Technological innovation has transformed the appearance of the green, rolling farmland where Don Craig’s family operated a dairy and alfalfa farm for decades, but the bucolic property is still yielding a beneficial and marketable harvest: energy absorbed from sunlight.
When the contoured sea of approximately 55,000 photovoltaic panels covering the land near Pittsburgh International Airport came online June 29, Pitt’s Oakland campus began offsetting 18 percent of its annual electrical power consumption with renewable energy. Solar Module Connector
The Vesper Gaucho Solar project, a 20-year power-purchase partnership between Pitt and Texas-based Vesper Energy, was formally dedicated with a low-key ribbon cutting and luncheon event on Aug. 16, at the 68-acre site near Findlay Township and Clinton, straddling the Allegheny-Beaver county line.
Construction on the facility began in mid-2022. It is expected to produce 37,500 megawatt hours annually for the Pitt campus via Duquense Lighting Co.’s transmission system, reducing 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, Pitt’s Office of Sustainability said.
“Three years ago, we were fortunate to partner with the University of Pittsburgh to help them realize their vision of obtaining clean energy (through) carbon neutrality by the year 2037,” said Craig Carson, president and CEO of Vesper Energy. “And the partnership with the University of Pittsburgh was a powerful one from the very beginning. Our teams were aligned with shared goals and mission to create a more sustainable future through better energy and infrastructure.
Carson said that at the peak of construction, 120 people were working on site, contributing about 160,000 hours of work.
Built by Ryan Construction, the now up-and-running solar farm is tied into Duquesne Light’s transmission system via the pre-existing Clinton substation, located just across a steep ravine from the solar facility. Transformers and high-tension transmission lines feed the carbon-neutral power into the larger electrical grid. NovaSource power services will have a full-time locally sourced technician on site.
Aside from such technical amenities, Carson noted that the facility’s “pollinator-friendly” landscaping “looks beautiful, and supplies critical habitat and food for the birds, the bees, the butterflies and bunnies and other important environmental insects.”
Acknowledging Pitt’s “rigorous journey to reach carbon neutrality by 2037,” Scott Bernotas, Pitt’s vice chancellor of facilities management, noted the University’s partnership in the Pittsburgh 2030 District, an interdisciplinary public-private collaborative that seeks to create an innovative “high performance” business district in downtown Pittsburgh.
In addition to the District’s goals to reduce energy consumption across all campus facilities, the Gaucho solar facility “will be a tremendous boost for our efforts to procure 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030, and 100 percent by 2037.”
Bernotas noted that the expansion of solar energy is not limited to the Vesper project or the Oakland campus.
Pitt recently installed two solar arrays at its Bradford campus, while several rooftop solar arrays are being installed on other campuses this year, with more in the planning stages. In addition, Bernotas said Pitt has “raised the bar” on its already-stringent building energy standards, putting the University’s existing 140-plus buildings on an “energy diet” by “advancing energy efficiency projects every year.”
Unlike the roof-mounted panels that feed energy directly into Pitt’s power system — bypassing Duquesne Light Co. meters — the Vesper Gaucho project connects to Duquesne Light infrastructure, with Pitt receiving bill credits for its sustainable energy offsets.
“We’re also investing in technology that lets us save energy in real time by leveraging our current (more than) 900,000 energy sensors across the Pittsburgh campus,” he said. “At Pitt, our focus on reducing energy consumption, and cleaning our energy supply, such as here at the Gaucho facility, is something that we focus on every day.”
Bernotas thanked Daniel Marcinko, assistant vice chancellor of facilities management, and Susannah Pedigo, Vesper Energy’s head of government and regulatory affairs, “both who’ve worked tirelessly to make this a reality for Pitt. Again, this will be a huge boost for the University of Pittsburgh in our effort to be a better global institution,” Bernotas said.
Aurora Sharrard, Pitt’s executive director of sustainability, said balancing “equity, environment and economics so current and future generations can thrive” and doing its part to mitigate climate change are vital issues for Pitt.
“That’s one of the reasons Pitt set a goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2037, a science-based target that also represents the 250th anniversary of (the University’s) founding, and it’s in line with global greenhouse-gas reduction goals,” she added.
Noting that the partnership with Vesper “on this solar farm we’re celebrating here today” was sealed just a few months after Pitt announced its carbon neutrality goal in 2020, Sharrard said the University’s carbon neutrality strategy “reaches toward environmental solutions while balancing and addressing our academic mission, pursuing equitable outcomes and helping create economic resilience for the University and our communities.”
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, Pitt Sustainability said. Also, purchasing clean electricity will require no upfront capital or maintenance costs from Pitt, while providing price certainty throughout the contract.
Sharrard emphasized the Vesper Gaucho project’s “cascading local economic and environmental benefit,s” including helping reduce local and global air pollutants. “We’re also thankful to Vesper for partnering on faculty research pursuits and creating learning opportunities for our students both throughout construction and into the future.”
Touting the University’s “multi-decadal history of leading, championing and exemplifying forward thinking and innovative practices that have deepened our climate mission and sustainability practices both operationally and academically,” Sharrard said Pitt Sustainability is “extremely proud to have played a critical role in helping bring this largest solar farm in southwestern Pennsylvania to fruition.
“We’re also excited for other organizations and homeowners to follow our lead,” she added, “joining the other 40,000-plus rooftop and utility-scale solar installations across Pennsylvania, and using the sun to power our places and fuel our inspiration.”
Longtime dairy farmer Don Craig, who ignored or rejected offers from multiple entities wanting to lease his land — adjacent to a Duquesne Light Co. substation — for solar-power projects, said he has “mixed feelings” about the fertile soil his father started farming in 1954 now being covered by energy-harvesting infrastructure.
“It’s not as pretty looking out in the morning, though, especially sunrise over the nice bean fields and everything,” he said, gazing out at the contours of the gray-colored panel arrays. “But we’re getting older, it’s time to slow down. Nobody in the family was gonna take it over. The one that was going to take it over passed away, my son.”
Craig, who started working on his father’s farm in 1974, lives adjacent to the Vesper Gaucho facility with his wife, Barbara. While the couple appreciates the benefits of alternative energy projects like this, Don Craig said he’s hopeful technology will evolve so more power can be generated with less land consumption.
“Sixty-eight acres for 18 percent of (Pitt’s) energy … it just seemed like a lot of acres,” he said.
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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