Prospects for solar power brighten

Not many people confuse Western Pennsylvania with the Valley of the Sun, the Sunshine State or any geographic moniker that boasts how bright it is.

In fact, Pittsburgh is downright dark at times. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports the Steel City is cloudy more days than not — more than 200 days each year.

But solar energy is an increasingly viable source of electricity in Western Pennsylvania, and now consumers can purchase plans completely generated by solar power.

Green Mountain Energy, a competitive, renewable electricity supplier headquartered in Austin, Texas, recently introduced a new plan to customers in Pennsylvania and New York that will allow them to buy 100 percent solar energy, a first for Pennsylvania consumers.

The plan is available to customers for 11.4 cents per kilowatt hour. By comparison, heading into June, Duquesne Light charged its customers 6.59 cents per kilowatt hour and West Penn Power charged 4.9 cents per kilowatt hour. 

The Green Mountain offering comes as solar power gains favor among Americans. A Gallup poll last year revealed 76 percent believed the United States should put more emphasis on developing solar power, the highest percentage for any energy source.

“I think the people are speaking, and more and more people want to have access to the tech,” said Sharon Pillar, president of Solar Unified Network of Western Pennsylvania, or SunWPA, a local coalition of solar energy advocates.

Electricity that runs through Valley Forge-based regional grid operator PJM is, like money in your wallet, fungible. For every kilowatt used by Green Mountain Energy subscribers with the 100 percent solar plan, the company will contribute that much energy to the grid. The solar electricity being generated will come from a number of facilities throughout the country.

Part of Green Mountain Energy’s “SolarSPARC 100” plan is a commitment to build local solar farms. For each customer who signs up, the company will invest $4 each month toward construction of a solar project in Pennsylvania or New York. The company plans to build two solar projects each year, the size and scope depending on the number of customers.

“Our goal as a company is to maximize the size and the number of these facilities, which means we have to do our job to market and sell the products,” said Jason Sears, senior manager of product development and strategy for Green Mountain Energy.

Customers also will receive $11 in credits annually for each project funded, which they can choose to reinvest in other solar projects.

Renewable energy has readily been available in Pennsylvania; Green Mountain also sells wind power, and a number of other companies — including Ethical Electric, Ambit Energy and Community Energy — offer 100 percent renewable energy.

Like Green Mountain Energy’s new SolarSPARC 100 plan, most renewable energy options are more expensive than other forms of electricity. The power generation portion of an electricity bill accounts for about half of the total bill. 

The availability is a product of Pennsylvania’s deregulated energy marketplace, which allows electric suppliers to offer a variety of services to consumers.

It’s not just in Pennsylvania that solar is growing in popularity. It’s also on Pennsylvania Avenue, where — 28 years after President Ronald Reagan removed solar panels from the White House roof — President Barack Obama installed new ones, a project that finished last month.

The Energy Information Administration projects solar power generation will increase to 25.7 billion kilowatt hours in 2014, more than double the 11.5 billion kilowatt hours generated in 2012. In 2000, solar power accounted for 490 million kilowatt hours.

“We’re standing at this place in history where we are witnessing this change in our energy paradigm,” Ms. Pillar said. “We’re entering this new place where there are choices for energy. And people have now a say in their energy and how they want it produced.”

By 2040, solar power is expected to generate 86.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, according to the EIA.

There are several reasons for the growth, Ms. Pillar said. States, including Pennsylvania, have introduced alternative energy standards that have required utilities and other electricity providers to purchase certain amounts of solar power generation. Tax credits have also influenced more consumers to build solar panels, and some of that power generated is being returned to the grid.

The cost of solar power also has decreased by more than 50 percent in the past 10 years.

Ms. Pillar hopes more people will adopt solar power, whether on their roof or through programs like the kind Green Mountain Energy is offering. SunWPA will play host to the inaugural Allegheny Solar Fest on June 21 — the summer solstice — the Millvale Riverfront Park.

“The perception is that solar doesn’t work,” she said. “We’re just trying to show that’s not accurate.”

Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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