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Democratizing solar energy in Pennsylvania

Chrissy Suttles
May 19, 2024
Pennsylvania recently hit a milestone years in the making: One gigawatt of solar energy capacity — enough to power nearly every household in Beaver and Butler counties. 
The number of new solar projects in Pennsylvania grew by 160% in the past five years, and solar generation is among the nation’s fastest-growing electricity sources. Still, solar is responsible for less than 1% of the state’s net electricity generation.
Pennsylvanians who rent, live in multi-tenant buildings or have roofs unable to host solar panels are often shut out of solar adoption and the benefits of affordable, green energy. Others — those who would benefit most from reduced electric bills — face financial barriers related to the upfront costs associated with home solar systems.
Nearly 50% of households and businesses nationwide are unable to host rooftop solar systems, according to an analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. As many as 25% of households in Beaver County rent and roughly 10% of Beaver Countians are experiencing poverty. 
Enter community solar. 
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Community solar projects are often privately funded offsite facilities that generate electricity for several properties. Customers subscribe to a portion of the energy generated by a solar array in their utility's footprint and earn credits to lower their monthly electric bill. 
The solar systems can be built on brownfields, reclaimed mining lands, warehouse roofs, parking lots, generational farmland and more. They can be owned by nonprofits, third-party solar developers, or, in some places, a group of neighbors. 
This democratizes solar energy, supporters say, allowing anyone to reduce their electricity bills, lower some maintenance costs, help diversify their community’s energy portfolio and take an active role in their region’s resilience. The move to solar, for example, can reduce air pollution and promote better long-term public health outcomes. 
At least 24 states have passed legislation explicitly authorizing and/or regulating community solar development. Pennsylvania is not yet among them. 
In late March, the Pennsylvania House passed the Community Solar Act, House Bill 1842, for Senate consideration even as similar legislation in years’ past stalled in committee. 
State Reps. Rob Matzie, D-16, Harmony Township, and Peter Schweyer, D-134, Lehigh County, introduced the Community Solar Act with the support of two dozen bipartisan co-sponsors late last year. 
The bill would allow for the creation, financing, accessibility and operation of third-party-owned community solar generating facilities, “but not on the backs of ratepayers who choose not to opt in.” 
It calls for a regulatory framework and prevailing construction wage for building community solar facilities. The legislation, more narrowly focused on community solar than previous bills, appears to have more support from utilities due to amended language that further protects consumers from rate increases. 
“We introduced community solar to bring home the many benefits – new jobs, new energy savings for residents, new economic opportunities for farmers and other landowners – while broadening the state’s energy portfolio,” Matzie said. “But we also drafted this legislation with an eye toward protecting consumers and ratepayers who don’t participate.”
The bill’s sponsors say historic levels of federal funding available to the state through the Inflation Reduction Act can be used to subsidize community solar development. They believe it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand economic access to energy alternatives while boosting job growth and building grid resilience. It’s still unclear whether the bill will see similar support in the Pennsylvania Senate.
“The idea is to provide a mechanism for targeted solar projects in communities that want them,” said Schweyer. “People subscribe, save money and the grid benefits. What’s not to like?”
In 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a new National Community Solar Partnership target to enable community solar systems to power the equivalent of five million households by 2025 and create $1 billion in energy bill savings. 
Community solar can support local workforce development and be a source of property tax revenue. In Hoboken, New Jersey, savings generated from a community solar program are put into a sustainability project fund to be decided on by housing authority residents.​
Proponents say community solar also offers an opportunity for Pennsylvania farmers to secure year-round economic stability by leasing a portion of their land for community solar development. 
An analysis from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences’ Center for Economic and Community Development estimates that the construction of new community solar facilities in Pennsylvania would generate an estimated $1.8 billion in economic impact and create nearly 12,000 jobs. The research projected that these facilities would generate over $83 million in economic output annually and generate an additional $575,000 in annual real property taxes counties. 
At a Feb. 14 Pennsylvania House Consumer Protection, Technology and Utilities Committee hearing, Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council president Robert Bair endorsed the Community Solar Act, calling the move a “tremendous priority for the trades.”
“Every single person in this room is well aware of the default rate energy prices that have been seen over the course of the last several years,” Bair said in his testimony. “Your bills have gone up, your constituents' bills have gone up and our baseload generation has been reduced. Community solar seeks to add to that very baseload generation by providing an option, not a mandate, across each utility service territory in the commonwealth.”
“Community solar works in Republican states, it works in Democratic states and it works in purple states,” he added. 
Beaver County has seen more growth and interest in solar power in recent years. A newly operational utility-scale solar facility in Greene Township near Beaver Valley Power Station is expected to support hundreds of thousands of low-income households with utility assistance in the coming decades.
Pittsburgh-based Four Twelve Renewables celebrated its inaugural solar facility, BE Pine, last year. The solar farm is comprised of 98,000 bifacial solar panels estimated to generate approximately 66 million kilowatt hours of electricity. 
The initiative is projected to provide 250,000 households with $75 million in utility assistance over 35 years through a partnership with Dollar Energy Fund and its participating utilities, which will match those funds.
Recent federal investment aimed at boosting solar adoption is expected to drive significantly more growth. Gov. Josh Shaprio in April pledged to receive half of the government's electricity from solar power by next year via 10 new solar arrays — a commitment among the first of its kind. 
Billions of dollars in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act funding, which represent the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation's history, are now available for clean energy initiatives.
Earlier this year, Pennsylvania was awarded more than $156 million in federal funding to deliver affordable, reliable solar power to low-income Pennsylvanians and environmental justice communities.
This is critical in former steel towns like those in Beaver County, where energy diversification and access means long-term viability, backers say. Beaver County is far behind in solar adoption, with 8.9 megawatts of installed solar capacity.
Channeling this unmatched stream of federal funding into Beaver County will require collaboration among grassroots organizations, government leaders and private residents. 
One effort to help guide the transition to solar in Beaver County is a nonprofit partnership called the Rural Innovation through Solar Empowerment, or RISE, which focuses on historically underserved areas.
The partnership involving RiverWise, Pennsylvania Solar Center and New Sun Rising is identifying prospective energy projects in rural Beaver County, offering technical support from feasibility to finance with the goal of placing at least 10 projects out to bid. 
Recent trends suggest it’s one of many initiatives to come.
Follow along for Chrissy's next article about solar: Unprecedented federal and state investments in environmental justice are reshaping Beaver County — strengthening its resilience. How organizations are making the most of this historic funding and what’s next.