178 Acre Solar Farm Planned for Washington Township
WASHINGTON TWP., Pa. (EYT) – One of the country’s largest utility-scale solar companies has proposed a 178 acre solar farm in northern Clarion County that could be the largest of its kind in Northwestern Pennsylvania.
(PHOTO: Cypress Creek Renewables plans to build a 20 megawatt solar farm in Washington Township, Clarion County. The company owns, operates, and maintains hundreds of solar farms across the United States, including this one in North Carolina.)
The project, dubbed “Cobalt,” has a 35-year lifetime and is being developed by Cypress Creek Renewables, a renewables developer and independent power producer based in North Carolina and California.
Cypress “develops, finances, owns, and operates utility-scale and distributed solar and energy storage projects across the United States with a mission to power a sustainable future, one project at a time.”
The company employs about 350 people and has developed more than 11GW (gigawatts) of solar projects. It also owns 2GW of solar, has a 15GW pipeline, and operates and maintains 4GW of solar projects for customers across 19 states.
“We’re on the lower end of the top five utility-scale solar companies in the country by size,” said Parker Sloan, Senior Community & Economic Development Manager at Cypress. “We find land and develop and work with construction partners to build these things and then our operations and maintenance teams, maintain them for the life of the project.”
“We do everything from twenty acres in size to a thousand acres in size.”
One of Cypress’ newest projects is taking shape in the Lake Lucy area of Washington Township, Clarion County, on separate parcels being leased to the company by landowners who have chosen to remain anonymous.
“This project (will be a) 20 megawatt facility,” said Sloan. “It’s similar in size to projects that we’ve done in New York state.”
“That amount of electricity in relatable terms will power approximately 4,500 homes per year. That 4500 number is calculated using a formula based on the average home in Pennsylvania, the average home in the northeast. So, that’s kind of roughly the equivalent.”
Sloan said that if the solar farm was up and running today, it would be the largest of its kind in Northwestern Pennsylvania.
“Certainly, if it was built tomorrow, it would be (the largest),” said Sloan. “But, by next year, I don’t know if someone will beat us to it or not.”
Cypress is also developing solar farms in Erie, the Poconos, and Cherrytree Township, Venango County.
Sloan said the power generated at the solar farm in Washington Township will be used as needed locally in a multi-county area.
“We enter into and we’ve applied with PJM, the regional utility grid operator, and the local utilities, and we contract with them and sell them the power.”
“On the south side of one of the properties, there are some power lines where we will run an interconnection–a new line that will connect to the existing lines that the utilities own,” said Sloan. “The electrons on the power lines will go from lines that we build and own over to the utilities.”
“The actual electrons that are generated by the sun at the site—think of it like a bucket of water flowing downstream from the interconnection point of this project,” said Sloan.
According to Sloan, the solar panels track the sun as it moves across the sky throughout the day for maximum generation.
“They’re double-sided panels to help with that maximum generation,” said Sloan. “When it snows, the sun will actually reflect off the snow and generate electricity.”
WHY LAKE LUCY?
Sloan said there’s a rhyme to Cypress’ reason when it comes to picking solar farm locations.
“The gauging item always is our understanding and best guess about the utility infrastructure–’Do we think there’s capacity for a solar project on the utility line near this landowner’s property?'”
“We determined that (Cobalt) was a viable project from a utility line perspective,” said Sloan. “And then we look at the land and see if it’s suitable to build something. And if it is flat enough, generally, and other conditions.”
The land doesn’t have to be ‘pancake flat,’ according to Sloan.
“We do rolling hills–that’s certainly possible,” said Sloan. “We’re generally looking for a cleared land that isn’t wet.”
“‘High and dry’ is is a phrase that we use a lot around here. Fewer streams and wetlands and that sort of thing. And then, you know, kind of the general area, we’re looking at it–’Is it next to a busy commercial area or a residential area?'”
While there are a few bodies of water on the properties, one in particular will be protected during development and throughout the lifetime of the project–a native trout stream.
Setbacks will be implemented to ensure there will be no impact on the stream or wildlife.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF SOLAR?
Sloan noted solar farms are beneficial to utility companies and their consumers.
“In terms of the grid and electricity and rates there are two categories of benefits,” said Sloan. “The first is that solar costs have dropped just astronomically since 2009 and so this form of generation, ground-mounted solar, is the cheapest form of electricity generation on planet Earth and so, the utility embracing this and buying this power will keep costs down and more affordable for ratepayers.”
“The other strength that this brings is the resilience of the grid. Since the grid’s inception, we’ve had a handful of large power plants and we send that power out through power lines everywhere.”
“With solar and wind, too, we’re building a more robust, more distributed grid where where power is generated in more places and on smaller and smaller power lines like this. So it brings them resilience and strength with the grid as well.”
Sloan said strengthening the grid will also help reduce power outages.
“It should make it easier for utilities like this one to maintain their grid.”
WHAT IS THE TIMELINE FOR THE PROJECT?
According to Sloan, the project is approximately midway through development.
“We have some permitting to do and still some hurdles to go through,” said Sloan. “We still have a variety of state-level environmental permits and local permitting but, generally speaking, that’s where we’re at in the process.”
“We aim to start construction sometime next year.”
Sloan said the project will take approximately four to five months to complete.
“We ship everything to the site and store it on site–solar modules, the inverters, and all the racking and steel piles.” said Sloan.
“There’s a pile driving rig that drives the steel pile into the ground. It’s not permanently attached to the ground, just driven to a certain depth and then all the aluminum and steel racking is mounted to that and the solar modules are mounted to that racking.”
Approximately 250 workers will be needed to complete the project.
Sloan said most of the workers will be temporary construction jobs, but it also involves various temporary contractors, electricians, engineers, civil engineers, electrical workers.
“We source workers out of regional basis the best we can and certainly, electricians, engineers, surveyors, and those types of workers, are best to be found as local as possible because they understand the area; but it can be a challenge to find enough installers, electricians, etc. to do projects sometimes.”
The estimated cost of the project is believed to be in the $30 million range.
HOW WILL THE SOLAR FARM BE MAINTAINED?
Sloan said Cypress has a facility in Durham, North Carolina, that remotely monitors every solar farm the company operates.
“They can tell if a panel goes down, if someone opens the gate, or if there’s an emergency related to a storm,” said Parker. “They’ll send someone out immediately and they can adjust things accordingly.”
Sloan said the monitoring systems in Durham can also make adjustments remotely.
In terms of long-term maintenance, Sloan said regular onsite maintenance will be needed.
“”Having someone local especially in the early years of the project to tweak things and fix anything that needs fixing we have local staff for,” said Sloan. “A project of this size would take at least 50% of a full-time operation and maintenance manager of some kind.”
“We will have multiple solar farms across Northwest Pennsylvania and we’ll have a team of people employed locally who can respond to things and then we we hire out maintenance for things like mowing the grass.”
Sloan also noted that the modules will probably need to be replaced during the 35 year span.
“Solar modules.. their life span and warranty keep getting better every couple of years,” said Sloan.
“I’ve been in this business for six years now. These days, the expected life is twenty-five years, and that’s what they’re warranty to. “Like everything electronic, occasionally something breaks earlier, but to be specific, we would expect to have to replace the module throughout the life of the of the solar facility.”
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER 35 YEARS?
Sloan emphasized Cypress is contractually obligated to maintain the project and properly dispose of the panels and materials after the 35-year contract expires.
“The intent is for it to be temporary and at that time (after 35 years) it will be removed and taken down,” said Sloan. “That is our responsibility as the owner of the project and the ones responsible for maintaining it.”
“We’re obligated to do that in our lease and that’s our job and expectation to do that at that point.”
When a solar farm is dismantled, most of the materials can be recycled.
“The module recycling industry is nascent, but it is getting started,” said Sloan. “In terms of weight, the bulk of the material can be recycled – it’s aluminum and glass.”
“In the future, we hope and expect them to be taken apart and have those materials recycled and the interior components reused.”
Sloan said projects like the one in Washington Township are developed with minimal land impact in mind.
“All of these projects across the country are designed and built in a manner to be easily removable and so, you know, you can take them apart, take the modules off, pull the driven pile out of the ground,” said Sloan. “There’s no concrete that’s embedded in the ground. The land can go back to whatever the landowner wants. It can go back to agriculture or something else. That’s that’s all done on purpose.”
Sloan said Cypress is also looking for more opportunities across the region.
“We like this area and picked this area on purpose, so we’re interested in more money in more opportunities like this one,” said Sloan. “It’s where our first projects in the state will be built.”
“We want to be a good neighbor to the community and give back to the community the best we can, so are excited about moving forward with this project.”
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