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Centre County commissioners approve $1.6 million solar panel project for jail

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.

The Centre County Correctional Facility is getting a facelift — in the form of a new energy source.

Centre County commissioners voted Tuesday 2-1 to install a 1,196 kilowatt solar array on the county jail at a cost of $1.6 million. Commissioner Steven Dershem voted against the motion, citing concerns with cost.

The agreement commissioners approved covers a period of 25 years. The $1.6 million cost includes an advance contract service payment of $600,000, annual service payments of $101,000 for years 1 through 5 and an early termination fee of $567,411 in year six to purchase the solar photovoltaic electric generation system, according to the county.

However, the early termination fee is based on either the contract value or the fair market value in six years. If the fair market value is lower than the stated value, the vendor — Centre County Solar Partners, LLC — could lose solar tax credits, interim county Planning Director Robert Jacobs said.

Additionally, the county is requesting the vendor move its completion date from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 to allow for time to install the array and work out any rough spots, he said.

The solar array should completely power the jail, said Commissioner Mark Higgins, but because of timing issues the county will have to pay about $5,000 a year toward energy costs out of the over $100,000 in energy the facility typically uses annually. Because the solar array will be located next to the facility, state regulations say excess power must be sold back at retail rates, which the county will bank and can pull from on cloudy days where not enough solar energy is generated, he said.

Commissioners have talked about putting in a solar array on the county jail for about two years, said Chairman Michael Pipe, and there appears to be strong public support from various citizen groups and individuals in Centre County, according to the varied public comment at Tuesday’s meeting.

“It’s conservative business owners, not just the radical left, who think that solar (energy) is a good idea,” said Dorothy Blair, president of the Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition. She said the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County, the State College chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby and the eight area churches in the climate stewardship program of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light all support the county’s decision.

Solar energy is becoming more commonplace around the United States, including the mid-Atlantic region and the South, she said. “Solar is cheaper to install compared to any other energy source, and produces consistently for its 30-40 year life,” she said.

Joanne Tosti-Vasey, president of the Bellefonte Borough Council and a homeowner in the borough, said her personal experience with solar energy has been positive. The 5 kilowatt solar panels she had installed on her house completely power her house and her electric car, she said.

Several other community members expressed their support for the solar array during public comment.

Pipe said his decision to go forward with the solar array installation is based on the long-term financial health of the county.

“There’s an opportunity to say we’re going to have the (correctional) facility for the next 25, 40 years ... let’s choose to go into an investment strategy that over time is basically going to pay for itself and actually bring in some money back into the county,” he said.

Dershem said he has reservations about the solar company’s viability and the success of solar energy in this area.

“We’re in a very cloudy area, and I think we’re also far enough north that we just can’t enjoy some of the success of solar arrays that some of the more southern locales had,” he said.

He also said he was concerned about the upfront cost and the cost of maintenance over the years.

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