York, Juniata hopeful but await more information about state’s solar array plans

YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — Because the price is right.

That’s why solar energy advocates say the commonwealth’s timing is good to begin transitioning to solar energy, as officials announced last month they would soon do thanks to solar “arrays,” as the installations are called, in York and Juniata counties in the Midstate as well as four others (Columbia, Northumberland, Montour and Snyder) in the state.

What do folks in York and Juniata think of that?

Well, the counties themselves aren’t really involved — the state will buy solar-powered energy from Constellation, an electric utility, which, in turn, is contracting with Lightsource bp to build, operate and own the solar arrays. Lightsource, in turn, plans to lease land for the arrays from Pennsylvania farmers.

Officials in York and Juniata counties told abc27 News they weren’t aware of the plan before a public announcement last month but were generally, if cautiously, supportive.

A potential wrinkle? “Because we are an agricultural county, the amount of land that might be sacrificed for solar panels,” said Juniata County Commission Chairperson Alice Gray (R) — in other words, productive farmland potentially coming offline. But she added: “I have all the confidence that in the state’s plan, that they have considered all this,” and she said she supports clean energy.

Indeed Emilie Wangerman, Lightsource bp’s senior vice-president of business development, said the economics are such that farmers would never want to lease highly productive farmland anyway. Lightsource said it couldn’t yet name specific potential sites for the solar arrays, which are due to begin producing energy Jan. 1, 2023. The project is called Pennsylvania PULSE, or Project to Utilize Light and Solar Energy.

Seven arrays in six counties will form a 191-megawatt project. How much is that?

“Just to put it in perspective, my university, Stanford University, the entire campus is running now effectively on 100 percent clean, renewable energy,” said Mark Jacobson, director of the university’s atmosphere energy program. It’s the largest physical campus in the world, he said, and it runs on half as much energy as the solar arrays will produce for Pennsylvania’s state government.

But again: With a sun that’s billions of years old, and an energy production industry that’s hundreds of years old, why now?

Well, consider the economics, on a much smaller scale, for a consumer like Bob Kefauver, who recently installed solar panels in his roof in York. For more than a decade, the idea intrigued him — he liked the environmental benefits. But “in the last 10 years, the installation costs are down dramatically, Kefauver said. And “the efficiency is way, way up.” He said he calculated he could make loan payments on the panels that would be roughly equivalent to his former electric bills, and after a decade or so — once the loan was paid down — his energy would be nearly free.

Kefauver said over the course of a year, the panels on his roof provide nearly enough energy to power his house, although sometimes (such as on a sunny day) they produce more than he needs, and he can provide excess energy to the power grid, while other times (like a cold night) he uses more energy than his panels produces.

Solar advocates say the same calculation is true for large organizations. Whereas at one time environmentally-minded companies and organizations paid a premium for solar, “now it’s about the economics and renewable benefits” said Wangerman of Lightsource.

Surprising that Pennsylvania would boast of what it claims will be the largest such solar project for a state government?

Not really, says Kevin Schreiber, president and CEO of the York County Economic Alliance.

“We have always led the way in Pennsylvania internationally and certainly nationally, in terms of energy production, from oil to coal to natural gas,” Schreiber said. “And now this.”