UPDATE Shapiro says solar will power half of state government's electric needs

Apr. 22—A multi-county solar energy project will provide more than half of the electricity consumed by Pennsylvania government, Gov. Josh Shapiro said Monday, claiming the public-private partnership will create jobs, save taxpayer money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Pennsylvania Project to Utilize Light and Solar Energy, or PA PULSE, is planned to include 10 solar arrays to supply 361,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually to 16 commonwealth agencies, according to the Shapiro administration.

Pennsylvania is the first state in the U.S. to pledge to obtain more than 50% of its energy needs through solar power, Shapiro and Secretary Reggie McNeil of the Department of General Services said.

The announcement, made on Earth Day, arrived hours after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority was awarded more than $156 million through the Solar for All grant competition. The funding is intended to develop residential solar programs in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

"When I announced my energy plan last month, I made clear that we must reject the false choice between protecting jobs and the economy and protecting the environment," Shapiro said during an event at the Cottontail Solar farm in York County.

"The historic PA PULSE initiative, which began under the (Wolf) administration, is proof we can do both — investing in reliable, affordable power in the long-term," he said.

Pennsylvania contracted with Constellation Energy to obtain energy for PA PULSE generated by solar power arrays owned and operated by Lightsource bp in Columbia, Juniata, Crawford, Northumberland, Snyder and York counties.

Two arrays are online — in York and Juniata counties — and three more are expected to be completed by the end of the year. The rest are in development.

When the project will be completed and fully operational and just how much energy savings taxpayers can expect isn't clear, however, Shapiro stressed that the commonwealth locked in a 15-year fixed rate.

According to Shapiro, the energy generated through PA PULSE is enough to power approximately 36,000 homes. He said it would reduce the state government's carbon emissions by almost 158,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, equal to pollutants emitted by about 35,000 gas-powered vehicles.

Shapiro seeks legislative support for a recently announced energy policy built around a Pennsylvania-only "cap-and-invest" program and a broadened alternative energy portfolio. Bills for both have been introduced in the state House and Senate.

PACER, or the Pennsylvania Climate Emissions Reduction Initiative, is a state-specific cap-and-trade program that would reinvest credits purchased by power plants exceeding carbon emissions limits — 70% toward rebates for electricity customers, 30% toward clean energy projects.

The Pennsylvania Reliable Energy Sustainability Standard, PRESS, would be the first major update to the commonwealth's alternative energy portfolio in 17 years. It would diversify the portfolio by requiring all utilities by 2035 to purchase 50% of their electricity from alternative sources. Potential sources include solar and wind but Shapiro is encouraging investment in alternatives like nuclear power, fusion and "clean forms of natural gas."

According to Shapiro, the initiatives could result in 14,500 new energy jobs and save taxpayers $252 million in the first five years. He said it would also attract billions in federal funds to build renewable energy infrastructure.

Pennsylvania farmers have raised concerns about the potential loss of farmland to solar energy projects. Alyssa Edwards, senior vice president of environmental affairs and government relations with Lightsource bp, said the project is friendly to the environment and farmers. She spoke of the arrays at the Cottontail Solar farm that are mounted onto posts sunk into the ground.

The arrays take up about 5% of the project's acreage, Edwards said, adding that native grasses and other plantings for pollinators and other wildlife would be incorporated. She said sheep grazing and beekeeping are part of the project scope, coupling solar and agriculture.

"Our goal is to let the soil rest and improve as well as measurably boost biodiversity and critical pollinator populations," Edwards said.

"Obviously, this is a balancing act," Shapiro said when asked about farmland. "We will work closely with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and others to make sure it's done in a responsible manner."

Grant Gulibon, regulatory affairs specialist with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said farming and solar can and do successfully coexist, be it with solar arrays or other alternatives like methane digesters.

The coexistence is dependent, however, on using farmland with marginal value in agriculture, not prime farmland.

"Stay off the class 1, 2 and 3 farmland that has the best soils," Gulibon said. "We support legislation that would restrict that development to non-prime, marginal types of farmland and keep it off the best farmland."