Monday, February 7, 2011

PA Officials Block Use of Solar Panel System

For Chambersburg, Pennsylvania businesses, it's not that simple to go green.

Renewable energy has become an attractive option for some, but one local business invested nearly $200,000 in a solar system that the borough won't let it use to capacity.

Chambersburg Gastroenterology Associates put in a $185,000 solar system last fall. The plan was to cut electric bills by 20 percent. Three months later, the system remains inactive because Chambersburg Borough limits the amount of electricity such systems can generate.

The medical facility's system capacity exceeds that limit.

Because the borough runs its own municipal utility service, Chambersburg residents face a unique situation when it comes to generating electricity.

Borough Manager Jeff Stonehill and Electric Supervisor Ron Pezon say the problem arises because a municipal utility is a nonprofit pool owned by its customers.

"If you live in or own property in the borough you are in the pool," Stonehill said. "Everyone is in the pool together."

And no one can opt out.

For that reason, every decision that affects the buying and selling of electricity in Chambersburg -- including decisions to install solar or renewable energy systems -- has to benefit the pool as a whole, Stonehill said.

Since the cost of renewable energy systems dropped and federal tax credits became available to install them, the borough began looking at how those systems were going to affect its utility.

To get the lowest prices for borough residents, the borough makes commitments in advance -- at times years in advance -- for the power it buys from the grid.

Borough officials such as Stonehill, Pezon and Assistant Electric Superintendent Jeff Haverly estimate the amount of electricity the borough will need and seek the best price for that amount. The borough's current contract for electricity supplies expires next year.

Pezon and Stonehill say renewable energy projects by individual homeowners or business can upset the pool's formula and cost all of the borough's users in terms of higher rates.

The borough has already run up against the problem as residential customers sought permits to install solar systems.

It even has a policy to handle it. It allows residential systems that produce up to 10 kilowatts, but will only approve 15 of those systems in the borough. There are four residences in the borough with such systems.

Chambersburg Gastroenterology Associates system will produce about 30 kilowatts, Stonehill said.

When the medical facility wanted to turn its system on, the doctors discovered it surpassed the 10 kilowatt criteria. Although the facility had obtained building permits to install the system, it could not be used unless the rules changed.

Dr. Wayne Hoover and a representative from the company that sold and installed the system attended a borough council meeting last month to talk about the problems the facility has encountered.

Dr. Hoover seemed frustrated, but declined to talk to Public Opinion about it after the meeting.

At one point, he asked council if his neighbor, who owns Ludwig Eye Center, were to lower his electric bill by putting in lower wattage light bulbs and taking other energy saving steps, if he would be penalized.

He said that when the decision to install a solar system was made last year, everyone in the practice thought it would be a good thing to do, "the right thing to do," he said. Instead, once the system was in place, the practice was told it couldn't be used unless some arrangement could be worked out that wouldn't upset the balance in the pool.

"We were told we need to pay our share for borough lines, poles, et cetera," he said.

He said the borough offered to capture the electricity the system generated and give the practice six cents a kilowatt hour credit for it.

Pezon and Stonehill declined to discuss ongoing negotiations with the medical practice. Stonehill said it appears borough officials will have a solution worked out to take to council at the next council meeting Feb. 14.

A policy to address larger renewable energy systems is expected to come out of that agreement.

Stonehill said renewable energy is a somewhat new option, but one the borough wants to incorporate into its long-range energy plan.

"We've been working for years on policies as a whole relating to renewable energy," he said. "We will continue to explore ways we can use renewable energy in our overall electric portfolio to benefit the pool as a whole."

As part of that portfolio, Stonehill said the borough's electric department will be looking at bigger renewable energy projects. "The doctors' idea was right and their intentions were good," Stonehill said. "We share that goal."

Adapting to solar

Chambersburg's municipal electric department's first experience with residential renewable energy came when Wayne and Diane Mackey installed a $17,333 solar photovoltaic system at their home in December 2009 and hooked up to Chambersburg's power grid.

They initially figured the system would pay for itself in seven years, but now they expect it within five years.

Within months, the system was generating enough electricity to eliminate the couple's electric bill, and the borough was paying the Mackeys for their excess electricity.

By April, the Mackeys had produced 166 kilowatt extra hours, and the borough was giving them a credit toward their other utilities.

The borough has since come up with a new policy for renewable energy systems installed in residential buildings. Officials are working on a similar policy for commercial buildings.

The borough is also working on a plan to incorporate renewable energy into its long range plan for its electric department.

Three more homeowners with solar arrays have connected since the Mackeys broke the ice, and one more plans to install a system.


1 comment:

Carol said...

Those who demand we go solar and wind have no idea how many obsticals there can be. Perhaps they should research it a bit better.