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The Biggest Little PV Plant in the East

The northeastern United States is not where most would think to put a photovoltaic power plant. But one just started up in Pennsylvania this winter. It's delivering the watts, but at what cost?

5 min read

31 March 2009—John F. Kennedy once famously described Washington, D.C., as having all the charm of a northern industrial city and all the efficiency of a southern town. When it comes to solar energy, something of the same might be said of the adjoining mid-Atlantic states: They have winter days that are almost as short as New England’s and summer days that can be as humid as South Carolina’s. Yet this past winter, nestled in a Delaware River landfill that’s somewhat of a mecca of renewable energy, the largest photovoltaic (PV) plant east of Arizona came into operation. It’s doing a nice job of delivering electrons into the Pennsylvania–New Jersey–Maryland grid (the PJM Interconnection), but at a cost that’s a little hard to make sense of.

A PV plant like this one, which was built in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, subjects solar electricity to its toughest economic test. Photovoltaic electricity comes closest to paying for itself when it’s used in distributed situations—without connection to the grid—such as on the roofs of houses or office buildings. That way, it competes against the costs incurred by fossil-fuel and nuclear plants to both generate electricity and get it to the user. But when PVs are used to generate electricity centrally, achieving competitiveness is much more challenging. PV plants that link to the grid compete only on the cost of generation itself, because they incur the same transmission and distribution costs as generators running on fossil fuel and other nonrenewables.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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