By SHANNON O. WELLS
On a cool, misty late afternoon in early November, a few carloads of Pitt students, faculty and staff headed out to bucolic farmland in the hills near Findlay Township and Clinton, just west of Pittsburgh International Airport.
At first glance, what the group encountered — a handful of hardhat-wearing technicians and construction workers, some earth-moving equipment and 5,996 aluminum posts imbedded over a 68-acre swath of rolling farmland — may seem rather incongruous and utilitarian. The scene, however, represents nothing less than the future of Pitt’s commitment to sustainable energy creation. (See a video from the visit on YouTube.)
As the Pitt group, coordinated by Aurora Sharrard, Pitt’s executive director of sustainability, meandered up a long slope, the light rain gradually cleared. Gary Newton, senior construction manager with Texas-based Vesper Energy, explained what’s going on at the site.
“The project called for about 6,000 of these posts you see pounded in the ground. All of those are in right now,” he said. “And now we’re doing what is called the racking. That’s the system that the panels sit on … then we’ll come in with (solar) panels.”
When the last of the approximately 55,000 photovoltaic panels are fastened to the horizontal purlins that link the grounded posts, the dairy- and alfalfa-producing farm near the Allegheny-Beaver county border will be transformed to a 20-megawatt solar power facility.
The Vesper Gaucho Solar project, a 20-year power-purchase partnership between Pitt and Texas-based Vesper Energy, is expected to produce 37,500 megawatt hours annually, offsetting approximately 18 percent of Pitt’s annual electricity usage. A Pitt Sustainability news release said this will reduce the University’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15,452 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, comparable to removing 3,330 fuel-burning vehicles from the roads.
While supply-chain problems have slowed the arrival of solar modules, the Ryan Construction crew managed to install a few racks’ worth in time for the Pitt crew’s visit. Newton is hopeful more will arrive by later this month.
“We’ll get panels going sometime after Thanksgiving, and hopefully we’ll have this site up and running,” he said. “Right now, the (completion) date is April.”
Solar power generated at the facility will be routed to Duquesne Light Co.’s Clinton substation, located just across a steep ravine from the sea of panels. There, via transformers and high-tension transmission lines, the power will feed into the larger electrical grid.
“We will continue to buy, or be hooked up to, Duquesne Light and the meter, the building on the campus,” Sharrard explained, with Pitt receiving bill credit for its offsets. “There’s just some accounting between the two (entities).”
The project, combined with Pitt’s previously announced plan to purchase power from a hydropower plant to be built on the Allegheny River, is expected to bring at least 38 percent of Pitt’s electricity from local renewable sources.
Based on the comparatively low cost of solar energy production, Pitt’s partnership with Vesper is estimated to save the University millions of dollars throughout the contract term, the Pitt Sustainability news release said. Also, purchasing clean electricity will require no upfront capital or maintenance costs from Pitt, while providing price certainty throughout the contract.
“The University of Pittsburgh is fully committed to achieving carbon neutrality for our Pittsburgh campus by 2037, with local, renewable energy getting us one-third of the way there,” Sharrard said. “We are very excited for Vesper’s Gaucho Solar facility to be the largest contributing renewable asset to date for the University’s goals of producing or procuring 50 percent of our total Pittsburgh campus electricity from renewables by 2030 and 100 percent by 2037,” the University’s 250th anniversary.
When Pitt signed its solar power purchase agreement in 2020, Sharrard noted that electricity generation accounted for about half of the University’s greenhouse gas emissions. “Our commitment to local, renewable solar power is an important part of Pitt’s ongoing effort to reduce its carbon footprint,” she said then. “At the same time, it benefits the entire community by reducing pollutants from electricity generation that harm the region’s air quality.”
Now two years down the line, Sharrard is impressed with the progress she sees at the Vesper Gaucho Solar farm.
“We’re on a journey in all of those (sustainability) endeavors,” she said. “We celebrated 16.5 percent electricity produced or procured last year when we met our incremental target. But when this facility comes online, we will be very excited for that to jump up a bit.
“And when our hydro partnership (goes) online in a few years, it’ll go up even more,” she added. “So we’re making some great progress. And we’re excited about that.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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