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Pennsylvania County Demonstrates Benefits of Solar Power

For residents, businesses and local governments in Centre County, the financial savings of investing in solar power can be big. But switching to solar can also have beneficial impacts on reducing carbon footprints.

(TNS) — While the national average interest rate for savings accounts is 0.06 percent, State College, Pa., resident Howard Bond puts his money into a savings account that accrues 8 percent interest — or, at least, that's how he describes his investment in solar energy.

As the cost of electricity continues to grow annually in Pennsylvania, some Centre County residents and business owners have embraced solar power as a cost-effective alternative that enables them to save money in the long run while reducing their carbon footprint.

Bond, a semi-retired Penn State professor in the department of astronomy and astrophysics, made the decision to install solar panels on the roof of his 4-bedroom home in State College in 2019. He spent less than $30,000 on the installation, which he said was further reduced by the "generous federal tax rebates" that reward solar energy users.

His solar energy system provides all of his home's electrical energy needs — including home heating, cooking and television — except for during the coldest months of winter. As the driver of an electric vehicle, it also provides all of his transportation energy.

While the financial gains were clear for Bond, he said the reason he decided to transition away from fossil fuels was because of the urgency of climate change, a crisis he believes requires all-hands-on-deck to confront.

"We have really got to get fossil fuels under control to lessen the impact of climate change," Bond said. "Think of your children and grandchildren — the problems that are facing the climate are going to be severe if we don't act soon."

Co-op Effort Draws Newcomers To Solar

To empower more people like Bond to make the jump to solar, the Centre County Solar and EV Charger Co-op was launched in September 2021 — inviting community members to join and learn more about how they can take advantage of the renewable energy source.

As part of a greater effort launched by Solar United Neighbors, a national nonprofit comprised of solar owners and supporters, benefits of co-op membership included access to reduced costs for solar installation as well as guidance in the decision-making process.

Henry McKay, Pennsylvania program director for the co-op, said the goal of the organization is to make it easier and more affordable for people to transition to solar power by aggregating consumer demands and leveraging their membership to get exclusive, group discounted rates on solar installation.

McKay said the co-op, which closed to new members on Jan. 31, was successful in helping 17 community members install solar panels, offsetting more than four million pounds of carbon and saving more than $550,000 in total energy spending. Overall, the installations — which cost more than $370,000 — are expected to produce an estimated 181,550 kilowatt-hour (kWh) annually.

McKay said that the co-ops' role included helping people overcome "information barriers" that often scare off interested consumers by providing guidance and education on the process, such as the ways in which solar panels add market value to homes.

To him, the most obvious benefit is cost reduction. He emphasized that with solar power, consumers can send extra energy they generate in their home back to utility companies to get credit on their electric bill in a process known as "net metering."

"It's a state policy that lets your energy flow both ways and you earn a credit for that extra energy — and we have excellent net metering in Pennsylvania, actually better than a lot of states, so it's something I want people who live here to take advantage of because it makes solar really cost effective," McKay said.

Local Government, Businesses Tout Solar Benefits

Homeowners aren't the only ones moving away from fossil fuels; Centre County businesses too have installed solar panels over the past few years and have touted the economic benefits.

At Penn State, 25 percent of statewide electricity usage comes a solar array with panels located throughout Franklin County — the result of a 25-year Solar Power Purchase Agreement that the university entered in 2019 with Lightsource bp, according to the Sustainability Institute website.

In Millheim, the roof of a veterinarian's office absorbs the sun's rays to convert them into electricity. Down the road, at Burkholder's Country Market, similar panels gleam in the sunlight, alongside two free-of-charge electric car charging stations.

Owner Russ Burkholder said the market had been looking into installing solar panels over the past decade due to the potential for saving money — but the market's roof wasn't built in a way that could withstand the weight or surface area to accommodate panels.

The solution was to instead focus on building a solar carport, which is an overhead canopy built to cover parking areas with solar panels. In 2018, they were awarded a Solar Energy Program grant by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and the Department of Environmental Protection that covered 50 percent of the project cost. Construction began that same year.

Burkholder said the panels are currently offsetting about 70 percent of their electricity usage and they expect a full payback in roughly eight to ten years. Just as he was when they began looking into solar, Burkholder is focused on the long-term benefits — and said that the project is predicted to save $1.4 million over 25 years.

Reflective of the county's commitment to embracing solar energy is the University Area Joint Authority solar array, which is the largest solar array at a municipal authority in Pennsylvania and is projected to save $10 million over 25 years, according to UAJA Executive Director Cory Miller.

The array is currently producing 5 megawatts of solar power and while Miller said they would love to expand, the center is currently at the maximum solar installation allowed by Pennsylvania law.

The solar array is expected to produce enough energy to meet about 70 percent of the wastewater authority's energy needs. On sunny days Miller said all of the energy being used comes from the solar array and the excess is pushed out into the West Penn grid and into homes and businesses close by.

"It is so cost effective, it keeps rates low because it reduces our energy costs and it's more reliable because we are generating it on site," Miller said. "It's pretty much a win no matter how you feel or how you stand on things, because it's cheaper, more environmentally sound and resilient — everything we look for in an energy solution."

Local government has taken a similar stance, embracing solar power by exploring projects that serve the community by reducing harmful environmental impacts of oil and gas. Of those projects is the Centre County Corrections Facility solar array in Bellefonte, which was completed in April 2020.

The array is expected to generate 1.7 million kWh of electricity annually — amounting to over 60 million kWh over a 40-year period — which will offset nearly 100 percent of the correctional facility's annual usage.

Since its installment, however, Commissioner Mark Higgins said the array is running even better than the guarantee, making the electric bill at the prison essentially negative. Instead, Higgins said the power company owes the correctional facility a large sum of money.

Illustrating the county's push toward renewable energy is its resolution passed in July 2020 to adopt C-PACE, a program that allows commercial businesses, agriculture and nonprofits to invest in clean energy and water efficiency projects with long-term, low-cost financing.

For those planning on living in their house or owning commercial property for at least seven years, Higgins encourages them to "take a serious look" at solar because of the guarantee that it will pay back.

He hopes that the future of Centre County includes an expansion of solar power due to its potential to not only save community members money, but also because he believes renewable energy is key in preserving the county's bountiful environment.

"If we install more solar and more wind in Centre County, it improves our energy independence, it fixes people's costs, it's good for the environment and we don't have to have some large power plant built in the county even as we continue our slow, steady and sustainable growth."

(c)2022 the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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