Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Eaton Corp. Project A Bright Spot For Local Solar Energy Industry

As you drive through Beaver County, the sight of rusted steel frame buildings and abandoned brownfield sites are reminders of a once-thriving industrial past.
A circuit breaker is reflected in the safety glasses of
assembly line worker Shawn Verrico. The Eaton Corp. plant
in Vanport Township is one of three company locations that
will soon implement a solar project using many Eaton-made
electrical components.

Soon, however, those who pass by Eaton Corp. on Georgetown Lane in Vanport Township will get a glimpse of the area’s bright future in the renewable energy industry.

On Monday, the company will begin a project to install what will be the largest solar energy array in western Pennsylvania on property adjacent to the 500,000-square-foot plant, company officials said.

The ground-mounted system will include solar panels made by Motech Industries in Newark, Del., and will occupy currently unused parking lot space on the west end of the site.

The photovoltaic system, which uses sunlight to produce electricity, will be the larger of two local Eaton projects, with a 200-kilowatt rooftop array also being installed soon at the company’s Cherrington Office Park facility in Moon Township.

John Vernacchia, global segment manager for alternative energy at Eaton, said the Vanport location was selected partly for its space availability and also because of the products the plant manufactures.

“This project is an opportunity for us to demonstrate some of our new solutions for customers and utilize them ourselves,” Vernacchia said.

Eaton electrical components have been used in solar energy systems since the technology was developed, but the company has only introduced its first solar-specific products beginning in 2010, Vernacchia said.

Some of those products — including solar inverters, which change the direct current power generated by the panels into alternating current power that the building uses, and DC circuit breakers, which are fabricated at the Vanport plant — will be used in the new solar project.

Plant manager Rob Griffin said the project is an exciting opportunity for his employees to see the products they make put to use, and also for the company in its goal to become 100 percent sustainable.

“No one was using this lot,” Griffin said, overlooking the cracked pavement and overgrown brush at the array site. “The other cool thing is that we can repurpose something for a good cause.”

Eaton will install the system over the next several months, but the company will not own the end result. Rather, Eaton will buy the generated electricity at a set rate through a 20-year power purchase agreement with Tangent Energy Solutions Inc. of Philadelphia, which will own the array.

“You don’t own the nuclear power plant, you just buy the power off of it,” Tangent President and CEO Dean Musser explained. “This is the same kind of concept.”

Musser said Eaton will not incur any capital costs, because the $5 million project was financed through a grant from the state’s Commonwealth Financing Authority and private backers Laurel Capital of Radnor, Pa., and First Niagara of Buffalo, N.Y.

Although the photovoltaic system will generate only about 25 percent of the electricity the plant uses, it will provide significant environmental benefits, Griffin said.

According to a company environmental impact analysis, the solar array will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 79 million pounds of carbon dioxide over 25 years — about as much as what would be produced driving a small car 133.9 million miles.

When it is complete, the Vanport solar array will be nearly twice the size of the 694-kilowatt rooftop installation at Ikea in Robinson Township, — currently the largest solar energy system in western Pennsylvania — according to figures from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the environmental advocacy organization PennFuture.

Sharon Pillar, a project manager at PennFuture, said the Eaton arrays will go a long way to increasing the amount of solar energy produced in this part of the state.

“We have 157 megawatts installed in the whole state, but we only have 3 megawatts in the 10-county region in southwestern Pennsylvania,” Pillar said.

While the state’s other energy industries are booming, Pillar said solar energy is rapidly expanding as well.

“Everyone calls us the energy capital of the country, and solar is going to be a big part of that mix,” Pillar said. “That Eaton is willing to invest to that scale is a testament to what is the future of the electrical and energy industry.”


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