Poconos plan for Pa.'s largest solar field to see light again in June

Article Republished By Javier Troconis

SWIFTWATER, Pa. – A plan to build Pennsylvania’s largest solar field, first proposed a year ago and in the works since, is expected to be back before Pocono Township commissioners next month.

Swiftwater Solar expects to present its preliminary final plan at the commissioners’ June 6 meeting, said Jeff Hammond, director of project development for Apex Clean Energy, which would build the project. Apex is based in Charlottesville, Va.

The project would be owned by VITOL, a Dutch energy trading company.

It’s proposed as a $111 million, 80-megawatt field, on a private 644-acre site, of which 476 acres are proposed to be disturbed, according to documents filed with the township. It would include about 200,000 solar panels, Hammond said.

Apex bought the land in August 2020, and township planners first accepted the plan for review on June 14, 2021.

It since has wound through the approval process, but attention to it surfaced again a month ago, when a proposal to build a $1.3 billion resort based on singer Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” was announced on adjoining property in Tobyhanna Township.

Maps of the Margaritaville project showed the solar field, east of Interstate 380, adjacent to Sullivan Trail and Back Mountain Road in what now is zoned as a Recreational District.

Pocono Township Manager Taylor Muñoz also said the project is likely to come before township commissioners in June. Muñoz said the developers have “largely satisfied the township’s zoning and planning requirements.”

Township engineers Boucher and James Inc. in an April 20 letter that explains its third review of the project, list 170 points of concern about zoning, subdivision, land development, storm water management, storm water sewer designs and more. Nearly 100 of those concerns have been deemed “satisfied,” the letter says.

“It’s pretty much down to a few minor things, basically really small things at this point,” Hammond said. “The township engineers did a diligent job.”

Hammond said the Monroe County Conservation District “was equally as thoughtful, using a fine tooth comb on this.”

Township planners recommended conditional approval of the project, subject to required approval of outside agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

A National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which DEP requires for any point source discharge to state waters, has not yet been secured, Muñoz said.

Building process, concerns

If township commissioners approve the project, Hammond said construction hopefully would start later this summer. He said that, as with many products, supplies of solar panels have been affected by COVID-19. He said U.S. producers are sold out for two years.

Construction is expected to take at least 12 months, Hammond said.

On average, construction would require 10 to 20 tractor-trailer and dump truck trips per day, Swiftwater Solar says. But during the nine-month period when racking systems and modules are being delivered to the site, that would significantly increase.

Once the project is operational, traffic would be “insignificant, limited primarily to pickup trucks and other small vehicles,” the company says.

The solar field’s panels would be 7.5-by-3.7 feet, 17 feet high when fully raised, on single axles.

The site would have a fence-enclosed panel field, substation, gravel access road, underground power lines and 16 infiltration detention basins. The substation would be 250-by-250 feet, 65 feet tall, on a 3-acre site.

Land at the site includes woodlands, steep slopes, wetlands and a pond, according to the company’s file with the township.

The application says that because of “topography and existing vegetation,” Swiftwater Solar would be naturally hidden from most surrounding areas, and “only minimally visible from neighboring properties.”

It would be partially visible from Kalahari resort in Tobyhanna Township, a quarter-mile from the site. A small portion also would be visible from Sullivan Trail, it says.

It likely would be most visible from Big Pocono State Park in Jackson Township, about three miles away, from where it would appear as a massive lake of black panels.

“Situated … adjacent to existing transmission lines on remote private land, the location is highly suitable for a solar energy project,” the plans say.

But not everyone believes that.

Brodhead Watershed Association says in a February letter to township officials that it strongly opposes the plan.

The letter says the association “embraces clean renewable energy, and recognizes its importance in protecting the future of our watershed,” but the amount of “earth disturbance, deforestation and storm water runoff” from the plan “will significantly jeopardize the water quality of the Swiftwater and Pocono Creeks.”

It says removing 450 acres of forest on top of Bear Mountain, constructing storm water basins and other details raise concerns.

“We believe that this site is unsuitable for large-scale energy generation,” it says.

Financial benefits

In papers submitted to the township, developers say the project “will be a valuable long-term revenue source for Pocono Township, contributing $150,000-$200,000 a year in property taxes for 40 years.”

Construction would create 254 full-time-equivalent jobs during construction of the field, and bring $22 million in spending into the county.

The application includes findings of a NEPA Alliance impact study that suggests the project would have a $30.6 million economic impact from activity during construction.

Starting after the operating of the panels begins, there will be $2.9 million annually in economic activity. The project will have two full-time-equivalent jobs.

On its website, Swiftwater Solar says that over 30 years, it will produce annual revenue of about $195,000 per year, split among Monroe County, Pocono Township, and the Pocono Mountain School District.

In the application, it says the field would generate enough electricity to power 12,000-13,000 average homes. On its website, Swiftwater Solar puts the number at more than 14,000.

The application says power from Swiftwater Solar “will be delivered into the local electrical grid, helping diversify Pennsylvania’s energy portfolio.”

But in February, AT&T announced it had bought 155 megawatts of power from Vitol, including the power from Swiftwater Solar.

“In addition to creating direct and indirect jobs during construction and operations, Swiftwater Solar will create opportunities for companies seeking to open new locations in areas with access to renewable power to expand into Monroe County,” the application says.

The solar field’s useful life is estimated at 30 years, after which the panels can be removed and recycled, with the panels largely composed of glass, the application says.

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