By JACK BARNETT July 19, 2023
Photo courtesy of Lightsource bp, solar developer and owner
A 20MW solar array, one of three in Franklin County, PA supplying electricity to Penn State University. Learn more at Learn more at lightsourcebp.com/us/project/penn-state-solar.
Several people have recently asked why so many “large” solar arrays are being proposed in Pennsylvania—such as the one that was denied its permit last month and covered in the July 13 River Reporter (riverreporter.com/stories/shining-light-on-the-missing-pieces,105811).
As is often the situation, there are multiple reasons, and timing is everything.
First, how large are we talking? Locally, I’m not seeing nearly as large arrays as in other places, especially in western states. Locations there often have hundreds or thousands of acres of solar panels. That is rare in PA.
The PA Public Utility Commission (PUC) database lists the state’s largest array at just over 22 megawatts (MW) or about 170 acres. That and the second largest array, both in Franklin County, are part of Penn State University’s (PSU) arrangement that together with a third array occupies a total of 500 acres and currently provides 25 percent of the electricity used at their 23 campuses statewide.
These are also great examples of “agrivoltaics,” where the land is dual use, with sheep grazing and pollinator-friendly native plantings growing among the solar panels.
Pennsylvania is late to solar energy
PA has few incentives for solar energy on its books, especially compared to New York or New Jersey, where residential, commercial and larger solar (sometimes called “grid-scale”) arrays are common, and permit applications or denials are rarely newsworthy. As of May 2021, PA met its goal of 0.5 percent solar electricity in annual retail sales by utilities, but has not further updated its portfolio goals (officially named the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, or AEPS, a law originally passed in 2004).
Our neighboring states (except for Ohio and West Virginia) have renewable energy goals of 50 percent or more, along with solar economic incentives to get there.
PA’s limited solar incentives, plus our history of relatively cheap electricity, have kept most solar developers working, and investing, elsewhere. Electricity is the product from a solar array, and the more valuable that product, the more desirable it is to invest in an expensive solar array construction project, whether you’re a homeowner or a developer.
However since 2021: PA’s average retail electricity price increased by more than 70 percent during 2022;
The PA PUC, under the order of the PA Supreme Court, removed a restriction (which was not in the text of the AEPS) that had previously limited the size of net-metered solar arrays to no larger than needed to produce just 110 percent of their annual electricity usage;
Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act (read more at www.bit.ly/44NfkF9), which increased and extended the federal tax incentives for solar installations and other renewable energy investments;
PPL (and some other utilities) added a rebate for commercial solar arrays that reduce summer peak demand (when wholesale electricity is their highest cost);
PA Gov. Josh Shapiro was elected on a campaign platform to increase the state’s solar goal to at least 10 percent (and 30 percent across all renewables); and
The bipartisan “Community Solar” legislation (roughly similar to what New York has had since 2015) has been introduced in both the PA Senate and House, though no bill has yet been passed. These shared solar arrays will be limited in size, between 5 and 20 MW depending on the specific bill.
All these send positive signals that solar is primed and ready to go in PA.
Solar developers are starting to move
In Wayne County (where I’m most aware), recent permit applications for larger solar arrays are most often for around 3 to 5 MW, an economic sweet spot under PA’s commercial net-metering.
A typical 3 MW (of AC output, or roughly 4 MW in panel-capacity DC) ground-mounted solar array in our area will face almost directly south, with no trees, steep hillside or other shading to its south or on either side. It will occupy approximately 20 acres of open land.
The project will have areas for stormwater runoff retention as needed, boundary setbacks and landscaping if required by local zoning rules, fences for security, etc.
I’m aware of a 3 MW solar project in Hawley Borough that was approved, but the developer later canceled due to PPL grid upgrade costs.
There is one in Damascus Township that received its zoning approval, one currently seeking a permit near Sterling, plus several others where landowners have already signed a lease, an option to lease or are currently considering proposed leases from various developers.
According to a recent Penn State Extension (PSE) webinar, a typical 25- to 30-year lease to a solar developer includes annual payments to the landowner between $300 to $2,800 per acre (but I’ve only heard of $800 to $1,400 locally).
A developer might offer a higher amount in that range if the land has perfect slope and orientation, is particularly easy for construction activities, or where a utility substation or high-grade grid connection is nearby.
Some offers might include an upfront payment just for signing the lease option, but that should be taken only with careful consideration.
Both PSE and local nonprofit SEEDS (Sustainable Energy Education and Development Support) strongly recommend engaging a lawyer for an in-depth legal review prior to signing any long-term lease agreement.
Regulations slow the progress
In any case, those annual lease payments will only start after all permits are approved and construction begins. So permit approvals are critical both to the developer and the landowner. And for those deeply concerned about reducing climate change, the sooner renewable energy replaces fossil fuels the better.
In my previous article (read it at bit.ly/44p6Owd), I touched on the regulations and rules that solar arrays must comply with.
For a typical 3 MW or 20-acre solar array, these include:
electrical, fire and safety codes;
limits on equipment radio frequency emissions;
additional equipment and safety standards required for utility interconnection;
stormwater runoff and erosion controls, both during construction and ongoing operations;
waterway and wetland disturbance mitigation (if present);
rules on worker pay and training, required to qualify for the new federal tax incentives;
avoiding impacts to any PA endangered species (e.g., northern long-eared bats) or PA historical resources (e.g., archaeology sites);
PennDOT rules for public road access (or local ones, if not located on a state road);
local municipality land use, noise, dust, lighting and zoning rules (if in place);
registration with the PUC;
property tax laws (which increase tax revenues for our schools and local governments);
plus compliance with deed restrictions and lease terms (note: landowners can require return of the land at lease termination to its pre-construction conditions with a bond or stringent penalties otherwise).
Projects on the slow boil
Approvals can take a long time, especially if different agencies require multiple iterations of the site plan. To speed things along, project engineers (especially those not familiar with PA permitting) should request a pre-application meeting with the local zoning/code officer.
All construction projects with earth disturbance of more than an acre require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which in PA is delegated to the Department of Environmental Protection, but starts by filing an application with the county’s conservation district office.
The Wayne County Conservation District can facilitate and also strongly encourages a pre-application meeting with project engineers; call 570/253-0930.
Full approval by all agencies and the utility could still take a year or more. In fact, for interconnection approval to higher-capacity transmission lines (typical in PA when an array is larger than 5 MW), the current queue as reported by PJM—the mid-Atlantic regional transmission operator—has a wait time longer than two years.
When connecting to a local utility, an engineering study is usually done to determine what grid upgrades might be needed, and then the cost estimation for that will take more time and must be paid by the solar developer.
At the local level, many municipalities have not updated their land use or zoning ordinances to easily deal with where or how multi-acre solar arrays can be located. Applications therefore typically require multiple public hearings prior to approval (or denial). Damascus Township, which passed its solar ordinance in 2017, has declared a nine-month moratorium, as of June 19, on all solar zoning permits for any size array both residential and commercial, while they consider changes to those rules. More potential delays.
I’m a solar advocate, but I’m not for “all out” solar development at the cost of unfair treatment of landowners, harm to the local community or to the environment. Solar energy production needs to grow faster if we’re to limit further climate impacts, but it must be done right and equitably.
Some restrictions are clearly important, such as for public safety, stormwater runoff, or visibility from the Delaware River—part of the Wild and Scenic River system. But some recently proposed new restrictions on solar from Harrisburg, and locally too, are clearly political grandstanding or biased by other energy industries and counter-interests.
Solar energy is coming
Solar will come to PA in many forms and sizes, on residential and commercial rooftops, ground mounts in backyards, on brownfields and abandoned mine lands, on multi-acre “solar farms” and even larger grid-scale arrays. PSU has additional solar projects in process that are intended to provide 100 percent of their statewide electricity needs.
PA’s incentives, as well as state and local rules and restrictions, will impact where, how much and how fast the benefits of solar arrive here. Look across the river at the benefits New York and New Jersey are getting from their solar investments. It’s time to do the right thing for local well-paid “green” jobs, PA landowners, community residents and the world.
Jack Barnett is a retired electrical engineer and is now a volunteer solar energy and sustainable living advocate on the board of SEEDS of Northeastern PA. He is also a co-founder of the Clean Energy Cooperative, an all-volunteer mission-oriented small-scale solar developer based in Honesdale, PA.
Have questions about solar energy? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and Jack will attempt to answer your questions in future Sustainability articles.