Unique solar project installed at Chesapeake College
WYE MILLS — The large windmill that can be seen as travelers pass Chesapeake College on U.S. Route 50 is often called iconic. But, it’s not the only renewable energy path the college has taken.
Chesapeake College has recently finished a 6-acre array of solar panels, designed to produce 1.76 megawatts of electricity while the sun shines. However, it’s not a run-of-the-mill solar panel project, due to the way the array interacts with the regional grid.
“Our initial hope is we just wanted to get a solar array into the ground,” said Greg Farley, director of Chesapeake College’s Center for Leadership in Environmental Education. “This has gone beyond our wildest expectations.”
Farley said Chesapeake College launched a request for proposal to build a solar energy project on campus property in May 2014. Because Delmarva Power operates the electricity grid in that region, the project first had to be cleared with the energy company.
But, the college was about one project too late, at the time, Farley said. Another larger solar array was built nearby, and there was no more capacity at the transformers in Wye Mills to accept the variable power that renewable energy sends back to the grid, he said.
“Up to a certain point, transformers can deal with that, but then beyond that point it becomes really an engineering problem,” Farley said.
Chesapeake College reached back to Delmarva Power and a meeting was called between the college and utility company, along with its parent company Pepco Holdings, and the company that constructed the project, Solar City.
Farley described it as an opportunity to innovate what needs to be designed in order to get more renewable energy onto the grid in the future.
“What came out of that whole conversation was Pepco, they have really been the drivers of all the innovation for this. They said, ‘Okay, we can do it. What we want to use your array for is we want to be able to design a system that’ll allow your array to fit into what the grid can really accept,’” Farley said.
“Pepco and Delmarva (Power) are designing technology that is going to allow our array to communicate with the grid and to basi- cally shape our power output so that we don’t damage the grid,” he said, adding that Pepco believes it’s the first time the technology has ever been used in the United States.
The solar array has been in use since July 14. Most sunny afternoons, there is at least some period where the college isn’t drawing energy off the grid.
According to Farley, in the last 30 days, the solar array produced about 256,200 kilowatt-hours. The average Maryland home uses about 1,000 kWh each month, he said.
“This means that our array produced enough electricity to power about 256 homes last month; that number will be lower for the whole year, because the days get shorter in the winter,” Farley said. “But I think it’s probably safe to say that our array would power approximately 250 homes each year.”
Farley said Pepco and the college are working with a battery vendor so that during times when the college has to shut down its solar array so the Wye Mills transformers aren’t damaged, the energy could be diverted to the battery and stored for later use. The hope is to have the battery in place by the end of the year.