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Centre Climate: Solar arrays popping up across the county will give us a brighter future

How solar energy works: The simplified version

Solar energy is the most abundant source of energy on Earth, but how can it be used to power everyday life? The answer is through solar panels. Here is a simplified version of how solar energy can be used to power a home.
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Solar energy is the most abundant source of energy on Earth, but how can it be used to power everyday life? The answer is through solar panels. Here is a simplified version of how solar energy can be used to power a home.

Centre County is seeing solar farms popping up everywhere. These large installations produce enough power for hundreds of homes, and they are a great example of how responding to the challenge of climate change can result in a win for everyone.

No one seriously denies the science of climate change anymore, so now the argument is that doing something about it will be too expensive. In fact, as panel prices continue to fall, and the renewable energy credit market continues to rise, solar farm owners stand to make money, and lots of it.

There is no downside to all these solar farms. They show us that building up our renewable energy infrastructure brings good jobs, saves money, and is good for the planet and for people. This is something we can all get behind.

The first big array, opened in January 2018, is on nine acres of land owned by the University Area Joint Authority; it offsets about one-third of their electricity costs. Like most of these big installations, it is actually owned by a for-profit company (in this case, Pace Energy out of Congers, New York). You can see it off of I-99, near the Shiloh Road exit.

A Mechanicsburg company built the array, a contractor out of Ephrata did the electrical work, and the engineering was done by Rettew Associates from State College. That’s a lot of good, local jobs.

The second installation went into service just last month – a similar sized project near the hospital on Penn State property. I talked with Chris VanDixon, Operations Manager for Alternative Energy Development Group, the owner of this project, and AEDG is very happy with the arrangement.

This is literally a win-win: Penn State gets a guaranteed low rate for electricity for the next 25 years, and while VanDixon would not divulge any numbers, he smiled and said that AEDG was not losing any money on the deal either.

But wait, there’s more. Penn State gets access to the site and uses it for teaching and research. And, the offset from these two installations alone prevents some 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere each year. And, all that energy is produced without dirtying our air with mercury, fine particulates, and other pollution the way coal does.

New large projects in the area include an amazing set of huge carports covering the parking lot at Burkholder’s Country Market in Spring Mills, including an electric car charger! The grand opening is 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday. The Centre County Commissioners are also getting into the act, having just approved a large array to be built at the Centre County Correctional facility.

It is true that these solar farms only cover a small fraction of our region’s electricity usage. If we’re going to be serious about changing our energy infrastructure, we will have to make much larger investments. But it is also true that this would be a lot easier if companies stopped investing hundreds of millions of dollars each year to build fossil fuel infrastructure in Pennsylvania.

If we are going to be serious about climate change, those fossil fuels must stay in the ground, and so money invested in delivery systems, such as gas pipelines, is nothing more than stranded assets. Worse, these projects entrench an energy system that will be far more expensive in the long run, costing lives and suffering for untold millions. Investing that kind of money now, in solar and wind projects, will make money and give us all a brighter future.

Jonathan Brockopp has been a resident of Centre County for 15 years and teaches the Ethics of Climate Change at Penn State. He is writing this monthly column to focus on local climate stories. Reach him by email at brockopp@psu.edu.
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