Panels in West WhitelandSolar Power Trends

As municipalities plan for and encourage solar power, it is critical to understand solar power trends and needs, as well as the overall framework in Chester County. Although most of the decisions affecting solar power are out of a local municipality's hands, being solar friendly is necessary to assure renewable energy adoption as soon as possible.

National and State Framework for Solar Power

Over the past few years, the framework for solar power has changed dramatically, particularly for grid-scale solar. It is driven by market forces, consumer and business decisions, national and state policies, energy prices, technological innovation, and a host of other factors.

Industry-Wide Trends

Solar Power is Growing Fast

Although still a small share of total electricity generated, grid-scale solar power is growing rapidly. Between 2014 and 2020, the number of grid-scale solar power facilities with at last 1 MW of capacity grew from 1,249 to 4,538, a 263% increase. The capacity of all grid-connected facilities grew from 17.6 GW to 75.6 GW, a 330% increase.

Solar Power is a Large Share of New Electricity Capacity

Through the first three quarters of 2021, solar power accounted for more than 50% of the new electric generation capacity added in the United States. In 2010, it was less than 5% of new capacity.

Cost of Solar Power is Declining

The cost of solar power generated by larger-scale (5 MW or larger) grid-scale solar power declined 84% from 2010 to 2019. This trend is expected to continue and is primarily due to technological improvements, although manufacturing efficiencies are another important element.

Demand for Solar Power is Increasing

The demand for solar power has increased significantly, and the market is adjusting to meet this demand. Much of this increase in demand is due to concerns about climate change, which has led to federal, state, local government, institutional, corporate, and other organizational policies and goals supporting clean energy.

Need for Land is Increasing

With the rising demand for solar power and with solar power being much more land intensive than other energy sources, the scramble for appropriate land is intensifying. On average, about 6 acres of land are needed for one megawatt of solar power. This land must have reasonable access to high voltage power lines, ideally through a substation, and must have good sunshine (not in a mountain valley that is shaded half the day, for example), southern facing slopes, and slight slopes.

Pennsylvania Trends

Pennsylvania's solar power trends are similar to the national trends, with significant new solar power facilities being proposed and built. Pennsylvania's many transmission powerlines, regulatory framework, and open land make it a viable place for new solar power facilities.

Pennsylvania Regulatory Framework

Installing Solar Power and Connecting to the Grid

The following government agencies or private companies will regulate how a solar installation is done:

  • Local townships, boroughs, and cities regulate the permission to install solar facilities, whether they are on an individual home or business or a utility grid-scale installation. They will do this through their zoning ordinance, subdivision ordinance, building code, permit processes, and other regulations.
  • For individual property installations that are an accessory use or other installations not intended to generate electricity as a utility, the local electric distribution company, as regulated by the PA Public Utility Commission, will regulate how the system is connected to local distribution lines. Most of Chester County is covered by PECO, although small portions are in the PPL and Metropolitan Edison distribution service areas. These companies must be contacted directly for permission to connect a solar installation.

    PECO has an online map and tool to help property owners determine whether a connection is viable.

  • For grid-scale connections as a utility to high-voltage transmission lines, connections are regulated by PJM, which is a regional transmission organization (RTO) that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in Pennsylvania and many other states.

Alternative Energy Portfolio Act

The major state law driving the production of solar power is called the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (AEPS) Act, which was enacted in 2004. This act does not affect municipal actions at all; instead, for the year 2021, it requires electric utilities and electric generation suppliers to produce 8% of their energy from renewable sources, with .5% from solar photovoltaic energy.

In addition, the AEPS Act requires Pennsylvania utilities to offer net metering, which allows accessory use solar installations to essentially send excess electricity generated into the distribution system. For residential systems, this can be up to 50 kilowatts, while for non-residential systems it is up to 3 to 5 megawatts.

Community Solar Projects

Community solar projects, which are local solar installations to which residents and business owners can choose to subscribe, earning a credit on their electric bill for their portion of power produced, are not covered by AEPS and the net metering requirement, which makes it impractical to build community solar projects in Pennsylvania. There is proposed legislation to remedy this situation.

Solar Power Framework in Chester County

Physical Factors in Southeastern PA Affecting Solar Power

There are a number of factors that affect the provision of solar power, including days and hours of sunlight, the availability of appropriate land, and access to transmission lines for grid-scale facilities.

Amount of Sunlight

Pennsylvania receives enough sunlight to support viable solar photovoltaic facilities. Within Pennsylvania, the southeastern corner of the state, particularly Chester County, is one of the better spots.

Land Availability

Grid-scale solar facilities need open land that is relatively flat or that has a southern exposure. This land certainly exists in Chester County, although it will typically be more expensive than land in other parts of the state.

Access to Transmission Lines

Because of the existence of the Limerick Nuclear power plant and because of Chester County's location relative to other power generating facilities and population centers like Philadelphia, the county has many transmission powerlines. Grid-scale solar facilities need access to these transmission lines, either through substations or directly through a line tap.

Overhead Transmission Lines

Maximum Hypothetical Demand for Solar Power Facilities in Chester County

Demand for solar power is steadily increasing in Chester County as more and more households and businesses convert to renewable electricity. With a few exceptions, most of this renewable energy is being generated from beyond Chester County's borders, but many users of this power would prefer if the energy were generated locally. A key question is, how much land would be needed to meet electricity demand locally?

To get a rough idea of what might be needed, it is possible to calculate the amount of land needed to meet recent electricity usage in the county.

In 2015, which is the most recent data available, Chester County used an estimated 6.1 million MWh (megawatt hour) of electricity during the year. Of this, 1.7 million MWh was used by residential consumers, 4.4 million MWh by commercial and industrial users, and .2 million Mwh by regional rail. This is a lot of electricity.

Electricity generation is calculated in megawatts, while electricity used over time is calculated in megawatt hours. For solar power in southeastern Pennsylvania, a solar power facility that is classified as generating one megawatt will, on average, produce 3.56 megawatt hours per day of electricity, or 1,300 megawatt hours in a year, according to Pennsylvania Utility Commission data. (The amount of electricity produced by a solar power facility will vary by its location. In the desert in Arizona, a 1 megawatt facility will generate a lot more electricity in a day than one in cooler and cloudier Chester County.)

Taking the Chester County demand in 2015 of 6.1 million MWh and dividing by 1,300 MWh per 1 MW yields a total demand in 2015 of 4,715.7 MW. On average, a 1 MW solar field needs 6 acres of land; therefore, the 4,715.7 MW of demand, when multiplied by 6 acres of land, would yield 28,294 acres of land needed to meet all of Chester County's 2015 demand.

Does Chester County have enough suitable land to meet this demand? Probably not easily. First, as a general rule of thumb, grid scale solar facilities should be within one mile of a substation, preferably, or one mile of a high-voltage transmission line, which would require a tap in. The map below shows that Chester County currently has about 31,834 acres of land that meet this criterium. This includes all land over six acres that is vacant, farmland, or covered with parking lots or large buildings, provided it is not protected open space or wooded.

View Larger Map

In addition to being relatively close to a high-voltage transmission line, grid-scale solar facilities need to be on flat or south facing slopes without shading in order to actually generate 3.56 megawatt hours per day. A significant portion of the properties identified would not meet these criteria.

Although the county might not be able to meet all of its 2015 electricity demand within the county with current solar facility technology, this technology is improving quickly, and some sources estimate that only 3 acres of land per MW might be needed with the best equipment now available. In this case, only 14,147 acres of land would be needed.

There are other trends making the provision of solar facilities more feasible. Most importantly, many homeowners and businesses are installing their own accessory solar facilities, which not only means that they are meeting their own needs but also means they might, at times, be able to send excess electricity into the grid.

In addition, the efficiency of various appliances that use electricity is constantly improving.

On the other hand, there are trends moving the county towards more electricity consumption. One of the most important of these trends is the county's ongoing population and employment growth. Chester County is forecasted by DVRPC to add 131,000 people between 2015 and 2050, a 25.4% increase, and 71,000 jobs by 2050, a 23.5% increase. All of these new people and jobs will demand electricity.

With the trend for more people working from home, Chester County may see more electricity usage out of new households than it would have in the past.

Another trend that will lead to increased electricity demand is the accelerating conversion of gas-powered vehicles to electric-powered vehicles. Similarly, there could start being more conversions of natural-gas powered appliances and heaters to electric ones.

Overall, the county will see increasing demand for electricity and will see some of its electricity demand met by in-county solar facilities, whether they are accessory to buildings or grid-scale generating solar fields; however, it is probable that much of the county’s future solar power will come from less-densely populated portions of the state.