First in PA — Solar for 100% of a local muni’s electricity needs

For their August meeting, the Ready for 100 team in Bucks County met outside West Rockhill’s municipal building, to see and learn about West Rockhill’s municipal solar project — the first in Pennsylvania to provide 100% of a municipality’s electricity. 

photo credit: westrockhilltownship.org/community/solar

The 70.12 kW system is comprised of 180 panels, 2 ground mounted racks, and 6 inverters. The township spent $169,000 from their general fund reserves, proud that they didn’t need to finance this; that they’ve paid no interest. The electricity generated will power the municipal building, the park, the traffic signals, the street lights and the wells for this town of 5200 people. They expect an 11 year payback period, with all savings going back into the general fund’s reserve account. 

Bucks County Commissioner Bob Harvie spoke briefly, and stayed for the entire discussion. He reminded us that the County has a model alternative energy ordinance (still in draft) that’s been sent to all 54 munis in Bucks County to adopt, if they so wish. He also reminded us that Bucks County has adopted a Ready for 100 ordinance back in February, and… that the Commissioners have just signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for a power purchase agreement (PPA) with Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). Neighboring Montgomery, Delaware and Chester Counties are expected to sign on with the DVRPC very soon, who is overseeing the planning of the project for these counties.

West Rockhill Supervisor Jim Miller shared his own journey about this project, followed by questions and answers by the rest of us. Jim has had solar panels at home, generating their electricity for the past 11 years, which has since been added to with a battery backup system. For the short distance between home and the township buildings, he drives a Chevy Volt (electric for short distances, gasoline for long hauls). 

He has spent 6 years bringing this project to fruition, which went live on May 17th of this year.  They have a live link on the township’s website so that the public can see stats about the electricity generated by this system. For June and July, Jim has noticed an 11 MWh generation for each month; their goal is 84 MWh for the year, enough to offset all electric use for the township. 

Once the design was agreed upon, the team waited for 5 months for the local electric utility (PP&L) to approve the design. After the installation, there was a 3 month wait for the utility to signoff on the interconnection — to connect this system to the grid. 

The concept of connecting multiple electric meters to one renewable energy project is called virtual net metering. For Pennsylvania, virtual net metering requires that all the meters are in the same name, and within 2 miles of the installation. West Rockhill Township covers 16 square miles, with the admin building in the center. Luckily, all 14 of this township’s meters are within 2 miles of the admin building, where the PV (photo voltaic) installation is, to allow for virtual net metering. We also learned that there are so few of these virtual net metered systems, that the utility does the billing by hand! 

One of the questions was about the placement of the panels. Why didn’t they consider installing on the roof? The peaked roof on the smallish admin building was not large enough. Had they used this roof space, it would only have generated one third of the needed power. By installing the racked system on the ground, they paid probably 10-25% more. 

Another participant, concerned about stormwater runoff, asked what percent of this system is impermeable. All were surprised with the answer — Zero! Instead of anchoring the rack posts into a concrete foundation, they’re screwed right into the ground. The space beneath the panels was covered with wood chips, allowing water to seep into the ground. Also, this method makes the entire system easy enough to remove at end of life, if so desired. 

There are two sets of panels with grass between them. We learned that each row of panels takes up 100′ x 20′, or 2000 square feet. The grassy area between the two structures will have a wheelchair accessible path. The panels are purposely 3’ off the ground to allow native ground cover plants to grow.  The township encourages educational uses of this site. Jim expects that teams from the Souderton, Pennridge, Quakertown & Palisades School Districts plus the Upper Bucks County Technical School will be bringing their classes through here, to learn about solar, about ecology, and about physics. The Perkiomen Watershed Authority is working with West Rockhill Township to replace the surrounding lawn with native plantings. There are also plans to plant trees between the admin building and the panels; funding still needs to be secured. 

Someone asked where the panels were manufactured. Turns out that the township required that the panels be made in the US, so a company in Texas — Mission Solar — was the choice here. The installation was by a more local company — Exact Solar — based in Bucks County. Mark Bortman, owner of Exact Solar, was present this evening. He shared that they have done a job for Bucks County Audubon Society and are currently working on a project at Terhune Orchards out in Princeton NJ.

A system like this has a 25 year warranty, though Exact Solar expects the panels to last between 35 and 40 years. The panels make up 25% of system cost, and prices seem to be going up; likely due to tariff, supply chain limitations and world wide demand. 

Curious about maintenance, we learned that snow would easily slide off the dark colored glass. No need to get a ladder and scrape all this glass! And insurance? The existing policy for the site would cover this in case of hail, no additional cost.

There were Ready for 100 volunteers, plus township officials from Solebury, Doylestown, Buckingham, Plumbstead, and Upper Southampton in Bucks County plus Springfield and Plymouth townships in Montgomery County. Stay tuned to see who’s next for a similar project! 


Written by Meenal Raval, with assistance from Joy Bergey, Bill Sabey, Mark Bortman & Jim Miller. Contact: solarizesepa@mail.com

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