Pennsylvania’s growing solar sector is fighting legislative headwinds
Despite legislative gridlock, Pennsylvania’s solar industry is expanding apace with over 13GW of planned solar capacity in the pipeline.
Clean energy jobs have been growing at 8.7% per annum in recent years, and 33 Pennsylvania counties each have more planned solar capacity than the whole state currently has.
Advocates are pushing for 10% solar by 2030 and 18% renewables by 2025.
Solar power has long faced skepticism in the United States, as cheaper, more efficient fossil fuel alternatives, nuclear, and hydro power all out-competed solar for decades. In recent years, the changing economies of scale, environmental concerns, and technological advances have made solar a competitive alternative to traditional energy sources.
Unfortunately, the US has continued to lag behind other countries in terms of solar power capacity.
In 2019, solar power accounted for 2.8% of U.S. energy production, compared to China (3.9%), Japan (7.6%), and Germany (8.6%), according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Even the perpetually rainy and foggy UK (which has a lower photovoltaic potential than almost everywhere in the continental US) generates 4% of its energy from solar.
These countries’ success poke holes in the arguments made by solar skeptics that coal country states like Pennsylvania do not get enough sun for solar to be viable. Pennsylvania has a higher photovoltaic potential than most of Europe, comparable to places like Italy or Greece.
The U.S.’ lack of solar investment is a double shame as it was an American, Charles Fritts, who created the first commercial solar panel in 1881, and New York City was home to the first rooftop solar installation in the world in 1884.
Where does solar in Pennsylvania stand right now?
Fortunately, there are signs that the solar sector in Pennsylvania (and other states) has hit a tipping point, but government efforts still lag behind private sector trends.
The Pennsylvania government is currently working based on the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act which was adopted in 2004 and calls for renewables to make up 8% of the state’s (0.5% of which is to be solar).
While the state is on track to surpass this target, these goals are paltry compared to neighboring states: both New Jersey and Maryland have committed to 30% renewables by 2030. A 2019 bill (SB 600) calling for 30% renewable energy (10% solar) by 2030 died in the legislature following sustained lobbying efforts, and the COVID-19 pandemic has largely sidelined further discussion.
“Pennsylvania has a higher photovoltaic potential than most of Europe, comparable to places like Italy or Greece.”
Electricity accounts for 33% of all emissions in Pennsylvania, so reducing the grid’s carbon intensity is a vital step in the state’s efforts to combat climate change. Advocates like Renewables Work for PA are pushing for renewables to make up 18% of the state’s generation mix by 2025.
Speaking on behalf of Renewables Works for PA, Sharon Pillar says that “[solar companies] are not rushing to Pennsylvania because our policies are not going to make those projects work as easily.”
Similarly, Pennsylvania’s solar trade association (PASEIA) calls for the state to reach 6GW of solar capacity (including roughly 2GW in distributed solar) by 2025. PASEIA’s proposal would see solar make up 5.5% of the Keystone State’s energy mix.
The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has also come out with a report outlining how Pennsylvania could reach the 10% solar power goal. Doing so would require 10-12 GW worth of new solar capacity over 12 years (starting from 2017).
Responding to claims by critics that 10% is too ambitious, the DEP has stated that “[Pennsylvania] has the potential for considerably more than the 10 percent goal modeled, but […] and increase to 10 percent by 2030 would require a significant ramp-up of deployments.”
State of the market in 2021
Despite legislative gridlock, there are signs that solar investment is starting to pour into the Keystone State. It makes sense for multi-million solar companies to place a few early bets and site some projects in a region like Pennsylvania where they know development is set to gain momentum in a few years, explains Colin Smith, senior solar analyst at Wood MacKenzie.
For those touting solar (and renewables in general) as a way for post-pandemic economic recovery, this is good news. Between 2017-19 clean energy jobs were among the fastest-growing in Pennsylvania, registering a growth rate of 8.7% (or 7,800 jobs) while the statewide average stood at 1.9%.
During that same period, jobs in coal, natural gas, and nuclear decreased by 3.3%, 7.4%, and 4.5%, respectively. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has also announced that ‘solar installer’ is the fastest-growing occupation in the U.S. between 2016-2026.
“33 counties each have more planned [solar] capacity in the works than the entire state currently sports.”
Moreover, the state lost 55,000 energy jobs (including 21,000 clean energy jobs) due to the COVID-19 pandemic as of April 2020. Before the pandemic, Pennsylvania’s solar sector growth was outpacing the national average (down 1.2%), with solar generation growing by 8.3% (or 396 jobs) between 2017-2019.
The DEP forecasts that the state’s potential to increase grid-scale solar economically 3,687% from 2015 to 2050.
These numbers are encouraging, but even small gains can make for impressive statistics when you are starting from such a low point. A better way to look at the state of Pennsylvania’s solar sector is to look at the number of solar projects under construction or in the approval pipeline.
In December 2020, there was only 111.8MW worth of active solar capacity in Pennsylvania, with just four counties home to solar projects. In February 2020, there was 4.8GW in solar projects in the PJM interconnection approval queue. Fast forward to December 2020, and that number has jumped to over 13GW of pending projects.
Interested parties added 200 projects during 2020 alone, and while not all proposals will ultimately be realized, these numbers clearly show the interest in solar in Pennsylvania. Even if half or a third of the proposals eventually come online, that is already a big step towards the DEP’s 10-12GW needed for 10% solar.
As things stand, all but 13 counties in Pennsylvania have planned solar projects, and 33 counties each have more planned capacity in the works than the entire state currently sports.
Mercer County leads the way with 1,029.9MW worth of planned capacity, and other counties with more than 500MW planned include; Erie, Crawford, Laurence, McKean, Montour, Clearfield, and Franklin. Ironically, even Carbon County has 60MW of solar in the works.