simultaneously, “And they worked very long days, considering we needed the arrays to be operational by year-end,” Catlett says.

The fields of panels were arrayed in six blocks, each block outfitted with its own inverter/transformer skid and three or five Ninja inverter units. As in other solar farms, the inverters convert the DC electricity from the panels to AC, and the transformers then step up the voltage to grid level.

Other work included the installation of 2.5 miles of extra line to tie into the electrical grid, as well as environmental upgrades such as the planting of pollination gardens throughout the site.

FirstEnergy’s next focus is the 27-acre Rivesville site, where civil work commenced in December. “This is essentially a closed landfill, meaning we can’t drive piles like we did at Fort Martin,” Pauvlinch says. “Instead, the racking will sit on concrete blocks, but they’ll be just as resilient.” Mechanical work began in early 2024.

As of press time, the remaining two sites to receive PSC approval are partially subscribed, and Catlett points out the benefit of solar power being added to the grid for regional residents and businesses. “Thanks to the SREC program, they can choose different payment levels and enjoy clean energy without having to install panels on their roofs,” she says.

Catlett adds that since one megawatt of solar energy powers a national average of 173 homes, the five sites when fully developed will be able to power over 8,600 dwellings. “That, combined with over 125,000 labor union hours required to develop all of the sites, makes this a tremendous contribution to the advancement of clean energy in West Virginia.”

Q1 2024