Only partly sunny? Solar backers say federal action isn’t enough

Public Source
September 6, 2022

Fred Kraybill squinted as he looked out across his patio toward the 40 or so people gathered behind his home in Point Breeze on a warm August evening.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “I’d like to welcome you to the celebration for the Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest climate bill in the history of the United States.”

Polite applause ensued, accompanied by a few whoops and cheers. In the near distance, above a lush garden laden with peppers and lettuce and waist-high rows of green beans, 40 275-watt solar panels protruded into the fading summer sunlight.

Mingling in Kraybill’s yard was a group described by one member as “East End climate hawks” and longtime environmental activists, gathered to celebrate the accomplishment of legislation that could have momentous implications for how we respond to the ever-worsening climate crisis.

At face value, the Inflation Reduction Act [IRA] promises to be a boon to developing renewables in Pennsylvania, where photovoltaics account for just one half of one percent of our statewide energy portfolio. Solar had already become a cost-competitive, market-ready alternative to carbon-sourced power, and the expanded incentives and expected newfound market stability brought by the legislation aim to ensure a solid foundation for the growth of sun-sourced energy.

But even as activists celebrate the landmark bill and local developers scramble to meet surging demand, experts say that state policies — or a lack thereof — are preventing Pennsylvanians from fully taking advantage of the IRA’s substantial incentives and could cause the state’s already lagging solar development to fall further behind.

Later, at the edge of the patio, solar consultant Greg Winks addressed the crowd: “What we lack, still — and this is our next battle for all you activists — we need to get Pennsylvania legislation to change.”

Eight days earlier, President Joe Biden signed the landmark bill, which contained in its 273 pages sweeping (if not comprehensive) policies aimed at reducing our nation’s carbon footprint. Part of that effort is supporting a buildout of renewable energy sources, including solar. The bill includes new incentives aimed at increasing the number of homes, businesses and institutions around the country that draw power from the sun.

The White House projects an additional 610,000 Pennsylvania households will install rooftop solar panels as a result of the new legislation. But solar advocates say anemic state solar power targets and an absence of rules for community solar arrangements could dampen that forecast.

Business is booming

By the time Ian Smith took the microphone, the sun had sunk lower in the sky and he was the only person at the party still bathed in golden-hour sunlight. “The spotlight is perfect,” he said, chuckling, before focusing on what the new legislation could mean for solar development in Pennsylvania.

“We’ve got new legislation that, more than anything, gives us stability,” said the local solar developer.

Before the new law passed, incentives from the 2005 Solar Investment Tax Credit were set to drop in January and expire completely a year later.

Smith was scrambling to complete as many projects as possible, and he had a waiting list of potential customers hoping to take advantage of the incentives before they dropped. “I just can’t get a rest,” he said.

With the passage of the IRA, though, a new 30% federal residential tax credit will extend for 10 years, and there are new, similar incentives for commercial projects and battery storage.

“It seemed like solar was already growing a lot,” said Smith. It was hard to tell, though, if the growth he was seeing was because people wanted to get in on the incentives or if it was because solar was “just becoming more mainstream.” With the new legislation, he said, it doesn’t matter. “Solar is definitely just going to continue to grow.”

Smith has worked in Pittsburgh’s solar industry for over a decade. Now he works with Energy Independent Solutions (EIS), which earlier this year completed a large installation at the Pittsburgh International Airport and claims 110 ongoing local projects across residential, commercial, agricultural and nonprofit sectors.

Puttering state policy

Winks, a consumer-side consultant and co-founder of South Hills-based Solbridge Energy Advisors, told those gathered in Kraybill’s backyard that state standards for solar need to be raised.

“Right now, the generation companies in Pennsylvania are only required to have one half a percent of their generation coming from solar energy,” he said. “One half of 1%. That’s just embarrassing.”

The Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) is a law passed in 2004 that sets statewide goals for how much of our electricity is generated from alternative sources, including solar. Currently, Pennsylvania’s goal for renewable energy sits at 8%, and for solar production, 0.5%. Just last year, said Matt Mahoney, the director of government affairs at the PA Solar Center, Pennsylvania finally reached that solar goal.

“Now what happens?” he posed, in an interview. “It just stays at 0.5%. We basically flatlined in Pennsylvania for solar growth.”

Nearby, other states have much higher ambitions when it comes to advancing renewable energy development. By 2030, Virginia will source 30% of its electricity from renewable sources. New Jersey? 50%. In New York, legislators passed a goal of 70%, and in Maryland they’re planning to be 100% renewable by 2040.

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