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Star power: Lycoming County works toward harnessing solar energy en masse

PHOTOS PROVIDED These are examples of solar energy facilities that can occupy acres of land.

Although Earth is 93 million miles away from the sun, it is estimated that the fiery star can produce enough energy to power the entire planet — in less than 10 second — without the waste that Earth’s energy sources create.

The problem is how to collect and store that energy to be used when the sun is obscured by clouds, particularly in areas like Pennsylvania, where the average number of sunny days is 179. While solar panels do work amidst cloud coverage, their performance could be diminished by up to 90%.

There is also the challenge of where to situate large solar arrays or farms, which is what the county’s planning commission is tackling as they draft a solar energy facility ordinance.

Although none of the municipalities under the county’s planning commission jurisdiction have indicated that they have proposed solar facilities, there has been talk of placing one along Route 220 at the former Port Drive-In site and another in Nippenose Valley.

“We have to allow for all use, so that is why we’re looking — where’s the best place for these types of facilities,” county officils said.

To be clear, when talking about solar energy facilities, these are not solar panels mounted on building rooftops or in backyards.

“Our first solar ordinance amendment for the zoning ordinance was done for accessory use,” said Shannon Rossman, executive director of the county’s planning and community development department.

“We started out with the easier part, which was a solar accessory use and that’s residential or a business or anybody who’s using it for their own power. Then when they’re not using the power, they sell it back. That’s where people will talk about their meters going backwards,” she said.

The state only allows for power to be sold back from solar accessory units as a percentage of the total power generated or from solar energy facilities where all of the power is sold to the power grid.

“The thing in between which is the community solar where maybe you’re a large business and you decide to put solar on your roof or in your parking area or something like that and it produces a lot more energy than you need to use. You’re still limited to the amount that you can sell back,” Rossman said.

“So, that’s the thing. You can either sell it all or you can use it and sell a minor percentage back. There’s that missing in-between amount,” she stated.

Regulations for the accessory units are already in place, so now the commission is moving on to the solar energy facilities.

“Those are basically power plants, is what you have to think about. They’re putting enough solar panels in where they’re producing enough power … it’s really like a power generating facility,” Rossman said.

Like any other power facility, these would need connections to certain types of electrical lines. They would also need substations nearby that can with handle what they’re putting in or they have to upgrade substations to handle their input. There is an expense to doing that.

“Most of the time, they don’t want to build something new. They want to either add on to or they want to run a very short distance to the power grid,” she said.

Although the discovery that the sun could produce power can be traced back to the early 1800s, it was in the 1970s that it became popular as a renewable energy source during a worldwide energy crisis and growing concerns about the environment. Today with the increase in energy costs, Rossman said she thinks companies looking to construct solar facilities will be “coming out in droves.”

Solar farms, solar facilities or arrays are much larger than the panels atop a building. Think thousands of acres of solar panels lined up in field after field. Because of the size of these installations, the Planning Commission is carefully considering all the aspects of where to site these huge installations.

“We want to make sure that they’re not going to be on steep slopes — not going to be in areas where we need to have the proper wetland buffer, the proper stream buffers. We want to be very careful where it’s being proposed in floodplains and things like that,” Rossman said.

“We have to be very careful how it’s done. We want people to be able to maximize energy use and that’s one of the discussions we talked about,” she added.

Talk at one meeting focused on not allowing the solar facilities to be constructed in commercial industry areas which already have water and sewer utilities plus road access.

“If you have a 50-acre parcel in a commercial industrial area, which has access probably to roads, water and sewer, we don’t want them to put a solar facility there, because they don’t need road, water or sewer. They need energy access,” she said.

“We want that 50 acres to be used by somebody who’s building a structure that’s going to employ people and produce a product or some type of service,” Rossman stated.

At the Planning Commission meeting last month, Rossman said, her department said that once the state allows community solar, that will allow for their coexistence.

The co-existence of the two would be like an office building which has solar on the rooftop, plus solar in the parking lot by constructing carport-like structures going down the middle between parking spaces.

“So you’re basically co-locating your already impervious parking area with solar. Then you have the ability to provide parking, but you also have another use there,” Rossman said.

“There’s no reason why you don’t put solar in here and get your parking amounts in there and you’re using the space twice without taking up new land — green land,” she said.

The hope, Rossman stated, is that in the future Pennsylvania will follow other states in allowing community solar.

The state is, however, promoting solar energy. Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf announced a major clean energy initiative where he pledged to purchase nearly half of the electricity used by the state government from solar energy, according to information from the governor’s office. Neighboring Montour County has over 5,000 acres of proposed solar energy facilities and other counties where agriculture is more prominent are opening up to solar.

“Which is better suited for this,” said Mark Haas, development services supervisor at the Planning and Community Development Department.

“If they’re not going to be farming, then they don’t have to worry about clearing trees, because that’s a primary concern for us. That’s why in a resource protection area, we listed it as a special exception only,” Haas said.

The proposed solar ordinance in its current form states that solar arrays “shall not be located in wooded areas primarily devoted to mature trees in excess of two acres that would require removal of greater than 20% of mature trees,” unless the county or municipal zoning administrator determines that removing more trees would “create less impacts to the overall project.”

“The whole idea of green energy is to be climate friendly and, if you’re cutting down a forest of trees to put in solar, that’s not being green friendly,” Rossman said.

Land devoted to agriculture is also protected in Pennsylvania.

“We’re required by state law, if we have zoning, we’re supposed to be protecting high quality agricultural soil. We want to make sure that we allow farmers to put in solar energy facilities, but we also need to make sure we’re protecting, because we only have so much really good ag soil,” Rossman said.

A process called agrivoltaics, is where agriculture and photovoltaics (solar) co-exist. You can graze livestock, mostly sheep, which the county has in limited quantities. Cattle are a no-go because they tend to rub against the poles, so unless there are really upgraded poles, forget that.

“You have to be able to support a 1,500 pound animal scratching its back on it,” Haas pointed out.

Agrivoltaics also allows for crops to be grown, although at this point, the Planning Commission is unsure what that might entail until someone actually comes with a plan.

“We’re just not quite sure what they’re going to propose, so if they propose an agrivoltaic operation then they can do more land. I think right now we’re limiting it to 50% for a farm but they could get 25% additional acreage for solar if they use agrivoltaics,” Rossman said.

“One of the problems with agrivoltaics is that you’re limited to the type of crop that you plant. And that would be for the life of the solar farm,” Haas said.

Right now, they’re waiting to see what is proposed by farmers and companies seeking to put solar operations on farm land. There are also permitted uses for specific zoning districts.

Other things to consider when drafting the ordinance include setback requirements, the height of the solar panels, lighting and stormwater management.

In deference to the neighborhoods where the facilities are sited, there are also sections of the preliminary ordinance that address noise management, particularly during the construction process and glare which pertains to angling the panels to eliminate reflective glare directed at adjacent properties.

Decommissioning of a solar facility is also covered in the ordinance, with owners or operators required to notify the county “upon cessation or abandonment of the operation.”

According to the ordinance solar related equipment and accessories must be removed within 18 months. Materials that can be resold or salvaged, are and those that can’t have to be disposed of in accordance with federal or state laws. The property where the solar energy facility was located should be restored to its pre-existing condition so that it can return to its former use.

The ordinance is a work in progress with changes being brought to meetings of the planning commission for discussion.

“You have to be careful with zoning. If it’s not allowed in your ordinance, you have to have a reason why,” Rossman said.

“Many of the things that we have in an ordinance if they’re related to something else and it’s a similar use but for certain things you really should have the actual use regulated properly and appropriately,” Rossman said.

A copy of the latest ideation of the solar ordinance is available online at: https://www.lyco.org/Departments/Planning-and-Community-Development/Planning-Commission

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