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Construction Underway on Solar Array at Correctional Facility

by on January 28, 2020 4:42 PM

Work has begun on a $1.67 million solar panel array project that will power the Centre County Correctional Facility and save the county millions of dollars in the coming decades.

Centre County officials were joined on Tuesday at the correctional facility by community members and state and federal elected officials for a groundbreaking event for the 1.2 megawatt array.

"Today represents savings, security and stewardship," Board of Commissioners Chair Michael Pipe said. 

Last year, the Board of Commissioners approved a contract with Solar Renewable Energy LLC, of Mechanicsburg, to construct, operate and maintain the photovoltaic array on 6 acres of land on the east side of the 15-year-old correctional facility in Benner Township. The public-private partnership is a 25-year agreement, but after the fifth year the county has a buyout option at market value, estimated to be $567,411.

Over 40 years, the solar energy is expected to save the county between $4.3 million and $6.6 million. Commissioner Mark Higgins said the array will produce solar energy at a cost at or below electric grid rates and eliminate distribution charges. Energy costs for the correctional facility are expected to be around $5,000 a year, down from $111,000 in 2018.

The county also will receive income from Solar Renewable Energy Credits, which electricity suppliers are required to buy from solar energy producers and fluctuate in value.

"We’re ... going to be able to sell back Solar Renewable Energy Credits back to the grid and that’s going to allow us to pay for the system itself," Pipe said.

"It might take decades to pay off, but the down-range look at all this is that at some point we’re going to look back at this and hopefully it's going to be a great energy savings and cost savings to our taxpayers," Commissioner Steve Dershem added.

The array also will provide energy security, with stored electricity from the arrays ensuring generators will work in the event of a loss of power.

"The facility, a 24/7 operation, if it would ever go down in terms of having energy not be able to power it, we would be at a significant security disadvantage," Pipe said. "By having the solar array here the energy and power would be able to come here to be able to back up our generators here, keeping our staff and the folks who are incarcerated safe and secure."

Of course, solar power also has an environmental component. Higgins said that over 40 years the array will generate 61.8 million kilowatt hours.

"From a stewardship standpoint this will remove or not generate in the first place 75,149,105 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere," Higgins said.

Douglas Berry, president and CEO of Solar Renewable Energy LLC, said the array is "state of the art."

The 380 watt panels that will be installed are bifacial, capturing direct and indirect sunlight.

"Most of the panels we have done probably up to the last six months have been just one side that actually gets the sunlight," Berry said. "These are bifacial, so you’ll get it from the front but you also get it from the reflection on the back side of the panels. So you get more than what you would typically get on just the 380 watt panel.

"We’re looking to have this increased production and hopefully this will continue to benefit the county for many, many years to come."

Ground mount racking has been installed and Berry said the panel installation should begin in about a week.

Jason Wert, senior technical engineer for State College-based engineering firm Rettew, said that even after 30 years, the panels will still operate at 85 percent efficiency.

"It was nice to have a project like this, to see local investment in solar energy, local offsetting of electrical power and the benefits that accrue from this," Wert said. "These are very long-term investments that provide a very long-term benefit to the community and the region."

The array is the latest part of county efforts for energy savings and conservation. In 2018, the county advanced a $4.7 million guaranteed energy savings initiative for its buildings, including replacement of existing lighting with LED lighting, HVAC system replacements and window and door upgrades — efforts that will conserve energy and save money for the county in the long term.

"What we realize is there is value to the taxpayer and to the environment and so many other things just in doing things right," Dershem said.

The correctional facility solar array was originally considered as part of that initiative, but the estimates provided by contractor McClure Company and lower electric rates made it not as cost-effective as originally planned. Instead it was explored as a second project.

After a complex process involving multiple county departments, the final cost of the array was substantially lower than initial proposals, Higgins said.

"Through good negotiating and significantly increasing the upfront payments the county was able to reduce all costs, including interest, by nearly $1 million over the initial proposal," he said.

The contract includes a $600,000 advance payment and annual payments of $101,000 for the first five years.

Another significant solar energy project could be in the region's future as well. An intergovernmental working group has been exploring a solar power purchase agreement to supply energy. That group includes the six Centre Region municipalities, the Centre Region Council of Governments, Centre County Government, State College Area School District and six authorities.

Former Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors Chair Peter Buck, who chairs the working group, said while the process is still in the exploratory phase, the group is hopeful it can achieve a large-scale solar power purchase agreement.

"We don’t know… I’m optimistic," he said.

Penn State added a 2 megawatt solar panel array along Orchard Road last year, while the UAJA wastewater treatment plant has completed the first phase of a 2.61 megawatt system.

Local and state officials take part in a ceremonial groundbreaking for the solar array at the Centre County Correctional Facility on Jan. 28, 2020. Photo by Geoff Rushton |

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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