Friday, August 20, 2010

PSEG Wyandot 80-acre Solar Farm in Ohio

A part of Ohio's energy future is emerging in a tiny farming town about 100 miles southwest of Cleveland.

There, a subsidiary of a large New Jersey utility has constructed a "solar farm" on more than 80 acres of county-owned land that grew soybeans until last year. Since April, the glass and silicon farm has "harvested" the sun.

The PSEG Wyandot Solar Farm consists of 159,200 solar panels -- nearly every one of them made by First Solar of Perrysburg. Together they generate up to 12 million watts, or 12 megawatts, when the sun is shinning.

When converted to the kind of power used in homes, schools and factories, that 12 million watts becomes 10 million -- still enough electricity to power more than 9,000 homes.

Wyandot is the largest but only the first very large solar farm you will see sprouting in Ohio and nearby states to meet the new state solar mandates.

Experts estimate that Ohio's utilities or solar developers will have to install solar systems with a total capacity to generate at least 300 megawatts of power by 2025. Some estimates are even higher. That will require millions of solar panels.

The dueling estimates of what will be required stem from the way the state law is written.

The new state regulations for solar are set as a percentage of power sold, not merely capacity to generate a certain amount of power. And nobody knows exactly how much power will be sold in 2025.

The new utility law requires that by 2025 at least 12.5 percent of all power sold in the state must be generated with renewable technologies such as wind, solar and biomass combustion.

One-half of 1 percent of that 12.5 percent total must come from solar, though half of that half percent can come from contiguous states.

Utilities can either build solar systems, buy power from solar developers or buy "solar renewable energy credits," or S-RECs, from developers or other utilities that have built solar systems. The S-REC market is just starting in Ohio but more developed in states that approved similar laws earlier.

FirstEnergy Corp., for example, has issued bid requests for S-RECS. The Akron company has not announced how many it has purchased. Spokeswoman Ellen Raines said the company has enough to satisfy the law for a couple of years.

Raines said FirstEnergy has talked to solar developers but has not signed any agreements to buy solar power from a solar developer or build any solar farms on its own. The company is prepared, however, to sign 10-year purchase agreements for S-RECS, she said.

American Electric Power, based in Columbus, has a different strategy. AEP is buying the power and the S-RECS that come with it from Wyandot Solar through a 20-year contract.

Wyandot Solar Farm straddles the runway of the Wyandot County airport, all of it surrounded by corn and soybean fields. At official dedication ceremonies Thursday, Gov. Ted Strickland called the farm "a glimpse of the future."

Spokeswoman Terri Flora said AEP plans to add about 10 megawatts of solar power annually from 2011 through 2024. Those additions can come from big farms similar to Wyandot or from multiple smaller arrays on building roof tops, for example.

PSEG Solar Source LLC built Wyandot solar. The company is a subsidiary of the Public Service Enterprise Group of Newark, one of the largest investor-owned utilities in the United States.

The project is viewed as a boon to an area where most people are farmers or dependent on farming. Vaughn Industries, a local electrical contractor, built the plant, employing and training more than 50 skilled workers, who are now certified as solar installers.

The impetus for the project came from the Ohio State Extension service, with agent Eric Romich also serving as Wyandot County's first economic development director. OSU is now developing a program to help other rural counties.

Wyandot is the third PSEG project. It has built a 2 megawatt array in New Jersey for the Mars chocolate company and a 15 megawatt farm in Florida for local utility.

Diana Drysdale, vice president of renewables for PSEG and vice president of Solar Source, said the company is looking at a number of other Ohio projects.

"They are at various stages of development in Ohio. We are at least six to nine months away," she said.

Drysdale would not say how much the Wyandot project cost to build. But projects of this size currently are running between $40 million to $60 million.

Neither AEP nor PSEG revealed the per-kilowatt-hour cost of the electricity that flows from the farm.

Typically, solar-generated electricity can average 20 cents to 30 cents per kWh - more expensive that grid wholesale rates, now at 6 to 7 cents because of the recession.

Drysdale said her company has cut its price in half in just two years.


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