The Center for Land Use and Sustainability (CLUS) held a “Climate Series” panel discussion Wednesday titled “Planning for Solar in South-Central PA.”
CLUS Director Dr. Claire Jantz was joined by three panelists — South Mountain Partnership Director Katie Hess, Cumberland County Planning Department Manager Steve Hoffman and Samuel Wiser, chair of the Municipal Group of Salzmann Hughs.
After Jantz introduced the panelists, she spoke on the explosive growth that the solar industry has experienced in recent years. Hess expanded upon this idea, referencing the potential Pennsylvania has to grow its own domestic solar industry.
Pennsylvania sits among the top five energy producing states, largely due to its fossil fuel industry. Yet according to the Energy Information Administration, just 3% of the state’s energy production is renewable, with solar making up a small portion of that. Hess referenced the same information, saying that Pennsylvania comes 45th in the country for renewable energy production.
Chambersburg Borough’s recent investment in solar was mentioned as a success story. The borough partnered with solar developer Sun Tribe to build an 86-acre solar farm north of the municipality. This installation provides 15 megawatts of power, supplying Chambersburg Borough with approximately 10% of its energy needs.
Wiser — whose Municipal Group represents many municipalities in Franklin, Adams and Cumberland counties — discussed some of the legal challenges the expanding solar industry faces. Guilford Township (southeast of Chambersburg) is currently embroiled in a legal battle before the Commonwealth Court with a solar developer over the township’s zoning policies regarding solar installations.
Solar power has many benefits, namely being a renewable source of energy, but it also has challenges. Large-scale solar installations require large flat land, of which farmlands have ample supply. There are also concerns about the high initial cost and the impact on stormwater runoff such solar farms may pose.
Solar developers often seek the path of least resistance in terms of zoning and look for areas where land prices are cheapest. Wiser noted that often, farmland meets those criteria very well, especially in rural areas like the Cumberland Valley. Many organizations and municipalities are trying to preserve this farmland, which is threatened by residential development and a recent boom in warehouse construction.
This is the balance that municipalities must face. Hoffman, the manager of the Cumberland County Planning Department, seeks to help municipalities navigate this maze by crafting a county-level model ordinance. The ordinance could be adopted by municipalities to help encourage and regulate solar and contains a number of optional measures to allow them to customize their ordinance to meet the needs of their communities.
The concept of agrivoltaics — the combination of agriculture with photovoltaic solar installations — was also discussed. By making some changes to the infrastructure, the land on which a solar farm sits could also be used for crop or livestock farming.
Russell Hedberg, SU professor of geography and earth science, will be hosting a StewardSHIP keynote next Wednesday, April 26, in Grove Hall Forum at noon. The program is titled “Cover Cropping with Solar Panels” and will discuss the environmental impacts of solar development on agricultural land in South-Central Pennsylvania. All are welcome to attend this and other StewardSHIP week events, and more information can be found at https://www.ship.edu/about/sustainability/stewardship_week.
The Slate welcomes thoughtful discussion on all of our stories, but please keep comments civil and on-topic. Read our full guidelines here.