Penn State faculty, staff and students talk with representatives from Lightsource BP about ideas for the new solar array
Image: Peter Boger

Penn State Mont Alto hosts campus forum on research and engagement opportunities

Penn State and partner Lightsource BP seek feedback on how best to leverage the solar project as an asset for students, faculty and the community

MONT ALTO, Pa. — More than 40 faculty, staff and students from Penn State Mont Alto, Harrisburg and University Park gathered for a forum at the Penn State Mont Alto campus on Thursday, April 11, to discuss potential opportunities to use Penn State’s new 70-megawatt, utility-scale solar project as a teaching, research and outreach resource for campus and local communities.

“Our very aggressive Climate Action Program has been underway since 2005 and we’re currently projecting a 35-percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020, with this solar project being a key to reaching that milestone,” explained Michael Prinkey, senior energy program engineer at the Penn State Office of Physical Plant (OPP). “This event is the epitome of a ‘Living Laboratory’ and showcases the collaboration between academics, operations and corporate partners.”

Prinkey offered a history of Penn State’s development of the project and selection of Lightsource BP as the partner to deliver a utility-scale renewable energy project that could supply up to 25 percent of the University’s state-wide electric generation requirements. He noted that eventually, after completion of this project, more than 50 percent of Penn State’s electricity will either be renewable or be delivered by efficient on-campus power production.

Mont Alto Chancellor Francis K. Achampong encouraged participants to view the meeting as the start of an ongoing dialogue about building collaborative partnerships.

“I am excited about the opportunities that this project presents for collaborative research, internships and student and community engagement, and glad that the Mont Alto campus was able to host this open house to set things in motion,” Achampong said.            

Three members of the Lightsource BP team attended the open house and shared the company’s commitment to make the project serve the larger needs of the community. Among their efforts are: offering student internships with the project, restoring disturbed areas during site construction with native vegetation to stabilize the soil, and providing wildlife habitat.

After initial presentations, Penn State staff from OPP and members of the team that negotiated the Solar Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) invited attendees to participate in facilitated conversations offering feedback on vegetation and habitat management; site access and naming; installation of sensors and monitors that could be available as research data to the Penn State community; and development of curriculum and student internships built around the project.

Among the ideas discussed were creating a real-time web dashboard of data from the solar arrays that students and faculty could access; creating research projects that track long-term key ecological markers at the site, like annual bird migrations; creating projects for engineering courses using the solar array as a case study; allowing students to create capstone research projects at the site; and offering annual community events to educate the public about solar and renewable energy.

Meghan Hoskins, director of operations and partnerships for Penn State’s Sustainability Institute and a member of the solar PPA team, explained that this is the first step in an on-going partnership between Penn State and Lightsource BP. 

“We are really pleased by the excitement and interest Penn State Mont Alto and Harrisburg faculty, staff and students brought to this event, as well as the support from Lightsource BP thus far,” said Hoskins. “We are looking forward to continuing to work with them, as well as expanding the conversation to include more of our Penn State and surrounding communities in the near future.” 

“It’s been a pleasure working with Penn State,” stated Emilie Wangerman, senior director of business development for Lightsource BP. “We are excited to expand this collaboration by creating research and educational opportunities as part of our project’s broader benefits to the community.”

Another conversation will be held at the Energy Days event at University Park on May 29-30, where ideas will be solicited and discussed for using any of the University’s PPAs (two solar and two hydro-power). Those who cannot make these meetings, but who are interested in being involved with these projects, may contact Meghan Hoskins at meh200@psu.edu.