EME 810
Solar Resource Assessment and Economics

10.4. Sustainability Ethics as Part of Solar Projects


Reading Assignment

  • SECS, Chapter 1 - Introduction (re-read, with renewed focus on The Ethics of Sustainability and Ecosystems Services)
  • C. Becker (2012) Sustainability Ethics and Sustainability Research, Chapter 3 - The Inherent Ethical Dimension of Sustainability – Toward a Relational Ethical Perspective (available on Canvas) pp. 17-20.
Underpinning your efforts to develop a solar project will be your motivation for engaging in solar energy project development at all. While energy tends to make money, is there a deeper ethical approach that we should be aware of for best practices?

Sustainability Ethics

The major work of research on ecosystem services came out of the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment from the United Nations. Even the synthesis report is a heavy read, so we have included it as supplemental reading. Here is an excerpt from the report that I considered to be highly appropriate in the context of developing large scale solar technologies globally:

Relationships between Ecosystem Services and Human Well-being (p. 49)
"Changes in ecosystem services influence all components of human well-being, including the basic material needs for a good life, health, good social relations, security, and freedom of choice and action (CF3). (See Box 3.1.) Humans are fully dependent on Earth’s ecosystems and the services that they provide, such as food, clean water, disease regulation, climate regulation, spiritual fulfillment, and aesthetic enjoyment. The relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being is mediated by access to manufactured, human, and social capital."

This statement is closely linked to the "sustainability ethic" - the term that has been eloquently summarized by Dr. Christian Becker (former faculty in the PSU Department of Philosophy, and expert on sustainability and ethics) as the following:

"Acknowledge and seek solutions that respect a systemic and simultaneous moral obligation to 1) contemporary global communities, 2) future generations of human society, and 3) the natural community or environment supporting life and biodiversity on Earth."

We can see that this invokes a pretty deep perspective, and there is a lot of value encompassed within such a concise statement. I want you to consider several ways of how we might incorporate the sustainability ethic as a motivator into our working lives as professionals.

  • Embody your own conviction that corporate interests can be reconciled with social and environmental interests.
  • Advocate public participation in the decisions that affect environmental justice.
  • Make a business case for sustainable practices in the context of a particular energy business or utility.

Case Example: Keystone Solar Project

arial image of a field full of solar panels
  • Location: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
  • Developer: Community Energy
  • Owner/operator: EDF Renewables
  • Capacity: 6 MW (5 MW AC)
  • Construction: 2012-2013
  • PV Panels: ~20,000 (fixed tilt)

    (Image Credit: Community Energy)

The folks at Community Energy and EDF Renewables in Pennsylvania have developed just such an approach to project development, in their Keystone Solar project. This 6 MW PV project was developed on Amish farmland, with specific research applied to the soil quality before and after the project installation. No concrete was used in the ground mount installation here. The design included vegetative buffering with native grasses, shrubs, and trees, allowing the solar installation to blend into the natural landscape. The project received a Project of Distinction Award at the 2013 PV America East Conference.

Several universities and other organizations signed up for a share of the renewable energy credits, including Drexel University, Franklin & Marshall College, Eastern University, Clean Air Council, the Philadelphia Phillies, Juniata College, Millersville University, and Marywood University.

Timelapse video of solar panel field set up. No audio.

Best practices were applied, and at the end of the contract employing the solar farm, the land owner will have the option to remove the entire installation and return the land back to farmland for agricultural crops. This is still not the norm in the industry, it is a best practice by a firm seeking to lead the industry.

Case Example: Penn State - Light Source BP 700 MW Solar Farm

“ UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. — On Feb. 5, 2019, Penn State and Lightsource BP announced the development of a large-scale, ground-mounted solar array of over 150,000 solar panels near Penn State’s Mont Alto Campus. This 70-megawatt, off-site solar energy project will support the University’s Strategic Plan, helping implement the plan’s "Stewarding Our Planet’s Resources" key pillar and supplying up to 25 percent of the University system’s electricity.” (Verdi, 2019)
3 images. A bee on a flower, a sheep, and a solar panel
Source: Gustavo Fring/Skitterphoto/Pixabay via Pexels
  • Location: Franklin County, Pennsylvania
  • Owner / operator: Lightsource BP
  • Capacity: 70 MW (53.5 MW AC)
  • Annual energy: 102,000 MWh
  • Area: 500 acres
  • Construction: September 2019 – October 2020
  • Total Investment: $75M
  • PV Panels: 150,000
  • Contract term: 25 years

This project boasts significant environmental benefits due to shifting the campus electricity generation from fossil fuel based to renewable sources. It is estimated that, once implemented, the project will result in 57,000 metric tons of avoided CO2e emissions per year, which is equivalent to 12,102 fuel-burning cars of the road. The project helps Penn State exceed its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 35% by 2020 and also provides the university with $14M in energy cost savings over the 25-year term of PPA agreement. But that is not the end of it. From the very start, the intention was to demonstrate that utility-scale solar can be and should be developed in a sustainable way, with careful consideration of local ecological values.

The bidding process required developers to evaluate the potential impacts on the land and nearby ecosystems by using a mapping tool developed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global environmental non-profit organization that advocates responsible use of land and sets priorities for conservation of sensitive and ecologically critical zones across all continents.

Lightsource BP is recognized for building solar farms that enhance environmental benefits to farm lands, preserving biodiversity and agricultural value of land. They worked together with Penn State’s researchers to come up with “environmentally-conscious” system design, which included elements, such as created wildlife habitats, plant communities that promote pollination and help uphold honey bee population, and sheep grazing (Ludt, 2019). By design, the solar farm allows for co-location of the traditional agriculture benefits (crop and livestock growing) with additional ecosystem services.

The construction of the plant has been completed in 2020, and Penn State announced in October 2020 that the university had begun purchasing solar electricity:

Penn State and Lightsource bp Virtual Ribbon Cutting Event (12:29)
Click here for a transcript

On-screen text: Welcome to our virtual ribbon-cutting ceremony. As of October 2020, Lightsource bp’s Nittany 1, 2 and 3 solar farms are generating renewable energy for all Penn State Campuses.

Eric Barron: Greetings! Last September Penn State and Lightsource bp celebrated the groundbreaking for a 70-megawatt solar project in Franklin county that would provide twenty-five of the University's total purchased electricity over twenty-five years. One year and one month later it's my pleasure to share that the project is complete, and Penn State is purchasing this renewable energy through a power purchase agreement. This is a bright and proud moment for Penn State and reminiscent of a day in April 2018 when I loaded the last shovel full of coal into the University power plant Penn State's commitment to renewable energy helps us reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs but the value of successfully completing projects like these extends far greater than achieving these two goals. Through these efforts from planning to implementation and beyond our students are granted first-hand, once in a lifetime access to innovative learning and research opportunities related to the expanding renewable energy industry. These living lab experiences prepare students for new career possibilities and a brighter future for all of us. Thank you to everyone who has worked so hard to make this possible.

Kevin Smith: Hi, my name is Kevin Smith, I’m CEO of the Americas for Lightsource bp. Lightsource bp is a large-scale solar energy development company with activities around the world. As CEO of the Americas, I head up our US activities developing, investing, and building large-scale solar projects here across the US. I want to take a moment really to congratulate the Lightsource bp team and the Penn State University teams for really a terrific project here that's now completed construction and has started to generate a clean and cost-effective energy for Penn State University and the 100,000 students that they have across Pennsylvania. This is really a great example of what we would call responsible solar energy, so not only does it have cost-competitive energy, clean energy, created jobs during the construction period, and continued investment in the community through our expenditures on maintenance activities on the facility as we move forward. But it also provided uh some other community benefits um you know one of which is diversification of revenue streams to some of the farming community. So, some of the farmers that participate in the project um now have a long-term, safe, solar solar energy generated revenue stream to pair with their farming activities as well so provides them with that additional benefit of nice secure long-term revenue streams. In addition, we really looked at how to harmonize this project with nature in the area and with the farming community. That included the creation of habitats for wildlife and included a pollinator program with a custom seed mix to make sure we're developing the proper wildflowers in the area to help with pollination activities and in addition, we're going to be doing sheep grazing on one of the sites that we have here in the project you know. This work really came out of the shared goals that we have with Penn State University, they were very specific in their requirements for a project that they were going to be buying electricity from, and fortunately, this was really a core principle for Lightsource bp and our projects around the world is to develop these kinds of activities. It's been a great experience with Penn State University Meghan and Rob and President Barron and the whole team have been really wonderful to work with, really drove the requirements for the project and we look forward to continuing that relationship for decades to come. We have a number of interns that have been working with the company and we expect that will continue as we move forward -- looking at special projects not only for us but also for the University as they now have this large-scale facility at their doorstep where they can do investigations on all kinds of activities. Not only pollinator programs but also battery storage potential and other things. So anyway, we really look at this as a model project for us, and as does Penn State and we look to implement a lot of the things we learned on this project on our projects across the US. So, once again congratulations to the Penn State team and to the Lightsource bp team we look forward to a long and exciting relationship with Penn State as this project continues to go forward and generate electricity into the system. Thank you very much.

Rob Cooper: Hi, my name is Rob Cooper, I am the senior director of energy and engineering for the office of physical plant at Penn State. Since they began looking into solar years ago and have since learned so much about the value of renewables through our participation in this project. We have learned that utility-scale solar located in Pennsylvania can provide cost savings when compared to fossil fuel and nuclear power generation sources. We have learned that renewable projects can create jobs and generate supplemental income for farmers. We have learned that carefully designed and constructed solar projects can also improve local habitat and biodiversity and we have learned that these types of projects provide a valuable educational opportunity for Penn State students through research potential and student internships. Moving forward this experience will guide Penn State as we evaluate future opportunities to continue to lower our carbon emissions and make Penn State more sustainable.

Emilie Wangerman: Hi, my name is Emilie Wangerman and I lead Lightsource bp's business development organization. So, I have had the pleasure of working with Penn State throughout this whole process. I started with selecting the projects which we would submit into the RFP process which was well run and thoughtfully organized throughout the process. I really appreciated the questions that were asked and the focus on not only driving forward affordability for Penn State but also caring about the impact to the community and to the environment and the good news is that our projects were well paired to be selected and therefore move into negotiations which I did throughout the process with an amazing group of people at Penn State. Thanks to Rob and to Mike, both of you were a pleasure to work with, and then I had the opportunity to work with Meghan and others to really define what are the added benefits beyond the procurement process and that included things like internships and opportunities to engage in research. This is a great example of an RFP process that really can be a blueprint for other universities throughout the US and globally it's a great opportunity to find affordable clean energy and procure it in a way that you can ensure that you're getting a quality product. Overall, it was an exciting opportunity I look forward to the continued long-term partnership with Penn State, and overall, it's a great way to bring about a continued growth in the renewable energy market through a public and a private partnership. So congratulations to everybody this is an exciting time and I’m really proud that these projects are online and producing clean energy for Penn State.

David Dosker: Hello, my name is David Dosker and I’m the Lightsource bp project director for the Nittany one, two, and three solar sites. As the project director for Lightsource bp I’m responsible for the planning and construction of the Nittany sites. Over the last year and a half, it has been my honor to work with Meghan Hoskins and the Penn State team. Both Lightsource bp and I are proud of the relationships and the facilities that we have built together, we are excited that the Nittany sites will continue to provide benefit to Penn State the community and to the environment for years to come. Congratulations to Penn State and Lightsource bp as we start this amazing energy journey together.

Meghan Hoskins: Hello, I’m Meghan Hoskins at the Penn State sustainability institute. This solar project has been unique in many ways, but I'd like to give you a couple of quick examples of collaboration efforts among partners of the project that have made it really special. One of Penn State's priorities for the project was to share the story of how large-scale solar projects can be developed in a way that benefits the local community and environmental resources surrounding the project. We achieved this through a partnership with the association for the advancement of sustainability in higher education: where we produced a webinar that highlights the process that Penn State went through to involve partners like the nature conservancy and Lightsource bp to achieve our goals of responsible environmental stewardship. That webinar is accessible to anyone and we hope you'll go check it out. Another goal we had was to make the sites available not only to the humans in the neighborhood and at Penn State but also as habitat for local wildlife as a company who shares our goals of improving local ecology, Lightsource bp partnered with a local farmer who will graze sheep on one site and also planted a seed mix around and under the arrays that was recently designed by other partners to support not just sheep but also insects, a seed mix, appropriately named fuzz and buzz.

Mark Chambers: Hello, everyone Mark Chambers, senior construction manager for Lightsource bp. So, I’m back in the fieldwork until it started, over here at solar one. I have to say this has been a really interesting journey with everything that's going on, great people, meeting the Penn State faculty and students, very smart, really good questions but I have to say that one big thing is that with these interesting times is realizing the perseverance of what the team had to get it done. We have a great crew, finished, and provided three safe quality clean energy generation projects. These were the first for us with Penn State, hopefully not the last and see you at the next one in the meantime please be safe, take care, and go lions!

David Gray: thank you for joining us as we celebrate this important moment in Penn State's history. In January of 2019, I was genuinely enthusiastic to sign on behalf of the University, a solar-powered purchase agreement with Lightsource bp to build the largest solar array in Pennsylvania. Through this initiative, Penn State is doing good and doing well simultaneously. We're doing good things for future generations by reducing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change we're doing well for the University by producing a positive return on investment that will yield millions of dollars in net present value savings for Penn State. At a time when we are facing so many great challenges, the beginning of this 25-year power purchase agreement offers a bright moment and a true reflection of the University's ability and commitment to not just grow but to succeed in a way that enhances the health and sustainability of the planet and future generations this project has involved countless Penn State students, faculty and staff along with industry professionals but its positive impact will reach all of us. When Penn State reduces its carbon emissions by utilizing more renewable and affordable energy, we all win! This is just one example of how Penn State prioritizes doing well while doing good and just one reason why I am so proud to be a Penn Stater. We are Penn State! And we are doing great things for the environment. Thank you!

Credit: Lightsource Bp, Youtube.com

More facts about the project:

Penn State: Power by the Sun, Lightsource BP – Penn State Brochure 2020.

The latest announcement of project commission:

Penn State Powers Up with Solar, BusinessWire, 10/15/2020.

Try This! Explore Resilient Land Mapping Tool

This web tool provides you with several metrics and interface to evaluate the environmental sensitivity of a region or site. If you consider developing a tract of land or re-purpose a  natural area or farmland for solar installation, it is important to access the potential impacts on biodiversity, water ways, soil, species migration routes, and other factors. For example, it may help you to choose an area with the highest resilience or avoid areas that are prioritized for conservation.

First, it is helpful to understand the core concepts of terrestrial resilience. Visit this webpage to study the metrics used in mapping.

 Resilient Land Mapping Tool 

Zoom in the location of your interest. There are several options on the right hand menu to display different metrics on the map: Resilient Sites, Connectivity and Climate Flow, Recognized Biodiversity Value, and Resilient and Connected Network. You can try to switch between the options and interpret the markings based on the legend at the bottom of the menu.

Then try to “Sketch a Polygon” over a specific site (see button on the upper right). In a minute, the system will generate a profile report for that site, which gives you some quantitative information on ecological sensitivities in this area.

Think how this information can help you make a case for sustainable solar project. Feel free to use this tool for site assessment in your course project.