Harnessing Renewable Energy
SU Alumni on the Cutting Edge
FOUNDED AFTER WORLD WAR II by Kathy’s father, John J. “Sonny” Kovatch, the Kovatch Organization is one of the country’s largest manufacturers of custom-built fire trucks and other fire apparatus. Its other business lines—making and selling fuel tanker trucks for military and civilian use, truck fleet sales and several Nesquehoning auto and truck dealerships—also depend, ultimately, on fossil fuels. But the solar park is the latest chapter in the Kovatch family’s efforts to keep the aptly named Carbon County at the forefront of energy production.
In the early 1990s, about the same time the Reamans met while juniors at Susquehanna, the Panther Creek Energy Project, an electric generating plant fired by anthracite coal refuse, began operating a half-mile west of the planned solar energy site. Like the solar site, it too is situated on some of the 6,000 acres Kathy’s father purchased from the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co. between the early 1960s and 1990. Dating back to the early 1800s, that company’s legacy included tons of black, dusty culm—the coal mining waste now firing the clean-burning coal technology power plant. As the plant cleared culm off area hillsides, including where the solar field will be established, a tributary of the nearby Lehigh River that locals once dubbed “Black Creek” began running clear. Now Nesquehoning Creek, which flows near the home in which Ric and Kathy live with their three young daughters, is a state-designated “exceptional value” stream so clean that trout swim in it.
“The coal industry really left its mark on Carbon County,” says Kathy Reaman, who majored in business administration with an operations management emphasis and earned her M.B.A. from Moravian College. Now the human resources systems administrator for Kovatch, which employs 800 people, she adds, “Becoming a leader in alternative energy and bringing solar energy to the county, which was always based on coal, is an exciting change.” The facility’s control center also will function as an education center for both students and green energy workers.
“We do get a significant amount of sunlight in Pennsylvania—about 1,600 hours annually, slightly less than New Jersey,” says John F. Curtis III, president and CEO of Green Energy Capital Partners LLC, the Conshohocken, Pa., developers of the solar project. He was attracted to the project by the 30- to 50-year lease with Kovatch; ready access to two utility power grids; the recent passage of a state bill establishing a $165 million renewable energy fund, which Curtis believes makes Pennsylvania the second most friendliest renewable energy state; and the recent extension of federal renewable energy tax credits.
“This will be the premier solar project in the country,” boasts Curtis. “It’s only the second in the country to use dual-axis trackers, and it’s five times larger than the first one in California.”
Ric, the Kovatch Organization’s vice president and chief financial officer, who majored in both accounting and business administration, thinks this could be just the beginning. If the project succeeds, he believes the company would quickly lease another 100-plus acres for a second solar field. He’s also exploring wind energy possibilities.
“It’s exciting to be on the ground floor of something that will benefit our children and grandchildren,” he says. “With the impact that oil has on our economy, there are a lot of benefits in being able to have such an alternative energy source available for the future. And this is the first of many of these things we’ll see coming on line. Fifteen to 20 years from now, people will be saying, ‘Oil? What’s that stuff?’”
"I'M A FIRM BELIEVER that we are transitioning from a petroleum society to a new renewable energy society,” says Weisbrich, the ’74 graduate now living in Dallas. “It’s going to take a couple decades, but clearly we need to go there for a variety of reasons.
“Politically and economically, why send all this phenomenal distribution of wealth (in fuel revenues) from this country overseas? And while I don’t agree that global warming is exclusively manmade, we can all agree a great deal of pollution is associated with hydrocarbons.”
Weisbrich, who earned a master’s degree in geology and geophysics from Boston College, is a traditional oil-and-gas exploration geologist. His company, Midnight Oil, explores for oil and gas and advises investors on such projects. Ten years ago, however, he and his brother, Alfred, teamed up to form two related companies to promote Alfred’s WARP™ concept.
The Weisbrich brothers, who emigrated with their parents from West Germany in the late 1950s, grew up in Tarrytown, N.Y. Alfred Weisbrich , who is six years older, earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y. Gunther Weisbrich attended Susquehanna, where, he says, “In geology we were always taught to look at things differently. There are always different ways to interpret data, and, therefore, different answers—some better than others—come about.”