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Summit Hill serious about solar power

Published November 05. 2009 05:00PM

For a long time Summit Hill Water Authority Chairman John "Chet" Michalik has believed Summit Hill can take advantage of its landscape and location to free the borough and the authority from the use of traditional energy sources.

He investigated potential alternative sources, but at a recent meeting, Michalik and the board revealed their serious interest in using solar energy to not only save the borough several thousand dollars a month, but to make history.

"This is a historic opportunity," said technology sources director D. James Marler of Manufacturing Resource Center. "We have the chance to create history by placing a solar array not far from where Philip Ginder discovered anthracite coal in Summit Hill. The educational opportunities to share this story are phenomenal."

Marler explained why solar energy is a feasible power source and how the borough can easily afford to install it. He said based on their calculations they should be able to place a solar array in the borough large enough to power the municipality's buildings, the water plant and the street lighting.

"Not only will this be a savings to the borough, but it can be done in a cash positive way," he stated.

Marler said that the federal and state governments have instituted programs that essentially pay 110 percent of the cost of a solar array for anyone wishing to install one.

"There is a federal grant that pays 30 percent and a state grant that pays 30 percent," he said.

In addition to those two major parts of the cost, businesses are able to deduct 25 percent in accelerated depreciation and 25 percent of the cost is recovered in renewable energy credits. This does not include the money saved by net metering.

Net metering is mandated in Pennsylvania according to Marler. It basically means that if an individual or business is able to produce more electricity than it consumes, that power is returned to the power grid and the meter for that account will run in reverse. In essence, this is paying the entity for creating power and crediting the account instead.

He told them that before these programs were instituted a few years ago, solar power was a costly alternative. But due to the current incentives and grants, this option is now the best. He said once the array would be installed, it would become cash positive within the first year if they enroll in the current programs.

He outlined four possible renewable energy sources: wind, hydroelectric, solar and biomass. Wind, he explained, is a good power source, but as wind farms have been constructed there have been problems exposed by their practical use. Some include disruption of bird and bat migrations, possible health and noise issues, affecting the route of airplanes and need for maintenance. In addition, wind turbines have become increasingly more regulated.

Biomass production requires a large amount of land for processing and fuel generation. He said the worst part of the option is it is smelly and needs a consistent feed source. Biomass generation is methane produced from feeding cows grain and dealing with the biological outcome to generate methane gas that is captured and processed as an electrical generation source.

There is no good hydroelectric source to consider in or near Summit Hill and it is extremely expensive, so that was immediately discounted as an option.

The fourth source, solar energy, Marler pointed out, becomes a feasible option mostly because of the funding issue.

"There are several incentives right now that make this option attractive. Without those incentives, solar energy is not economically feasible either," he said.

In addition, there are no moving parts to maintain in a solar array so that reduces the ongoing costs.

Water authority member Rob Collevecchio asked about the maintenance in having to remove snow and deal with rain.

Marler said, "Pennsylvania has a good climate for solar energy. It rains pretty often which helps to clean the solar panels and they emit a good amount of heat so snow usually melts in the winter."

He pointed out that Pennsylvania's average day has about four and a half hours of sunshine.

"This is more than Germany which only has on the average about three hours of sunlight each day and they are the leading country in solar power," said Marler.

He said many people believe that California, where it is sunny most of the time, would be a better location, but the problem is the heat. In the west, the electronic components required to convert the power to AC and manage the panels would burn in the heat.

"They would be less efficient even though there is more light," he said.

Another misnomer according to Marler, is that solar energy requires direct sunlight.

"Even on a cloudy day the panel can generate electricity. It's just not as efficient as it would be on a sunny day," he said.

Michalik said the site they are proposing for the solar plant would be the plateau across the street from St. Joseph's Church. The property is currently owned by LC&N, but the authority is working on negotiating a contract with the coal company for the ground.

"It would require about an acre for the panels and all of the equipment," Marler said.

Pennsylvania is pushing renewable energy and specifically solar energy, Marler added.

"The governor wants to be the number two solar energy source," he said.

He said pressure is being placed on the utilities to reduce their loads by 1 percent each year or be fined and the fines will become heavier as years pass. The power companies only have two choices to avoid these fines, make more power or purchase it.

"The state requires that 8 percent of all power by 2021 be from renewable sources with 0.5 percent of it being solar energy. By 2026, 20 percent of the power sources must be renewable and solar power must be 3 percent of that total," he said.

He also pointed out that of the half percent of solar power required by 2021, half of it must be from solar energy.

To meet these goals, the state instituted two programs - $100 million Pennsylvania Sunshine Program and the $80 million small business program. He said the Sunshine Program is a first come, first served program that began accepting applications on May 18, 2009, and that any business with less than 100 employees or homeowner is eligible.

According to Marler the catch is the money is tiered in five levels with the most attractive funding at level one and the least attractive at level five. He pointed out that anyone purchasing an array in the first two steps would be cash positive in the first year, meaning they would be making money by the end of the first year. The program was already in the second funding step. By the third step, it would take two years and longer as the remaining steps are reached.

"It took about six months for the state to spend all of the first step funding," Marler said.

He also pointed out some businesses were concerned with the state's recent budget troubles, but he added the money the state is providing is federal stimulus money so it is guaranteed and not at the mercy of the state.

Marler suggested that as the project moves forward, the authority might want to consider holding a community meeting to discuss powering the borough or how residents can participate. Writing Works research consultant Betsy Maholick said she believed there was enough space in the proposed area to power the town at some point in the future. Michalik added that he felt the authority should pilot this initial project first before involving the residents to prove to them the concept is workable.

Michalik also revealed he met with the Carbon County commissioners and representatives from Speaker of the House Keith McCall's Office, Congressman Paul Kanjorski's office and Judy Borger of the Office of Planning and Development.

"They are firmly behind this project and willing to provide assistance if necessary to make this a reality," he said.

He mentioned both county Chairman Bill O'Gurek and county Commissioner Wayne Nothstein were in favor of the project and were willing to work with the hilltop community to find any needed funding to assist with the program.

"While the grants cover 60 percent of the funding, the authority would need to provide the other 40 percent," Marler said, but pointed out the renewable energy credits which are considered a commodity, along with depreciation and energy savings would more than cover the cost of the payment. In addition there is a one-time charge of $45,000 by the federal government in the form of a tax for this program, but that would be covered by the energy savings.

Michalik said the commissioners indicated that there could be CDBG grants available to assist with the temporary cash investment until the money could be recouped through the panel's operation.

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