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Solar co-op information presented in Peters Township

Air conditioning is a great way to beat the summer heat, until the electric bill arrives.

Henry McKay has a way to help avoid that kind of sticker shock.

“Solar keeps getting cheaper,” he told a group gathered recently at Peters Township Public Library. “It is no longer this specialty boutique product that people only do purely for kind of environmental goodwill. People are doing it because they want to save money.”

McKay is the Pennsylvania program director for Solar United Neighbors, and he provided information about the nationwide nonprofit’s system of cooperatives for people who consider giving a different source of energy a try.

Even in this neck of the woods.

“We get more than enough sun for solar to work in Pennsylvania,” McKay said. “We are sunnier than Germany is. Germany has a lot more solar installed than we do.”

For interested homeowners in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties, Solar United Neighbors is in the process of establishing a Mon/Yough Solar Co-Op, which can assist residents in purchasing the necessary materials, with silicon-laden photovoltaic solar panels at the forefront.

“This is a way to often save money,” McKay said. “You can often get a better price through the co-op than you could get individually.”

After nearly 20 to 30 property owners join a co-op, he said, the group drafts a request for proposals and sends it to solar installers in the area, requesting a group rate to apply to all members. A co-op selection committee subsequently reviews the bids and makes a decision, with a Solar United Neighbors staff member assisting in the process.

“We work hard to grow the co-op as large as we can, but there is a signup deadline, after which no one else can join,” McKay said. “In the meantime, that installer is contacting everyone in the co-op, coming out and doing a site visit and doing a customized proposal for you based on your budget, your preferences, your specific home, your energy needs, but all at that group pricing deal.”

The entire process takes about eight to 10 months, according to McKay.

“The installation, itself, is usually a couple of days,” he said. “It’s fairly quick, but there’s a lot of waiting involved. You’re waiting for your permit from local government. You’re waiting for your interconnection permission from the utility.”

McKay said power companies make provisions for net metering, by which energy generated by solar panels is subtracted from the amount of energy the company provides.

“You’re just being billed on what you’ve used minus whatever you’ve produced,” he said. “All the big investor-owned utilities, like West Penn and Duquesne Light, are required to do it. It is a right for you, as a customer if those utilities, to have net metering when you go solar.”

The hope, of course, is investing in the alternative energy source results in paying less for power in the long run.

“When you’re going solar, you’re prepaying 25 years of kilowatt hours, 25 years of electricity,” McKay said with regard to the estimated effective life of a solar panel array. “You’re just buying it all up front with your solar system. So you’re essentially making a bet that electricity will either stay the same or increase in price, which is a really good bet.”

Adding to the savings component is a federal tax credit, which for 2019 is 30% of the cost of the solar installation. Legislation, though, calls for the credit to drop to 26% in 2020 and 22% the following year. From 2022 onward, no federal credit for residential solar energy systems will be available if the legislation passes.

An objective of Solar United Neighbors is to continue to keep its members updated about such considerations.

“Once we help you go solar, we don’t just walk away and end the relationship with you,” McKay said. “We connect you into this broader solar movement in Pennsylvania and nationally, and we help you stay up-to-date on changes in technology, changes in policy and related technologies.”

Membership in the Washington, D.C.-based organization is free for co-op participants during the first year. Individuals can join for $85.

“We will help you go solar on your own timeline, your own pace, when and how you want to do it,” McKay said. “We’ll help you review bids. We’ll help you make the decision about going solar in a more informed way.”

His presentation in Peters Township focused on applicable homeowners joining the Mon/Yough Solar Co-op, which is accepting new signups through Sept. 30, according to the Solar United Neighbors website. Signing up does not obligate anyone to commit to a solar installation.

For those who live to the north, the Allegheny County Solar Co-Op is into its second round of recruiting participants. The first group selected Envinity Inc. of State College as installer through an open and competitive bidding process, and installations are in progress.

Many homeowners opt to have solar panels placed on their roofs, but ground mounting also is available, usually at a higher price, according to McKay.

“The advantage of ground mount is you can get them facing just the right direction,” he said, adding they offer a better opportunity for temperature optimization. “Solar panels work better when they’re cooler. This is one advantage we have over places like Arizona or New Mexico. When the solar panels get too hot, their efficiency goes down.”

He offered some ideal conditions for placement of solar arrays: facing due south under no shade, and with at least 250 square feet of contiguous space.

“We get enough sun for solar to yield you a profit if you have an appropriate property for it,” McKay said.

“The physical climate of an area matters much less than the policy environment. We have great net metering. That is what makes it possible for people to get a good return on their solar investment here.”

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Peters Township, North Strabane residents continue efforts to save lake

From the back of his Waterside Drive home in Peters Township, Tim Silbaugh has a premium view of Canonsburg Lake.

In his line of sight these days is what has become an island.

“That was barely an island with small bushes on it three years ago, and now you can see there are trees that look like they’re 20 feet high,” he said. “On the other side of it, it used to be lake, and now it’s pretty much marsh.”

Kim Rosser, who lives in North Strabane Township along the other side of the lake, made a similar observation.

“My husband and I moved here about seven years ago, and we started kayaking on it. We used to kayak the opposite side,” she said about the channel to which Silbaugh referred, “which I don’t think you can do now.”

Rosser and Silbaugh serve on the board of the Canonsburg Lake Restoration and Improvement Association, which has been incorporated as a nonprofit for purposes the group’s name makes evident.

Efforts to save the lake from growing amounts of silt and debris date back nearly 20 years, when North Strabane resident Debra Valentino circulated a petition and collected more than 300 signatures from people who favored restoration.

Since then, a few improvements have been made, such as the 2016 construction of a sediment forebay and rock weir, designed to slow water and facilitate the gravity separation of suspended solids. Undertaking the project was Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which has been responsible for management of the lake since 1958.

But overall, the 76-acre body of water, formed from Little Chartiers Creek by the construction of Canonsburg Lake Dam during World War II, continues to be susceptible to silt collection. And Silbaugh, who chairs the association’s board, warned about the ramifications.

“With the lake disappearing, then the ecosystem just isn’t supported. And as the southern part of the lake fills up, the silt is going to go into the northern part of the lake. It already is, but now you can’t see it,” he said. “It won’t be too many years until you’ll be able to see it accumulating there, and then the northern part of the lake will disappear.”

Members of the association are working on preventive measures.

“Our first goal is to identify how much silt is there and then identify how quickly it’s accumulating, and what we might be able to do with it based on the quality of the silt: whether it can be used in normal circumstances or it has to go to a special landfill,” Silbaugh said. “And then once we’ve done that, we can determine what the cost would be to remove the silt.”

Another consideration, he said, is the Fish and Boat Commission’s upstream installation.

“We need to determine what capacity needs to be in the forebay – how deep it needs to be, how long it needs to be, the width of it, the capacity of it – so it can then function properly with the weir,” he said.

The longer term optimally would feature a comprehensive project.

“It’s going to have to be done methodically,” Rosser said. “You can’t dredge it out unless you can stop the silt process, and you can’t stop the silt process unless you can develop some type of maintenance program on the existing collection of the silt. It’s like a domino effect.”

Such pursuits, of course, are costly. The association has some money in reserve, and members are seeking grants, donations and other sources of revenue toward efforts that would run well into seven figures.

One avenue the group could pursue addresses flood control, which has become a major consideration among communities downstream along Chartiers Creek.

“The engineers advised us that when the capacity of the lake is increased by removing the silt, then that will reduce the flooding,” Silbaugh said. “It will hold more water back from flowing so quickly when there’s a storm.”

Association members also are looking for local champions who would like to help rehabilitate a major Washington County asset.

“A big financial commitment would really move this whole project along,” Rosser said.

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Veteran helps students transition from military to college life

In the time between graduating from South Park High School and enrolling at Robert Morris University, David Ausman served in the U.S. Marine Corps, including two tours of duty in Somalia.

His transition from the military to civilian life to being a college student turned out to be somewhat overwhelming.

“I couldn’t connect to the fellow students,” he said. “I couldn’t connect to my professors. You’re telling me about the real world? Now, let me tell you about the real world.”

Between classes, he’d relax in a wooded area next to campus.

“I’m an outdoorsman,” Ausman told members of the McMurray Rotary Club. “That’s where I felt comfortable.”

Today, he helps students in similar situations feel comfortable through his position as director of Robert Morris’ Center for Veterans and Military Families, which he discussed as guest speaker at a recent Rotary meeting in Peters Township.

The center’s primary role, he said, is to administer GI Bill benefits for qualifying students. But a main focus is also to provide support services on a variety of levels, including the transitional component.

“They do have some challenges. They often are older than other students, so there’s an age disconnection,” Ausman said. “There’s a disconnection when it comes to life experiences. You have students who maybe just want to party, and the veterans just want to get their degrees.”

Most of the students served by the center live off-campus, and many are married and parents. Some have disabilities in connection with their service in the military.

And many can use guidance when it comes to college-related finances.

“There could be difficulty using benefits or lack of knowledge of how to get benefits,” Ausman said.

Members of his staff help ensure that students receive what they’re entitled to through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides education benefits for those who have served on active duty for 90 or more days after Sept. 10, 2001. Students also may qualify for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Yellow Ribbon program, which can bridge the gap between what the GI Bill pays and the actual tuition.

“We have students getting up to their doctoral degree completely free, never having to pay us a dime,” Ausman said.

The Center for Veterans and Military Families began a decade ago as a 1,200-square-foot “home away from home” for applicable students. Since then, the center has grown to nearly 5,000 square feet, offering recreational and study areas, a computer lab, conference room and kitchen, all accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Nothing like that existed at Robert Morris, or at practically any other campus, when Ausman attended prior to earning his degree in 2000. He went to work for the university shortly after in the accounting department, and he later served for 10 years as staff adviser to student veterans program.

When longtime director of veterans education and training services director Daniel Rota retired earlier this year, Ausman quickly accepted the offer to succeed him and lead the Center for Veterans and Military Families.

“Now, I have a place to make sure that no other student goes through what I went through,” he said. “My office actually overlooks the woods where I used to sit, so I feel like I’ve come home.”

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