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June 14, 2022

Penn breaks ground on one of state's largest solar projects in effort to reduce carbon emissions

Two facilities in central Pennsylvania will provide about 75% of electricity needs for the university's campus and health system

Environment Energy
Penn Solar Projects Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The University of Pennsylvania has broken ground on one of two solar facilities in central Pennsylvania that will provide about 75% of the electricity needs for its Philadelphia campus and health system.

The University of Pennsylvania has begun work on two new solar power facilities in central Pennsylvania, part of the Ivy League school's long term commitment to reduce carbon emissions at its properties in Philadelphia. The combined capacity of the two facilities, planned at sites in Franklin and Fulton counties, make the project one of the largest solar initiatives in the state.

In April 2020, the university signed a power purchase agreement with Radnor-based renewables firm Community Energy, whose solar installations include projects at Temple University, Eastern University and at sites in Lancaster County. The company, which was acquired in December by Virginia-based AES, has several other projects across the United States that range in capacity from 1 megawatt to 120 megawatts. 

On average, one megawatt of solar power generates enough electricity to meet the needs of 164 U.S. homes, the Solar Energy Industries Association estimates.

The utility scale projects planned by Penn will have a combined capacity of 220 megawatts, producing approximately 450,000 MWh of electricity annually. Penn plans to purchase all of the electricity generated at both sites, which the university says will be equal to about 75% of the total electricity demand of the academic campus and the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

The power purchasing agreement will last for 25 years at a rate competitive with conventional electricity prices.

The exact locations of the two solar fields were not named by the university. 

The smaller of the two projects broke ground in April and the larger project will begin construction before the end of June, the university said. 

The agreement is part of the university's Climate & Sustainability Action Plan 3.0, which includes the commitment of a 100% carbon neutral campus by 2042.

“This agreement not only allows the University of Pennsylvania to continue to demonstrate strong leadership on climate action, but it also provides a competitive price on electricity,” Anne Papageorge, vice president of the Penn's division of facilities & real estate services, said at the time projects were announced. “The University first laid out its roadmap to environmental sustainability in 2009, and we’ve accomplished much. This PPA is our most recent example of Penn’s commitment to meeting our climate goals.”

Beginning in 2023, the agreement will supplement Penn's past energy conservation and sustainability initiatives. The university said it will reduce carbon emissions from the academic campus by 45% from 2009 levels.

Penn said it plans to retire all of the Pennsylvania Alternative Energy Credits produced by the solar project, satisfying its requirements under the Pennsylvania Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard.

Penn previously worked with Community Energy on a 10-year contract in 2006 for the Bear Creek Wind Farm, which was one of the first wind energy facilities in the state.

Pennsylvania is around the middle of the pack in the U.S. for solar energy capacity, but there have been signs of an approaching boom in recent years, State Impact reported. Several hundred proposals before PJM, the region's electric grid operator, have elicited a mix of optimism and local pushback from landowners and conservationists in some parts of the state. 

Earlier this month, an 80-megawatt solar field proposed in Pocono Township — the largest in the Pocono mountain region — received approval despite misgivings about the removal of wildlife habitats and root systems.

Depending on the terrain, planners of large-scale solar projects typically attempt to offset environmental drawbacks by including natural buffers and retention ponds in the design of solar fields with vast acreage.

Last year, Pennsylvania unveiled plans for the largest combined government solar energy project in the United States. The 191-megawatt PULSE project will cover six solar facilities in six different counties — Columbia, Juniata, Montour, Northumberland, Snyder and York — and will provide nearly half of the state government's electricity needs.

Pennsylvania's schools also have begun to incorporate a larger share of solar energy into their facilities, doubling their solar power use since 2020, according to a report from clean energy non-profit Generation180. Still, just 2% of Pennsylvania schools produce their own solar power, and about two-thirds of those that do receive third-party financing for solar projects.

The Biden administration this month made a number of commitments to supporting solar energy development in the United States, including a 24-month pause on tariffs and duties for certain solar module imports that will jumpstart smaller installations. The administration also authorized use of the Defense Production Act to promote domestic production of clean energy technologies, including solar panel parts, with a goal of tripling domestic solar manufacturing capacity by 2024.