Renewable energy is energy from naturally replenished sources. Unlike fossil fuels, which are exhaustible, renewable energy can be used again and again. According to the 2019 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, produced each year by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in 2018, 18% of total U.S. electricity was generated from renewable resources. Available sources of renewable energy in Pennsylvania include solar, geothermal, wind, hydropower and biomass. Following is a brief description of each:
Solar is the conversion of sunlight into electricity by either solar photovoltaic (PV) panels or solar thermal systems. Solar PV panels are what you may see on the roof of someone’s house. These panels collect the solar power and convert it directly into electricity using photovoltaic cells. Solar thermal electric systems utilize the sun to heat a liquid, which is then used to produce steam that spins a turbine that is connected to a generator to produce electricity.
Solar thermal electric generation and solar hot water systems are not the same as solar PV systems. Solar PV systems convert sunlight directly into electricity, solar thermal systems concentrate the sunlight to create heat and that heat is used to run an engine, which turns a generator to make electricity. Solar hot water systems collect and convey the sun’s energy to provide domestic hot water; however, a solar PV system is designed to offset someone’s overall electric consumption and can therefore be used as a source of energy for electric hot water heating.
Geothermal energy taps into the heat of the Earth. Geothermal energy that is used to provide heating and cooling for buildings is typically referred to as ground source heat pumps or geoexchange systems. These systems function by circulating a fluid enclosed within a piping system that is buried within the ground. The constant temperature of about 55o F within these relatively shallow systems can provide cooling and limited heating. The more traditional geothermal energy taps into much higher temperatures located miles below the Earth’s surface. Hot water and steam at temperatures of between 100o F to well over 300o F can be used in the production of electricity. Geothermal electricity is currently not a practical option in Pennsylvania.
Wind is used to turn the blades of a wind turbine. This movement drives a shaft that connects to a generator, producing electricity.
Hydropower systems use the movement of water to operate a turbine, creating electricity. Hydropower is currently the largest and among the least expensive source of renewable electricity produced in the United States. Large and small-scale hydropower projects are most commonly used by clean-power generators to produce electricity. Micro-hydropower is very small-scale electricity production that might meet many of the needs of residential customers or small commercial operations that have access to this resource.
Biomass is organic material from plants or animals that can be utilized as a source of energy for heat, electricity and transportation fuels. It can be digested to produce methane, which in turn can be used to generate electricity or burned to simply produce heat or it can be fermented to produce fuels. Biomass should not be mistaken for a clean-energy source; while cleaner than most fossil fuels, it still produces emissions when used for energy production.
As with all forms of energy generation it is important to understand that during the process of planning, various permits and approvals are often needed from state agencies and/or local governments. The PUC does not regulate the generation of electricity or energy but other agencies such as the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will likely require some permitting. To learn more, contact your regional DEP office and speak with your local municipal officials.
Solar energy is increasing in popularity for various reasons. The costs for owning and deploying a solar photovoltaic (PV) electric generating system have declined significantly in the last few years, but these costs are still very real. There are many factors that you should be aware of before committing to owning or installing a solar electric system on your premises. Several resources are available to educate you about solar electric systems. To better inform you about solar energy, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) has compiled a list of Frequently Asked Questions, as well as a fact sheet on Considering a Solar Photovoltaic System?, and other resources.
Benefits of Solar Energy
Solar works just about everywhere. Simply put, if you can see the sun, those rays can be converted to electricity to power your home, business, even your car. Solar power even works on cloudy days, albeit less effectively than on sunny days. Nearly 15,000 Pennsylvanian’s have already installed solar at their homes and businesses and this number is rapidly rising. To understand the basics of what’s involved in a solar electric generating system, go here. To better understand your options for purchasing, leasing and signing a power purchase agreement (PPA) for solar on your home or business, compare the information provided in the chart. Another good resource is the Rooftop Solar Financing 101 video provided by the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA).
Steps to take to pursue Solar Energy further
Step 1: Regardless of whether you’re planning on installing yourself or hiring a solar installer (highly encouraged), contact your electric distribution company (EDC) that provides electric service to your property to understand the process of interconnecting your planned solar project with the distribution network (wires, transformers, etc.) managed by the EDC. EDC Contact List
Step 2: Search for solar installers and get quotes from at least three installers for a PV system sized to meet your needs. For convenience, a list of installers is provided and maintained by the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association. An excellent short video on Selecting a Solar Installer is also provided by CESA.
Step 3: Finally, do your math; understand the costs of the PV system including contractor costs and associated costs to interconnect with the electric distribution system. Once you know the costs, you can begin to calculate the payback. A short video from CESA helps to explain the process of analyzing your payback.
The PUC has compiled many other resources (see below) to assist in your planning. Educate yourself and be a smart consumer.
Residential Consumer Guide to Solar Power – Link to a Residential Consumer Guide to Solar Power developed by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
Homeowners Guide to Solar Financing – Link to a Homeowner’s Guide to Solar Financing, Leases, Loans, and PPA’s developed by CESA and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Buying and Making Electricity - Link to information provided by the U.S. Department of Energy on buying and making electricity.
Planning a Home Solar Electric System - Link to information provided by the U.S. Department of Energy on planning a home solar electric system.
Solar Power for your Home - Link to information provided by the Federal Trade Commission on what you should know about installing solar.
DSIRE - Link to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.
Energy Storage - Link to a short video about solar with battery storage for resiliency of critical infrastructure provided by the Clean Energy Group.
Most wind power development in Pennsylvania has been utility-scale wind farms. Wind farm development in Pennsylvania amounts to almost 1,400 MW of installed capacity. Opportunities for smaller, consumer-owned wind power exists but it is important to understand that wind power is very site selective. The use of existing wind energy maps can serve as a general approximation for wind resources in a given area, but they are no substitute for site-specific measurements. Ideally year-long measurements of wind speed should be monitored to determine the wind energy potential for any given site being considered for placement of a wind turbine. An average annual wind speed of at least 10 MPH should be a key consideration in your site selection for a small wind turbine. More information on wind energy maps and questions to ask if you’re considering wind energy development on your property can be obtained from the websites of Saint Francis University and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.