Pennsylvania's largest solar farm taking shape in East Drumore

A worker installs a solar panel at the Keystone Solar Project in East Drumore Township on Wednesday in this file photo from 2012. (Dan Marschka / Staff)

Solar energy could soon power about half of Pennsylvania’s state government operations, with officials announcing Monday they plan to purchase electricity generated by seven new, large-scale arrays.

Totaling about 2,000 acres, the arrays will be placed mostly on farmland, including in neighboring York County, one of six counties in which construction will take place. None will be built in Lancaster County, and the specific location in York County was not disclosed as part of the announcement.

By the time they are completed in 2023, the arrays should annually generate about 191 megawatts of electricity that will help to power 16 agencies, officials said.

To date, it’s the largest solar energy commitment made by any government in the United States, according to Curt Topper, secretary of the state Department of General Services, who spoke during a Monday news conference.

Gov. Tom Wolf applauded that commitment ahead of the event.

“Pennsylvania has been a national energy leader for more than one hundred years,” Wolf said in the announcement. “As we continue to diversify our grid with clean renewable sources of energy, we want to maintain Pennsylvania’s leadership position and bring the associated economic, health and environmental benefits to all Pennsylvanians.”

Those benefits are expected to include more than 400 new construction jobs, many open to central Pennsylvanians, said Kevin Smith, CEO at Lightsource bp, the solar energy company that will build, own and operate the new arrays.

Construction will take place on leased agricultural land, with farmers signing 30-year agreements to host the arrays, Smith said. Those landowners, he said, likely will make a greater profit from the lease agreements than they would have by farming the land.

Because Lightsource is overseeing construction, there was no significant up-front cost to the state, Topper said.

Instead, state officials entered into an advanced power-purchasing agreement, vowing to buy electricity generated by the arrays at a fixed price for a period of 15 years.

“We are doing it all through the dollars that we would have spent anyway for electric generation,” Topper said.

Related energy will be distributed to the state by Constellation, an electricity supplier licensed by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

The state’s agreement with Constellation sets the fixed energy cost at about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to General Services Department spokesman Troy Thompson. That’s cheaper than the average cost during the past decade, when energy was purchased largely from a traditional non-renewable supply, Thompson said.

“We are currently benefiting from historically low electricity rates and we will now be keeping those low rates fixed for the next 15 years,” he said.

Called Pennsylvania PULSE — Project to Utilize Light and Solar Energy — the solar energy initiative is meant to help satisfy state goals of drastically reducing carbon emissions in an effort to combat climate change, said Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“Pennsylvania needs to move toward clean, renewable energy,” he said.

The ongoing solar project is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 157,800 metric tons per year — equal to the emissions produced by 27,000 homes or 34,000 cars, according to state figures.

In addition to York County, solar arrays will be installed as part of the project in Columbia, Juniata, Montour, Northumberland and Snyder counties.

According to Smith, there could be opportunities to extend lease agreements if the project is successful during its initial period.

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