From coal to solar: Former mine land could become panel farm
BUTLER TWP. — Solar panels might produce power on coal land.
Teichos Energy of Seattle, Washington, has been studying the potential for building a solar energy farm in Upper Lehigh on 300 acres of reclaimed mine land that it would lease from Pagnotti Enterprises.
Jim Voorhees of Teichos attended a work session on Thursday morning to introduce the idea to the township supervisors.
The land is off Prospect Road, where Teichos is considering a lease of approximately 30 years.
Asked if studies so far suggest that the idea is feasible, Voorhees said, “We have a very strong confidence.”
Obtaining approvals and constructing the $80 million plant would take about two years, he said.
The plant could generate 40 megawatts, enough to power more than 4,400 homes in Pennsylvania using an estimate of the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Solar panels would go together much like children’s interlocking blocks and stand no higher than 8 feet in a fenced-in farm.
After construction ends, traffic would dwindle to workers who would visit infrequently to do maintenance.
The only noise would come from motors that turn panels to track the sun, from cooling fans and from an electrical substation.
While the site is zoned for industry, Teichos would require a special exception from Butler’s zoning board to develop a solar farm there.
Reducing the size of a buffer, which the township’s zoning code sets as wide as 1,000 feet wide in some instances, also would require approval of the zoning board.
Within an industrial zone, the code sets a height limit of 20 feet. While the solar panels would be smaller than that, some parts of the substation might approach that height.
Donald Karpowich, the township’s solicitor, said Teichos also would need planning board approvals from the township and Luzerne County and a approval for land development from the supervisors.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Brian Kisenwether, chairman of the supervisors, said after the meeting.
When Karpowich pointed out that the sun doesn’t shine as much in Pennsylvania as in some other states, Voorhees said a law signed last year gives developers incentives to install solar farms in the state.
The act requires companies to build plants in the state if they want to gain credits for generating alternative energy. Previously, companies could obtain credits for power generated out of state.
Utility firms purchase credits to prove they obtain a portion of their power from alternative sources, as state rules require. So sales of permits supplement income that companies like Teichos make from selling power.
Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, said a recent report indicates 39 percent of retired solar power credits came from Pennsylvania. Of the remaining credits, 48 percent came from North Carolina, 5 percent from Ohio, 4 percent from Virginia and the balance from several other states, Hagen-Frederiksen said in an email.
Jacqui Bonomo, a Hazleton native and president and chief executive officer at Penn Future, an environmental group that advocates for renewables as part of the state’s energy mix, said the new law will increase the power generated from the sun in Pennsylvania and boost the value of the credits.
“It’s not surprising to see a real movement on solar and wind here in Pennsylvania despite the fact that the Trump administration withdrew us from the Paris accord,” Bonomo said of the 2015 agreement in which countries pledge to reduce carbon emissions. “Businesses understand the future is in renewables (as) we start turning away form fossil fuels.”
Developers have already identified areas in Pennsylvania that get the most wind and have built or planned to install turbines.
“The real opportunity is in solar, I think,” Bonomo said, “as people educate themselves that solar energy is not only viable in states that get a lot of ‘sunshine.’”