A field of solar panels is expected to start sprouting in the next few months in the field behind the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s western regional office in New Stanton.

The microgrid, which will work with a natural gas generator as a backup, is designed to produce electricity to power the 27,000-square-foot office building and two small maintenance garages at the site. Any excess electricity will be sold to West Penn Power.

“We’re just waiting for the solar panels,” said Chris David, the turnpike’s regional facilities manager. “We’re going to produce enough for this location, and the excess will go back to the grid.”

The $3.5 million system is part of the turnpike’s growing effort to use sustainable energy like solar power to run its operations. Crews installed a similar solar field on a hillside along Turnpike Route 66 in Jeannette to power a new facility for the agency’s skilled tradesmen that opened about three months ago.

The commission last week approved a contract for just over $1 million with Westmoreland Electric Service LLC to provide American-made panels. The company wasn’t the lowest bidder, David said, but the overall cost will be less than the low bid because the agency can take advantage of the federal 10% incentive for using American panels under the Biden administration’s infrastructure program.

The agency hasn’t determined how many panels it will need because these panels each will be able to produce 560 watts of electricity annually, which is more than those used in Jeannette. Installation should start by late spring and finish by the end of the year, but the connection to the West Penn grid probably won’t be completed until April 2024.

David said the agency expects the solar field to generate about 2.1 megawatts of electricity annually, just slightly less than the natural gas generator. Like it is doing in Jeannette, the commission will gather excess heat from the generator to heat the buildings at the site.

The commitment to solar power is part of the turnpike’s ongoing sustainability efforts. In its annual sustainability report released last week, the agency said it will expand its use of solar power, fiber optic cable, buried electric transmission lines, pavement that can charge electric vehicles and connected-vehicle technology to reduce its carbon footprint with a goal of becoming the country’s “first sustainable superhighway” by 2040.

One process the agency is pursuing is using excess electricity from solar panels to supply special sections of pavement on the turnpike that will allow electric vehicles to charge their battery while driving over it. It’s developing a demonstration project at the border with the Ohio Turnpike and Utah State University, and working with the University of Pittsburgh to include pavement charging on a section of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, which started construction last month.

In New Stanton, the agency expects to recoup its investment in the solar field in five to seven years. There have been a few startup problems with the gas generator in Jeannette, David said, but that system already is well on its way to producing $450,000 to $650,000 a year through the sale of excess power.

“We are definitely turning the meter in the other direction and generating some revenue,” David said.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.