SEPTA sees the light, OKs solar panels on maintenance facility rooftops

The sky was dark and cloudy outside, but there was nothing but sunshine inside SEPTA’s board room Thursday as the agency approved a contract to install photovoltaic solar panels on the roofs of four bus and rail maintenance shops.

SEPTA picked SunVest, Inc., to install and operate the panels under a 20-year lease agreement. SEPTA will pay nothing up front for the panels. In exchange, SEPTA will buy electricity from SunVest, starting a 7.2 cents per kilowatt hour and increasing annually 1.9 percent. That will actually save SEPTA a little bit of money on its PECO bill, said Erik Johanson, SEPTA’s director of innovation.

“The project is what we call budget neutral, which is a commitment we make with our sustainability projects: that there is no impact to our bottom line,” said Johanson.

The 3.1 megawatt project will be Philadelphia’s second largest solar project, just yards behind the Eagles 3.2 megawatt facility at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles installed solar panels on top of canopies covering most stadium parking lots in 2012.

When the new panels are installed later this year, they will increase the overall capacity of solar power in Philadelphia by more than 30 percent.

While the project is relatively large, it’s a drop in SEPTA’s power bucket. The nearly 15 acres of rooftop solar panels will generate just under 1 percent of SEPTA’s energy demand of around 450 million kilowatts.

Over the past few months, angry environmentalists have become a familiar sight at the board meetings, protesting SEPTA’s decision to build a 8.8-megawatt cogeneration gas plant at its Midvale Bus Depot in Nicetown. But instead of protest chants, they offered applause today. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,” said Peter Winslow of Interfaith Power and Light. Winslow said a few more thank yous before encouraging SEPTA “to make this the first of a series of contracts to bring solar power to the SEPTA system.”

Along with representatives from the Sierra Club and Philadelphia 350, Winslow urged SEPTA to follow the Eagles’ lead and install solar panels on top of canopies over its many parking lots. Johanson said the agency looked into that option, but the energy savings wouldn’t cover the construction costs, and so the project was deemed financially infeasible.

Johanson said SEPTA hopes to install solar on more rooftops in the coming years. These four were chosen because the facilities were recently renovated, making SEPTA confident that the roofs could handle the solar panel’s extra weight.

In other business, SEPTA’s board adopted its operating and capital budgets. The board also approved a proposed fare increase. Starting July 1st, base transit fares will increase from $2.25 to $2.50 and discounted token or SEPTA Key fares will go up to $2, among other price rises.

SEPTA Deputy General Manager Rich Burnfield reported a strong surplus of $4.3 million in April, credited to budget belt tightening instituted after last summer’s regional rail crisis, which sidelined a third of SEPTA’s commuter trains. The shortage, plus a transit strike in October, caused a large drop in revenues. Despite the strong month, SEPTA is still $13.3 million short of its budget for the fiscal year so far. With just two months left in the fiscal year, SEPTA will likely finish below budget projects, but thanks to a sizeable reserve cash cushion, the agency won’t need to beg Harrisburg to make up the shortfall.

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