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Green v. Green in School Building Plan

Monday, September 22, 2014

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When it comes to green building, which is greener? Trees or solar panels?

That’s the gist of a fierce debate now underway in a school district outside Philadelphia, where 26 acres of forest next to the school are about to be razed to erect a 21,000-panel solar "farm."

CSI-Before CSI-After
Coatesville Solar Initiative

The current plan would clear 26 acres of the 48-acre forested tract for the installation of 21,000 solar panels. Eventually, the entire site would become Pennsylvania's largest solar field.

At issue is the Coatesville Solar Initiative, a two-year, $35 million plan to create what proponents say will be the first and only school in the United States (Coatestville Area High School, in Coatesville, PA) to run entirely on solar power.

'Make a Name for Ourselves'

The project, on track to become the largest solar park in Pennsylvania, has been endorsed by the county Economic Development Council and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Smart Energy Initiative.

Those groups say the project will create jobs and "make a name for ourselves in the world of clean energy." The project gained local land-use approval in February 2013 and school board approval in August.

The Coatesville Area School District also favors the project. “This is going to help the district keep taxes down and keep our educational programs going,” Superintendent Richard Como recently told the Daily Local, a local newspaper.

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Backers say the solar project will make Coatesville Area High School the first totally solar-powered school in the United States.

Developer Bob Keares, who owns a solar installation company called Keares Electrical Contracting Inc., bought the 48-acre tract next to the school in 2011. He says the project will mean less expensive, cleaner energy for the school district over the long term.

He also says that, over its lifetime, the project will have the environmental impact of planting more than 5.5 million trees, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

'Sacrificing a Scarce Resource'

Critics, however, are appalled at the loss of green space in Pennsylvania's fastest-growing county.

They say the solar farm will impact storm water management and harm the beauty of the area. Site preparation to control runoff will push erection of the solar panels into 2016, Keares told the Daily Local.

Although the immediate plan is to clear just 26 of the 48 acres, the rest of the tract will likely to be cleared and filled with panels in the years to come, project officials have said.


Officials say the solar park will generate cleaner, less expensive energy for the school district.

The Brandwine Conservancy, a prominent land preservation group, has objected that officials did not consider installing the panels on roofs, parking lots or other already-developed properties before signing off on clearing the forest.

"You're sacrificing a scarce resource to supply another," the Conservancy's John Theilacker told the Inquirer. "We just question the soundness of that decision."



Tagged categories: Developers; Energy efficiency; Green building; Maintenance + Renovation; North America; Schools; Solar energy

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (9/22/2014, 8:33 AM)

How exactly would this "keep taxes down"? Solar is typically a more expensive energy source, particularly in a less than ideal location. Coatesville looks like it has mediocre solar insolation at best.

Comment from Gary Burke, (9/22/2014, 9:56 AM)

taking trees down is never a good idea...will they breathe carbon dioxide easier as we find more and more reasons to remove our oxygen producers??

Comment from Sarah Geary, (9/23/2014, 8:02 AM)

Please don’t tear down a tree, a natural air purifier, one of nature's miracles, to make room for inefficient solar panels!

Comment from John Fauth, (9/25/2014, 3:56 PM)

In the convoluted reality of social engineering, "keep[ing] taxes down" is (most probably) a function of cost shifting. I'm willing to bet the acquisition and installation costs, along with increased operational cost per Kw, are simply shifted to the Federal tax payer (as opposed to school district or state taxpayer) by virtue of Federal subsidies. It's the same twist of logic in which increased spending that's less than baselne budgeting becomes a spending "cut".

Comment from Andrew Piedl, (9/26/2014, 7:23 AM)

This is just another example of ‘planning’ by some developer with an idea to exploit land to turn it into a profit. The local municipal leaders, incapable of having creative ideas of their own (vision), embrace the project as it is offered and begin repeating the persuasive phrases that were used to lure them in:'the first and only blah blah blah', 'keep taxes down', 'environmental impact this and that'. This is essentially how our nation is built.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (9/26/2014, 8:17 AM)

Looking at that image of the solar panels, it looks like a sub-optimal cut-rate installation. The panels are WAY too close to the ground. They will have to be cutting the grass every week, as even a small amount of shadow can kill the output of an individual panel. Being so close to the ground, the cutting exposes the panels to more dirt/dust/grass cuttings being thrown on the panel, cutting output. Finally, being so close to the ground makes it much more likely the panels will be damaged - whether it's a rock kicked up by the mowers, or a mower driver taking a turn too tightly and hitting the panel. Of course, mowers aren't enough - the panels are so low a mower won't even go under them. Mandatory weekly weed-eater running, likely a 2-cycle engine. All these lawn implements typically are MUCH more polluting than central power plants.

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