Southpointe firm plans first solar power plant in Western Pennsylvania

Joe Napsha
| Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Canonsburg-area company hopes to build the first solar power generating plant in Western Pennsylvania, using the sun's rays to make electricity that will be sold to utilities, state and company officials said.

Community Networks LLC, a wireless telecommunications company in Southpointe, proposes to begin building a solar power station in Washington County this fall that would generate 3 megawatts of power a year, state Sen. J. Barry Stout, D-Bentleyville, said in a statement.

That would produce enough electricity for about 450 homes a year, said Jared Blanton, a spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group in Washington.

If the project becomes a reality, Community Networks would have the second solar power generating plant in the state, said Christy Herig, spokeswoman for the Solar Electric Power Association in Washington.

Exelon Corp., a Chicago-based electric utility, and Epuron LLC of Germany have a 3-megawatt solar panel "farm" in Fairless Hills, Bucks County, Herig said.

More solar power generating facilities, known as solar "farms," are being developed nationwide, and those built generated about 6,000 megawatts of electricity last year, Herig said. About 2,400 megawatts of solar power is expected to be developed in the United States in the next few years, she said, but it is difficult to determine how many systems will be built to generate that much power.

"We're expecting more, and also we'll see more infrastructure improvement that will make it easier to connect to the (electrical power) grid," Herig said.

Although solar power farms are more prevalent in the states where there are more sunny days, such as California, Arizona and New Mexico, Herig said it still would work in Western Pennsylvania, which is hardly the nation's sunniest location.

Federal stimulus funding available for alternative energy production is another good reason for optimism. President Barack Obama announced $117.6 million in stimulus money for solar power, in addition to a $175 million solar appropriation in the current federal budget.

Community Networks said it was premature to discuss the solar power project, but it expects to have an announcement in early August, said John Bevec, vice president of business development. David N. Hommrich, president of the three-year-old company, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Bevec declined to comment on possible locations for the solar generating plant, or possible buyers of solar energy from the facility.

The company likely will have a market for power it generates because the state's Alternative Energy Standards Act of 2004 requires that electric distribution companies and power companies include a specific percentage of electricity from alternative resources in the electricity they sell in the state.

Community Networks wanted state funds to help pay for the solar power station, but the company put its application "on hold" and was not considered for approval at the Commonwealth Financing Authority's July 14 meeting, said Steven Weitzman, a spokesman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

To convert the sun's rays into electricity, Community Networks plans to purchase 15,000 solar panels produced by Solar Power Industries Inc. of Rostraver, Stout's statement said.

But, that announcement is "way premature," said John Bucher, president of Solar Power Industries. Solar Power Industries discussed the project with Community Networks, Bucher said, but Community Networks plans to put the contract out for bid, Bucher said.

Solar Power Industries last week was awarded $7.5 million in state financing — a $6.5 million loan and a $937,000 grant — to build a solar power module production facility that would be large enough to create about 500,000 solar panels a year that could generate 100 megawatts of electricity.

That production would occur in part of the Sony Corp. plant Solar Power occupies in East Huntingdon, Westmoreland County.

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