Commissioners Approve Solar Array Project for Centre County Correctional Facility
Centre County commissioners voted on Tuesday to approve a $1.67 million contract for the construction, operation, maintenance and repair of a new solar panel array to power the county correctional facility.
Chair Michael Pipe and Vice-Chair Mark Higgins voted in favor, with Commissioner Steve Dershem voting against.
The 25-year contract with Centre County Solar Partners LLC is for a power service agreement for the new 1.2 megawatt array, to be constructed on the east side of the jail. It includes a $600,000 advance payment, annual payments of $101,000 for the first five years, and after year five a buyout option at market value, estimated to be $567,411.
Over 40 years, the array is projected to save the county $4.3 million to $6.6 million.
"Our correctional facility is going to be in existence for decades to come, many, many years. Everyone agrees we’re going to have it, it’s still going to be there," Pipe said. "What at least I’m seeing, what many of us are seeing, is there’s an opportunity to say we’re going to have the facility for 25 years, 40 years into the future, so let’s choose to go into an investment strategy that over time will basically pay for itself and bring some money back into the county."
Construction of the array will be completed at the end of this year. It is expected to produce 1.7 million kilowatt hours annually and on an average day offset 100 percent of the building's energy usage.
Higgins said that last year the jail spent $111,000 on electricity and that the solar array will provide about $106,000 of that. The approximately $5,000 that will be incurred is due to timing issues, he said. Excess power is sold back at retail rates and credits can be banked to be used on days when the array does not generate enough energy.
The total savings accrued will depend in part on the costs of electricity and the value of Solar Renewable Energy Credits, which electricity suppliers are required to buy from solar energy producers or pay a penalty. SREC values fluctuate, but in the past two years in Pennsylvania have risen sharply following state legislation requiring suppliers to buy SRECs within the Commonwealth.
Dershem's objection was unchanged from last week, when he expressed concern about the financials, noting that the county had already locked in historically low traditional electricity rates for the next three years. He also said he was unsure about the savings guarantees and longterm viability of the project.
"I’m at a point right now where the numbers just don’t add up the way they should," he said on Tuesday.
"We’re in a very cloudy area. We’re also far enough north that we just can’t enjoy some of the success of solar arrays that more southern locales have," he later added. "I also have some concerns about maintenance over the course of time. I have reservations about the financial part of it. I don’t know what the guarantee is if this company is even going to be in existence 10, 15, 20 years from now if we have issues or discussions about that. There are just a lot of challenges I see here that quite frankly I would much rather put the money in conservation than generation."
Higgins said the inverters, which convert direct current to alternating current, are the only part of an array that wear out, generally needing to be replaced in 10 to 15 years. The contract has a 20-year warranty and the county has set aside a sinking fund for future replacements, Higgins said.
Prior to the vote, several members of the public spoke in support of the project. Among them was Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition President Dorothy Blair, who said she also represented Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County, the State College chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby, and the eight local congregations that participate in the in the climate stewardship programs of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light.
She explained numerous benefits to using solar power, including its cost-effectiveness, growing use among municipalities and states, resistance to damage from weather, rapidly growing contributions to the economy, and, of course, cleaner air.
"Building a solar array at the prison is a terrific investment in the future of our county, our state and our nation," Blair said.
Joanne Tosti-Vasey, president of Bellefonte Borough Council, said she installed solar panels on her 154-year-old borough home three years ago and they have provided 100 percent power for her house and electric car. She has only had to pay for electricity use from the grid once, when the panels had to be removed for repairs on the house.
"As a steward for continuity I think it’s important to look toward the future," she said. "Cost-wise this is an excellent investment."
Bob Potter, of Harris Township, called the project a "win-win-win," because it will save the county at least $4 million, contribute to solar energy employment, and have a positive impact on the environment.
"This project, once completed, will demonstrate Centre County's leadership and serve to encourage others at all levels … across the state," he said. "I’m certain thousands in Centre County will applaud you."
The project has been discussed for more than two years and was first considered as part of a contract last year for a series of guaranteed energy savings initiatives at 12 county buildings. But while negotiations were ongoing, the county changed its electricity supplier to decrease its rates and the solar panel system proposed would not have been as cost-effective as initially planned.
Pipe said discussions over the past two years have helped refine the project and bring the overall cost down.
"I think what it’s done, from my standpoint, is it made a better outcome at the end of the day," he said. "We’ve been able to bring in different perspectives, a lot of good questions."
He added that the solar array is a longterm investment, recognizing that the correctional facility will need electricity in some form over the coming decades and over time the project will save the county money.
"It’s not really a 2019 decision or a 2020 decision," he said. "It’s really a 2059 decision."