Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Senate Committees Hear New, Proposed Utility Scale Solar Electric Generation Capacity In PA Is Outpacing Natural Gas Generation By Nearly 3 to 1

On May 25, the Senate
Agriculture and Rural Affairs and Local Government Committees held a joint hearing on local government issues related to the development of utility scale energy facilities in Pennsylvania.

The PJM Interconnection said its que of proposed electric generation projects in Pennsylvania includes nearly three times the capacity of utility scale solar energy projects-- 11,636 MW--  as proposed for natural gas generation projects-- 4,113 MW. 

This represents a dramatic change in private investment in new, proposed energy electric generation in Pennsylvania.

For example, one natural gas power plant developer in Pennsylvania-- Vistra Corp-- announced last week it would not be building any more natural gas-fired power plants, but instead would be investing in solar farms and battery storage facilities.  Read more here.

Other key takeaways from the hearing include--

-- Most communities do not address land use issues presented by utility scale solar energy facilities ahead of specific project proposals and there isn’t a lot of uniformity in how local ordinances address these issues, according to the Penn State Dickinson School of Law.

-- PA State Association of Township Supervisors said it is an important issue for its members and they are educating them on the questions to ask and the options for dealing with their impacts, including having model ordinances available.

-- Pattern Energy, a developer of utility scale solar facilities, described how they work with landowners and local governments on their projects.

This is the second hearing Senate committees have held on utility scale solar energy facilities.  Read more here.

Summary of Testimony Presented

Jason Connell, PJM Director of Infrastructure Planning, provided an overview of the number of energy projects proposed and in the capacity que in Pennsylvania.

Connell said there are by far much more solar energy generation being proposed in Pennsylvania and nearly three times natural gas generation at this time.

There are 11,636 MW of solar generation projects, 4,113 MW of natural gas, 1,075 MW of wind energy generation, 775 MW of hydroelectric facilities, 44 MW of nuclear, 8 MW of oil and 4 MW of diesel.   

There is also 988 MW of energy storage being proposed related to solar energy and other renewable energy projects because of their intermittent nature..

Not all projects in the PJM que will actually be built, although the project applicants must demonstrate they can build the project and have control of the land.  

Most recently about a quarter of the requested projects and about 18 percent of requested capacity have reached commercial operation.

Click Here for a copy of the PJM presentation.

Dr. Mohamed Rali Badissy, Assistant Professor of Law, Penn State Dickinson School of Law, said a recent survey of local zoning codes found 13 percent address solar energy systems for self-generation for specific businesses and residences and about 5 percent address utility scale solar energy systems.

Dr. Badissy said his research being done in collaboration with Penn State Extension and Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research is not yet finished and these numbers and observations may change.

“This lack of guidance on utility scale solar projects is particularly significant when one considers that solar is the fastest growing source of energy in the Pennsylvania, a trend that many expect to accelerate due to our strategic location amongst major energy markets, our existing transmission capacity, and the availability of land for large-scale projects.

“Practically speaking, this lack of clear regulation is also a significant commercial risk for project developers since they do not know what to expect when seeking a conditional use permit for their utility scale project. 

“The uncertainty around permitting is typically described as a soft cost since it requires hiring lawyers like myself to work through the regulatory process and takes away from capital that could be spent on hard costs like engineering, design, and installation.”

Dr. Badissy said there is no consistency among the ordinances that exist in terms of definition of utility scale projects, lot size restrictions, design and operations standards and other requirements.

In response to questions, Dr. Badissy said many of the ordinances that are adopted are reacting to local solar farm proposals in the municipality or nearby.  Many times, there are extended conversations with project developers and local governments to work out many of the issues addressed in local ordinances.

He said in terms of legislation, with the rapid changes in technology and the role of solar energy facilities, it is best to keep definitions broad.

“The most significant contributor to our state and federal decarbonization policies is the transition to lower carbon energy systems such as solar. This suggests a massive build out of solar energy capacity with an exponential increase in project deployments over the next decade. 

“However, whereas most traditional energy projects were in industrial corridors, most solar energy projects are expected to be developed in rural communities where the primary land-use has been agriculture instead of infrastructure. 

“In effect, that means that we are shifting the burden of regulating this new energy future from the local governments that are most familiar with this infrastructure to those that are the least prepared. 

“This challenge for local governments is even more intimidating when one considers the increasing complexity of the solar energy systems, which today are focused on panels, but tomorrow will include batteries, and in the future may be integrated with everything from green hydrogen production to carbon sequestration.

“What this means is, if we are serious about enabling an energy future for Pennsylvanians that it is sustainable and affordable, we should be just as concerned with government capacity as we are with solar capacity.”

Click Here for a copy of written testimony.

Kyle C. Kopko, Ph.D., Director, Center for Rural Pennsylvania, provided an overview of the many areas in Pennsylvania that have no local or county zoning or land use controls saying of the 2,560 local jurisdictions, 1,624 have local zoning ordinances.

He said there are now about 30 utility scale solar energy projects in Pennsylvania that represents about 3 percent of the total electric generation capacity in Pennsylvania.

Click Here for a copy of written testimony.

Samuel F. Cressler, Board Member, PA State Association of Township Supervisors (PSATS) Chairman, Southampton Township Board of Supervisors, said the development of utility scale solar projects are high on their radar because townships have the land area to site these facilities.

“To help educate our member townships about the issue and their options for regulating it, PSATS published the attached cover story in our March 2021 issue of the Pennsylvania Township News.”  Read more here.

“In addition, we’ve worked with Penn State University on numerous joint projects on solar issues over the past year, including training for the elected and appointed officials, zoning officers, and solicitors.”

“In our township, we are currently working through this process of determining the best course of action. The primary issue we are facing with the people is the view shed, as well as glare from these facilities. Highest and best land use, we have excellent limestone soil that should stay in agriculture. 

“So, should we look at poorer soils, slopes and previous uses that don’t support agriculture or commerce? Locations that may otherwise be abandoned or distressed. These are some of our questions.

“Another concern is decommissioning, which is a major concern for townships and the folks living nearby. Once the life of these facilities is over, who will be responsible to remove them and return the land to its prior condition? Will the company proposing these facilities be responsible and will it still exist, or will it fall to the property owner? 

“Short of long-term bonding, which does not appear to be the solution, how do we guarantee their proper removal? Will it fall on the local taxpayers and municipalities to clean it up? How long is the life expectancy for the panels if the landowners are entering into 20- to 30- year leases? Will the panels and supporting facilities be replaced on a five-year basis as technology rapidly evolves?”

He noted solar facilities are marketed as a means to increase local property tax revenue and local jobs, however, these facilities are generally not permanently attached to the ground are are usually not accessible for property taxes.

“Municipalities do have a few tools that can be used to regulate commercial solar farms. If a township has a zoning ordinance, they can regulate where a use, such as a commercial solar farm, may be sited. Uses are permitted within certain zoning districts and may be a use by right or by conditional use or special exception. 

“Those additional conditions and concerns are determined and vetted by the zoning hearing board or Board of Supervisors, depending on the circumstance. We’ve seen several communities permit commercial solar farms by conditional use, often in agricultural districts.”

“As a member service organization, PSATS does provide sample ordinances for its members that work as a starting point for a township’s discussions on how best to regulate commercial solar facilities. Each community needs to determine the best way to regulate these facilities within the confines of state law.”

Click Here for a copy of written testimony.

Ray Fakhoury, Government Relations Consultant, Pattern Energy, said his company is developing 600 MW of utility scale solar facilities in Pennsylvania representing an injection of $500 million in private investments and economic activity, including thousands of new construction jobs and direct financial support for landowners and local communities.

“We engaged county, township, and municipal officials in Adams, Crawford, Erie, Mercer, Montour, Union, Lebanon, Berks County, and more to site utility scale solar facilities that present limited disruptions to Pennsylvania’s natural resources or farming practices. 

“In fact, there are examples of County Commissioners in Pattern’s development footprint that authored letters in support of our projects because we maintain a transparent, trusting and collaborative working relationship with them and their constituents.”

“Last month, Pattern announced a joint Venture with Talen Energy to develop utility scale solar projects projected to result in $2 billion in investments to counties throughout Pennsylvania. 

“This marks a major economic development opportunity for the state as all sources of power work together to provide the lowest costs to Pennsylvania ratepayers. This announcement includes a 100 MW utility scale facility in Montour County, named Montour Solar One. 

“For this project specifically, we worked transparently with local officials to identify nonprofit groups, volunteer fire stations, and Veteran’s organizations to contribute more than $1 million in community giving as well as a contribution to the Montour Preserve. 

“Our work in Montour demonstrates Pattern’s values as a company and dedication to early, transparent, and constructive engagement, and we look forward to continuing to demonstrate that commitment throughout the Commonwealth.”

“Pattern collaborates with counties, local township supervisors, and municipalities that host utility scale solar projects to identify opportunities to contribute to local needs, initiatives and organizations deemed a priority. 

“We achieve this by listening intently to these communities and investing in important causes. This includes nonprofit groups, local first responders organizations, Veterans groups, and more. Furthermore, our project agreements include annual lease payments to participating farmers and landowners as well as decommissioning requirements to support clean-up and removal efforts for individuals hosting utility solar.”

“For many landowners and farmers utility scale solar serves as a drought-resistant crop that supplements their incomes and preserves family land. Costs for operating small or independent farms in Pennsylvania drastically increased in recent years while profit margins tighten. Utility scale solar provides a lifeline that preserves and maintains the legacy of farming in rural communities.

“Rather than sell land for uses that eliminate future agricultural operations, many Pennsylvania farmers are considering leasing land for utility-scale solar facilities. We identified, and in some cases proactively contacted by, interested participating farmers and landowners.”

“With significant sums of private dollars being provided to develop these projects, we must proactively work to ensure all projects include proper land use agreements with each participating landowner, municipality, and township. 

“Our projects must adhere to strict permitting and environmental requirements established by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, as well as bonding, decommissioning, and other local ordinance requirements.”

“For decades, Pennsylvania has been ground zero for transformational energy investments, from the coal mines to the gas boom. Lawmakers created a flourishing energy economy that provided hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians with stable, good-paying jobs. 

“Now, lawmakers once again possess an opportunity to capture a leadership position in a thriving industry without giving up what made Pennsylvania the energy powerhouse it is today, with multiple energy sectors firing and a flourishing energy economy. 

“By implementing clear and consistent utility scale solar policies, lawmakers can support investments in solar, establish proper safeguards to protect Pennsylvania ratepayers from price increases, and preserve Pennsylvania’s natural resources.”

Click Here for a copy of written testimony.

Click Here to view a video of the hearing [when posted] and written testimony.

Sen. Cris Dush (R-Clearfield) serves as Majority Chair of the Senate Local Government Committee and can be contacted by calling 717-787-7084 or send email to his chief of staff: jfoust@pasen.gov. Sen. Timothy Kearney (D-Chester) serves as Minority Chair and can be contacted by calling 717-787-1350 or send email to: tim.kearney@pasenate.com

Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) serves as Majority Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and can be contacted by calling 717-787-3076 or sending email to: evogel@pasen.govSen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) serves as Minority Chair and can be contacted by calling 717-787-8925 or sending email to: SenatorSchwank@pasenate.com.

(Photo: 70 MW Lightsource BP - Penn State University Solar Farm in Franklin County.)

Related Article - Prior Hearing

-- Senate Committees Hear Bill Requiring State Bonding For Solar, Wind Projects Duplicates Local Ordinances, Landowner Leases; Adds New Bureaucracy; And Has A Broader Scope Than Advertised

Related Articles - Block Renewable Energy/Climate Initiatives:

-- Sen. Yaw Plans Bills To Stop State From Supporting Solar Energy Projects With Any Foreign Components; Adopt A Moratorium On Rulemaking During A Declared Emergency [Reported out of Committee April 27. Read more here.]

-- Sen. Yaw Introduces Bill To Preempt Local Governments From Requiring New Buildings Use Climate-Friendly Energy Sources

-- Sen. Dush Introduces Senate Bill 530 Requiring Recycling Of Solar Panels Thru Broken State Electronic Waste Recycling Program.  Read more here.

-- PA Senate Republican Caucus Files Lawsuit Against Delaware River Basin Commission Over Shale Gas Drilling Moratorium

-- Senate Republicans Report Out Bill Taking Away DEP Authority To Reduce Carbon Pollution From Any Source, Including Power Plants

-- Senate Republicans To Gov. Wolf: We Will Reject Any Nominees To PUC Until You Withdraw Your Executive Order Joining RGGI Carbon Pollution Reduction Program For Power Plants

-- Republicans On Senate Environmental Committee Approve Letter Urging IRRC To Disapprove Reg. Reducing Carbon Pollution From Power Plants

-- Republicans On House Committee OK Letter Urging IRRC To Disapprove Reg. Reducing Carbon Pollution From Power Plants 

-- Senate Republicans Report Out Bills To Kill Regulations By Doing Nothing, Repeal Regs Because They Have Too Many Words, Shield Law Breakers, And More

[Posted: May 25, 2021]  PA Environment Digest

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