Solar Projects Light Up Penn State

The 70-megawatt project will match the size of Pennsylvania's largest current solar installation when completed in 2020.
A 70-megawatt solar farm in Franklin County, Pa., will provide about 25 percent of Penn State’s electricity needs statewide. (Rendering courtesy of Lightsource BP)

When high school students are deciding where to apply for college they take into consideration many factors. Increasingly, environmental stewardship is on the list of asks, and Penn State University has a compelling green story to share with prospective applicants.

“Our very aggressive Climate Action Program has been underway since 2005, and we’re currently targeting a 35 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020,” said Michael Prinkey, senior energy program engineer at the Penn State Office of Physical Plant.

The next step in meeting those goals is a new solar initiative announced by the university on Feb. 5. “It is happening now because we were able to find a project that included cost-savings, lower greenhouse-gas emissions and solar development within Pennsylvania,” says Prinkey. 

Tied for the largest solar project in the state of Pennsylvania, the ground-mounted solar array will be located near Penn State’s Mont Alto campus, just outside Chambersburg, Pa., on 500 acres in Franklin County. The installation will employ more than 150,000 solar panels in three locations. Lightsource BP is securing the permitting now and construction is expected to begin by summer 2019. Completion is anticipated for the summer of 2020.

The development of 70 megawatts of large-scale offsite solar by Lightsource BP will support the university’s strategic plan, which cites stewardship of the planet’s resources as a key priority. Upon completion, the solar project will provide 25 percent of the university’s statewide electricity requirements at its multiple campuses over a 25-year term. The solar project is expected to help lower greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 57,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to taking some 15,000 conventional vehicles  and boosting Penn State’s greenhouse gas emission reduction to 43 percent.

“We received many proposals for solar projects, but this one was awarded because it scored the best across all of the review criteria that were used including cost, location, size, schedule, counterparty qualifications and the benefits to the ecosystem beyond just renewable power generation,” Prinkey said.

The project will be built on 500 acres of privately owned land leased by Lightsource BP. Under a power purchase agreement (PPA) between Lightsource BP and the university, the output will be leased to the university for use in the energy supply mix at all Penn State campuses. The PPA enables customers secure a portion of their annual electricity consumption from solar power at no upfront cost. Lightsource BP funds, plans, develops, constructs and connects the solar farm designed specifically for the university and charges a fixed rate for the electricity.

The size of the solar farm was determined by the needs of the university’s entire energy use profile across Pennsylvania and also to contribute toward meeting their upcoming greenhouse gas reduction goals by 2020. Prinkey noted that the use at Mont Alto will only be about 4 percent of the output from the project; it just happens to be the campus nearest to the installation.

This is not Penn State’s first foray into solar energy. In the fall of 2018, the Office of Physical Plant and the Alternative Energy Development Group (AEDG) signed a 25-year power purchase agreement for an onsite 2 megawatt advanced utility-scale solar photovoltaic system, which provides 1 percent of University Park’s campus electricity needs.

In 2018 Penn State signed a power purchase agreement for a 2 megawatt array that provides 1 percent of University Park’s campus electricity needs. (Rendering courtesy of Penn State)

Prinkey adds that the biggest challenge to planning the 500-acre Franklin County project was honoring the participation of all those serving on a university-wide steering committee representing faculty, staff and students. “Location was probably the most-debated item, with the main qualifier being within Pennsylvania versus within the greater regional electric transmission grid that contains Pennsylvania.”

Similar to the onsite solar array at the University Park campus, there are plans to make the Franklin County array available as a living lab for student and faculty research and study. “We understand that educational institutions have goals beyond us saving them significant amounts of money on their electricity bills,” said Emilie Wangerman, director, business development for Lightsource BP. “We guide universities through the full process from project scoping all the way to long-term ownership and operation of the solar farms” 

Katherine Ryzhaya, Lightsource BP’s chief commercial officer, added: “Our Pennsylvania-located solar projects will drive economic development and job growth, increase biodiversity, support Penn State’s sustainability goals and provide a cleaner, healthier environment for the community.”

Penn State’s investment in solar energy is part of a growing trend of higher education facilities making the switch to clean energy, according to Alex Hobson, director of external communications for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Hobson cites a study by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education which mentions there are more than 650 solar projects at colleges and universities across the U.S.

“Presumably this is driven by institutional sustainability goals, but also because solar is a desirable, cost-effective option to power their facilities,” Hobson added.