“But where is all of this energy coming from?” one audience member joked as a projector and lights were put on in preparation for the oncoming presentation.
“All solar,” Cory Miller responded. “All of it's coming from our solar grid.”
The State College chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) sponsored a tour and presentation of the University Area Joint Authority solar array on Sept. 22 at UAJA’s Spring Control Facility.
State College's CCL chapter is one of 550 chapters worldwide and 400 nationally.
Sylvia Neely, group leader of the State College chapter, kicked off the event by introducing the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend, a proposed bill with the purpose of driving down American carbon pollution by implementing a gradually rising carbon fee. The bill also seeks to set a carbon dividend with 100 percent of net revenues going toward the American people.
“Our goal is to persuade Congress to pass a national bipartisan solution to solve climate change,” Neely said. “Another purpose of ours is to spread the word that there are indeed many things we can do to stop climate change.”
Part of this process, according to Neely, is encouraging community members to become informed on climate initiatives on the local level, such as the efforts of the University Area Joint Authority (UAJA), the general municipal authority providing wastewater treatment and water recycling services to State College and the Centre County region. The mission of UAJA is to improve the environment, economy and quality of life in Centre County.
The focal point of the presentation was UAJA’s solar array, which is the 10th-largest solar installation in Pennsylvania and the largest municipal-hosted solar project.
The event began with an informative session led by UAJA’s executive director Cory Miller. Miller discussed the logistics of the solar array, including its establishment, financial components, benefits, maintenance, partnerships and future plans.
UAJA first got interested in solar energy in 2009, when the talk of green energy was on the rise.
“The primary focus of looking at solar energy at that time for us was wanting to generate power on site, so in the event that we are off the grid, we have something to work with,” Miller said. “The solar power could be there in conjunction with our generated power to handle times when we were off the grid.”
The authority's biggest obstacle was obtaining financial support to allow it to begin construction of its solar array. This obstacle, as Miller would find out, was not easily solved.
“In 2009 we applied for grants, but we weren’t successful in getting any grants. In 2013, we applied again and were not successful again. Generally speaking in the state of Pennsylvania that’s how it works — if you’re doing a bad job you get money, if you’re doing a good job, they say you have everything you need so just keep doing what you’re doing," Miller said.
In 2016, UAJA’s financial dilemma was resolved with the solution of a public-private partnership with Pace Energy, and the Solar Deal was born.
In their partnership, UAJA provides land and agrees to buy electricity from the solar array, while Pace Energy pays for the installation of the solar array and has ownership. In its seventh year of the partnership, UAJA can purchase the solar array at a depreciated cost.
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The only issue with the solar deal was that it didn’t meet the goal of providing renewable energy to UAJA at the same or lower cost — which is where the Battery Deal comes in.
Issues in frequency commonly arise in the power grid, so to combat that, Pace Energy built a lithium-iron storage battery facility on UAJA’s site. Pace Energy gets tax credit for the battery and splits the revenue with UAJU once it recovers its initial investment, which allows UAJA to meet its power goal.
“Everyone knows how a solar panel works, but a battery is a little more complicated,” Miller said. “Every two seconds a signal is sent to it through the internet telling the battery to take power out of the grid or put power in, which regulates frequency in the grid.”
Now, 100 percent of the power in their facility is generated by solar energy.
In addition to the solar array and battery, UAJA is involved in numerous other sustainable initiatives discussed throughout the presentation.
Miller described how reducing energy consumption is a priority in their facility, and to manage energy, they have done things such as switching all lights to LED, adding motion sensors, and replacing machines that reintroduce oxygen into water with outfall cascades which oxygenize the water as it falls over the rocks.
To demonstrate the efficiency of this, Miller described how a population of fish have occupied the cascades.
UAJA is also interested in a variety of future projects including eliminating septic tanks to reduce methane and using anaerobic digestion to produce gas from sludge and food waste which can be sold and used for fuel.
For example, this fuel could be used for CATA, which is 100 percent powered by natural gas.
Following the presentation, Miller led a tour of the facility. Viewers were able to get an up-close view of the 1.5-megawatt storage battery facility and the solar array.
Miller discussed how the vast array of solar panels visitors were looking at was just the beginning.
Phase two of the solar project is already underway, and Miller estimated it will be fully up and running by the beginning of next year.
Phase two will include an entirely new solar array, this time with panels that consume sunlight from both the bottom and top. These panels are exempt from tariffs, making them a safe purchase in the ongoing trade war with China.
Darlene Clark, a State College resident and a nursing professor at Penn State, heard about the event through her membership with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and had no idea of the numerous efforts UAJA was making to combat climate change at a local level.
“I think this is hidden gem,” Clark said. “I’m really proud of what we’re doing, particularly since it’s the only one in Pennsylvania. From the water treatment to the compost to the waste water, I think it’s something to be really proud of.”