Solar energy shines in the City

By Emily Drzymalski, Staff Writer

Renewable energy in Pennsylvania has a cloudy past. But the future of the state’s solar energy pursuits is bright — and Pitt plans to contribute, projecting that 50 percent of its energy will come from solar and other renewable sources by 2030.  

But Pennsylvania will undertake its solar project first. As a result of a two-year award of $550,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sunshot Program, the Commonwealth plans to reduce solar energy costs by 50 percent from 2020 to 2030 in a project called “Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future.”

“Sunlight is [a] plentiful source of energy,” Paul Leu, a Pitt associate professor of engineering, said in an email about the importance of solar power. “More energy from sunlight hits the earth’s surface in one hour than all of humanity uses in one year.”

According to Leu, harvesting solar energy is simple. But factors such as accessibility and cost prevent many people from embracing solar.

“Solar cells absorbs [sic] sunlight. The absorbed sunlight [creates] charged carriers that separate and create DC current flow. An inverter converts the DC electricity to AC electricity, which you can use [in] your house,” Leu said.

But according to Solar Power Authority, the cost of installing solar panels was between $7 and $9 per watt, meaning installing a standard five-kilowatt system, which can produce up to 850 kilowatt hours of AC power per month, could cost between $25,000-$35,000. The average American household uses more than 800 kilowatt hours per month, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“[The] biggest obstacle is probably the economics of people purchasing solar,” Leu said in an email. “Obstacles in PA are low electricity prices, limited state support for solar, the decreasing federal solar tax credit, and not as much sunshine.”

According to Pennsylvania Solar Energy Industries Association, Pennsylvania is currently ranked 22nd in the country for solar energy, with 0.2 percent of electricity from solar. In the next five years, Pennsylvania’s solar consumption is projected to grow by 567 milliwatts. Leu is hopeful that the 10 percent increase will help Pennsylvania rise from its 22nd ranking, putting it toward the forefront of solar energy.

A report from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said there could be a benefit of $1.6 billion from 2018 to 2030 annually in-state if the 10 percent goal is met. In an email written by Ellie Cadden, a junior environmental studies major, on behalf of the Student Office of Sustainability, she explained what the benefits and importance of solar energy are.

“Sustainable energy practices are crucial for the transition from our dependence on fossil fuels. Overwhelming evidence suggests the immense benefit from renewable energy production, including job creation and of course, reducing our carbon emissions as much as possible,” Cadden said.

Although the solar energy increase is a government-funded project, there are still many obstacles. Aurora Sharrard, Pitt’s director of sustainability, said solar energy is difficult to market because the process of obtaining renewable energy certificates from the Environmental Protection Agency can be difficult.

“A renewable energy certificate … represents the property rights to the environmental, social and other non-power attributes of renewable electricity generation,” the EPA’s guidelines say. “RECs are issued when one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity is generated and delivered to the electricity grid from a renewable energy resource.”

Solar energy is a renewable resource, but solar panels are not. The process of mining rare earth metals needed for the panels can be detrimental to the environment — polluting water supplies through mining runoff, for example. And because solar panels have a defined lifespan, replacing them can be challenging.

“A lot of other states are currently focused on what happens to solar panels at the end of their life because they have installations that have been up for their full lifetime — being 20 to 30 years — so they’re looking at how to do that at scale,” Sharrard said. “There are definitely overall lifecycle impacts that need to be considered.”

As a campus, Pitt is planning to include more renewable energy. According to Sharrard, Pitt plans to produce and procure about 50 percent of electricity on campus by renewables.

In addition, Pitt signed a letter of intent to purchase 100 percent of energy from a low-impact hydroelectric power plant last week. The plant is not yet built, but is projected to start running in 2020 and will supply an estimated 25 percent of Pitt’s power — meaning between solar and hydroelectricity, Pitt could meet its 50 percent goal.

“Climate change is the environmental challenge of our generation,” Sharrard said. “And renewables have to be a solution to not just mitigating climate change, but actually slowing down greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.”