Going solar in a big way in Bucks

The 17,000 panels in a planned solar array should power up to 400 homes.

Posted: August 30, 2007

Bucks County may not be known as a place to catch some rays. But if all goes as planned, Falls Township will soon be home to one of the nation's largest solar-energy installations, a 16.5-acre array of 17,000 panels that should produce enough power to meet the annual needs of up to 400 homes.

Plans for the $20 million facility were scheduled to be announced this afternoon at the site, next to the township's GROWS Landfill, by Gov. Rendell and representatives of three companies behind it: Exelon Corp., Conergy AG and Waste Management Inc.

The joint announcement reflects the unusual dynamics of the project, which Rendell said he expected to be "just the tip of the iceberg" in Pennsylvania solar-energy development.

A key impetus for the project was the state's imposition last year of rules that will require electric utilities to rely increasingly on alternative energy. By 2021, Pennsylvania utilities will have to get 8 percent of the power they sell from clean, renewable energy sources, including one-half of 1 percent from solar power.

Financing of the project will come from Epuron, a subsidiary of the German-based Conergy Group. The solar facility will be designed and installed by a sister company, SunTechnics Energy Systems Inc., on land leased from Waste Management.

But Conergy's role belies the project's local roots. The idea of developing a solar facility to produce electricity for the power grid - in essence, the region's first solar power plant - came from a collaboration between Exelon and two local solar entrepreneurs, Sarah Hetznecker and Gary Sheehan, a husband-and-wife team who in 1999 cofounded Mesa Energy L.L.C., of Malvern.

Mesa's initial focus was on installing rooftop solar systems for homeowners, businesses and institutions, Hetznecker said in an interview yesterday. But a year ago, Hetznecker and Sheehan decided to take a more ambitious proposal to Peco Energy, the Philadelphia utility owned by Chicago's Exelon.

"We had a site owner that was interested, and I saw this as a potential in the marketplace, given the policies of the state," Hetznecker said. "I was looking for someone who had the vision to carry it through."

Hetznecker said she and Sheehan found that partner when Peco referred them to Michael S. Freeman, an Exelon Generation Co. L.L.C. economist who has helped the company structure other alternative-energy deals.

Freeman, too, had seen commercial opportunities in the state's renewable-energy requirements.

He said the key was that the law envisioned a market in renewable-energy credits, or RECs - tradable instruments that would allow companies that do not produce renewable energy to get credit for it under the state's requirement.

Exelon Generation already trades in RECs in other states that have preceded Pennsylvania in imposing renewable-energy standards. In New Jersey, for example, solar credits are selling for about $250 a megawatt-hour - the equivalent of 25 cents a kilowatt-hour, Freeman said.

"The key is the value of the solar-renewable-energy credit," he said.

Mesa's initial site partner fell through, Hetznecker said. But with financing promised by Epuron, and a new site that Epuron helped them find, the company forged ahead. In February, Mesa was bought for an undisclosed price by SunTechnics, also part of the Conergy Group.

"That's when I really gained some confidence they could pull this off," Freeman said. "The acquisition really gave them technical and development muscle."

Exelon has agreed to buy 20 years' worth of power produced by the plant, which it says will be the nation's fourth-largest solar power plant, behind facilities in Arizona and California.

Although the project was financed without state subsidies, Rendell called it an example of the kind of investment that would be fostered if the legislature agreed next month, during a special session on energy, to his proposal to spend $200 million for solar-installation rebates and manufacturing credits.

Despite its relative size, the Falls Township project may seem like small potatoes by some measures. It is rated at 3 megawatts - theoretically enough to power 2,400 to 3,000 homes.

But because solar power is only available when the sun shines, its actual output is substantially smaller. With an average annual capacity factor of about 14 percent, the solar plant will produce enough power to serve the year-round needs of 350 to 400 homes.

Proponents say that understates the value of solar power, because its availability tends to coincide with periods of peak demand: hot summer afternoons when power that wholesales for an average of about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour can cost 10 to 20 times that much.

"These things will help meet peak demand on the really hot days - that's when solar is at its finest," said Charlie Young, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. "So it will save all of us money."


 

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Contact staff writer Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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