Philly’s clean energy goals languish as solar farm remains unbuilt – NBC10 Philadelphia

What there is to know

  • More than three years ago, Philadelphia city officials signed a contract to build what would be one of Pennsylvania’s largest solar arrays on farmland in a rural central part of the state.
  • But the project has stalled, with three developers having done no construction on the site since then. The solar farm, which would provide about 22% of the city’s energy needs, should not be operational until 2024 or 2025.
  • SEPTA, meanwhile, has built its own solar panel that is slightly smaller in size and saves energy costs for the transit agency because solar energy costs less than power supplied by the power supply. traditional electric.

After former President Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord in 2017, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney promised his city would abide by the accord.

Part of the plan released at the time by Philly called for that by 2030, all city government buildings would be powered by renewable energy. Solar energy would play a big role.

So in 2019, the Philadelphia Energy Authority signed a contract to build a 70-megawatt solar farm in Straban Township, Adams County, a rural part of south-central Pennsylvania. The network would produce 22% of the energy the city needs to power all of its facilities.

“More land available in the right amount of space,” Dominic McCraw, the city’s director of energy, said of the city’s choice of location for the project.

The project was to be operational by October 31, 2020.

But when NBC10 investigators traveled to Straban Township last month, all we found were empty farm fields with tall grass growing on them — not a solar panel in sight.

McCraw said the pandemic was to blame for the years-long delay to the project.

“There was a mandate from the state to, for example, not even move construction projects forward,” he said, referring to Governor Wolf’s six-week construction moratorium in the spring of 2020.” Then, you know, the supply chain issues that ended up causing issues as well.

An NBC10 investigation revealed that the Philly project had been sold three times without any of the developers putting a shovel in the ground. The project has been stalled since the township of Straban gave preliminary approval to the project in 2019. In the meantime, the project developers have been building other solar farms. And SEPTA – which also signed a solar farm project in 2019, but with a different developer – was able to build its solar farm and is already earning revenue from it.

Philly has since signed a new contract for the same solar farm with a new operating date: May 31, 2025.

“When we can see the signs start to go up, I’m not exactly sure,” McCraw said.

Three developers, three years, no solar park

The city’s solar farm is a dispersed site plan, which means solar panels will be laid out on 16 different farm lots, then connected by underground and overhead cables to each other and to the regional power grid.

And that has always been the plan, starting with the first contract the city signed in 2019 with Community Energy, a Radnor, Pennsylvania-based solar developer.

Company founder and CEO Brent Alderfer said their job was to secure all land leases and permits for the project. They sold the project to Engie, a utility company based in France, which was supposed to continue construction.

Philly’s contract with Engie began in December 2019. Seven months later, Engie officials sent a letter to the city saying they would not be able to meet the operational deadline. The company said that due to a delay in the delivery of its solar panel parts, it had to change suppliers, but this would also cause further delay.

“This necessitated redesigning parts of the solar PV plant to accommodate a different type of PV module as well as the additional time to select a new module supplier,” the company wrote in the letter.

Penn State University energy professor Seth Blumsack said some solar projects were delayed during the height of the pandemic due to supply chain issues.

“There have been big disruptions in manufacturing,” he said.

But he added that once supply chain issues are resolved, solar farms can be installed “very quickly”.

“It would be a matter of months before these panels would start producing power,” he said.

It is unclear whether Engie was able to resolve its supply chain issues. The company declined a request for an interview.

Engie, however, completed several other solar projects during the period when the Philly project stalled. The company has built two slightly smaller solar farms (50 megawatts each) in Virginia and two much larger solar farms in Texas (200 megawatts each).

Asked about it, a company spokesperson said the company had to “delay and shift projects to respond to a myriad of factors.”

But added that: “These details are unique to each project and we do not share this information.”

Engie eventually sold the project in April to another company, Energix. A spokesperson for the company, which is headquartered in Israel, also declined a request for an interview.

We stopped at the Straban Township Municipal Building and looked at plans that the township board of supervisors had pre-approved in December 2019. The plans showed exactly where the panels would go, how they would be interconnected, and even what type of landscaping surrounding the solar fields. .

In order to gain final approval and proceed to the construction phase, the developer had to establish a decommissioning agreement, have a signage plan that would meet township criteria, as well as other township and county requirements.

The director of the township office said Engie has not appeared before the township for any follow-up permits or approvals – and neither has Energix so far.

SEPTA’s solar farm “a source of income”

As the grass in Philadelphia’s solar fields continues to grow, SEPTA’s solar project in Franklin County continues to pump solar power into the grid and generate revenue for the transit agency. To date: $360,000.

“It’s not just profitable. It’s actually a source of revenue for us,” said Meghan Schultz, sustainability manager at SEPTA.

SEPTA’s solar farm is about half the size of Philly’s planned solar project. And only one of SEPTA’s two solar fields is currently in operation. The second field should be completed in the next few months.

We caught up with Alyssa Edwards, spokeswoman for Lightsource BP – the company that developed SEPTA’s solar project at the Franklin County site. We asked if they were also facing construction delays due to the statewide moratorium at the start of the pandemic.

“You know, [we] doesn’t. It is another type of construction. It’s outside,” she said.

Once the second field is completed, the entire solar project will provide 20% of SEPTA’s electricity. Savings are expected to increase further, officials said.

SEPTA negotiated a rate almost 40% cheaper than the rate the city has blocked for its possible solar farm.

McCraw said he was unfamiliar with SEPTA’s draft as to why there is a difference between the two. But he said the city map is a bit more complex due to the dispersed site.

“Because of the size of ours and the different land areas that have to be involved, that made the price go up, a little more likely, comparatively,” he said.

Even so, the city’s solar power rate, which will go into effect once the solar farm is operational, is cheaper — by more than $3 per megawatt hour — than what the city has paid over the past year. past financial year for a standard energy tariff. This could potentially mean significant savings for municipal energy costs which totaled $30 million last year.

Asked exactly how much taxpayers are losing by not already operating the solar farm, as planned when the deal was first signed in 2019, McCraw declined to give a number. The city currently receives about 9% of its energy from renewable energy sources, officials said.

“The lockdown certainly would have been helpful,” he said, referring to the fixed rate the city will have for 20 years. But the fixed rate only happens once the solar farm is up and running — and the city doesn’t expect that to happen until May 2024 at the earliest.

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