Ron Berman went totally solar a half-dozen years ago, and while he isn’t walking on sunshine, he is riding on it.
“Solar energy produces 100 percent of our electricity and there’s enough left over to power the car,” said Berman, a Bentleyville retiree and owner of an electric car.
“I went to the barbershop and a gentleman started to look at the car. I threw the keys to him and said, ‘Take it for a ride.’ He drove it and gushed afterward about how quiet and quick they are.”
Using electricity for his car, Berman said, costs about one-third what he would pay for gasoline. That ratio may rise along with petrol prices.
Although the installation of photovoltaic solar panels set him back $30,000, his system is paying off in a number of ways. His electric supply company pays Berman for electricity his panels produce that he does not use, and he gets a 30 percent credit on his federal taxes for having installed the system.
Those are but a couple of benefits of solar energy, a renewable power source that is clean, natural and in seemingly inexhaustible supply. Once largely ignored in the United States because of the high cost of implementation, solar has become more affordable and has been gaining momentum in recent years. In 2017, energy from the sun accounted for 30 percent of new electric generating capacity and provided 250,000 Americans with jobs, twice the number who were employed in that sector in 2012.
The United States, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, ranked fourth globally in photovoltaic installed capacity in 2016, well behind China, but closing in on runner-up Japan and third-place Germany.
Solar power, however, remains a speck on the national grid, accounting for a mere five-tenths of 1 percent of the total energy consumed.
Pennsylvania is not at the forefront among “solar-friendly” states, according to 2018 rankings compiled by the website solarpowerrocks.com. The Keystone State is 20th on a list featuring Massachusetts at the top and Mississippi at the bottom. Statistics from March 2016 showed Pennsylvania was light years behind California, the front-runner in solar capacity with 13,241 megawatts, which was capable of powering more than 3 million homes via solar.
Yet Pennsylvania is making advances.
Seeing an upswing
“This is one of the bigger upswings we’ve seen,” said Bill Reedy, owner of Pennsylvania Solar Energy Co. in North Strabane Township. “The upswing probably started four or five years ago when prices started coming down, making (solar) more attractive.”
Reedy launched his business in 1999 and employs six, including sons Zach and Blake. The firm has a warehouse in Canonsburg, and works throughout the tri-state with residential, commercial and industrial customers and utilities. Pennsylvania Solar is a “volume installer” – 100 to 300 panels per installation.
He said his industry has been enshrouded in longtime misconceptions that, finally, appear to be dissipating.
“People are becoming more educated,” he said. “For years and years, they were told this won’t work, that you need a lot of sunlight. That’s absolutely wrong.
“We’re harvesting ultraviolet rays, which are present as the sun comes up and all day until it sets. On a cloudy day, ultraviolet rays are still hitting the panels and producing electricity.
“Germany leads the world in rooftop applications and it has only 53 days of clear, sunny weather (per year).”
Reedy acknowledges panel prices have declined, but expressed concern about import tariffs President Donald Trump imposed on foreign-manufactured solar panels earlier this year. (Most panels are manufactured abroad.) “We’re seeing a 30 percent increase per watt on the panels.”
Kurt Torpey is a Pennsylvania Solar customer – and a first-time solar client. “It piqued my interest when I saw a friend with solar panels,” so he went for it. Around Thanksgiving, Torpey had 20 PV panels installed in the backyard of his home in the Eldersville section of Jefferson Township. He is giving thanks.
“Pennsylvania winters are very gloomy. This is probably the first month I’ll really see a good turnaround,” he said in late April. “I expect summer to be very good.”
Torpey is a 25-year military veteran who, as a civilian now, is a support assistant for the Army Family Readiness Group. He, his wife – a nurse – and their daughter live in a two-story house three miles from West Virginia. His property is unique, Torpey said, in that it is the only one in his neighborhood with panels.
Although he isn’t happy with the price of renewable energy credits in Pennsylvania, he believes the installation will result in “a slow, steady return on my investment. Right now, if I were to calculate my energy bill, it would be about $20. Usually, my bills are around $80 a month.
“With summer heating up, I don’t expect to have an electric bill at all.”
Solar energy has energized a number of individuals and organizations, including Solar United Neighbors, a nonprofit serving Western Pennsylvania and the upper Ohio Valley (West Virginia and Ohio). The group encourages people to form cooperatives and go solar. It has held a number of town meetings in its region, including one in Washington in late March.
“A co-op doesn’t have to be a neighborhood. It can be a region within a certain distance. Businesses can join a co-op too,” said Henry McKay, the Pennsylvania program director.
He said benefits of co-ops include money savings, “connecting with fellow solar enthusiasts and becoming part of a growing solar movement.” A co-op takes about eight months to form and often consists of 20 to 30 entities. Eventually, the group selects an installer.
“Solar costs have come down about 90 percent since the 1970s,” McKay said. “Solar is becoming mainstream, but it’s still not cheap.”
McKay said loans can be secured to cover startup costs, and the 30 percent tariff on imported panels is supposed to drop 5 percent each of the next three years.
Solar energy also is getting strong city hall support, especially in Pennsylvania. About a month ago, according to the environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment, 180 mayors from 42 states expressed support for that renewable – and 43 were from this state. New Monessen Mayor Matthew Shorraw was one of seven from the southwest corner, along with Bill Peduto (Pittsburgh), John Fetterman (Braddock), Emily Marburger (Bellevue), Nickole Nesby (Duquesne), Marita Garrett (Wilkinsburg) and Matthew Rudzki (Sharpsburg).
Once in the shadows of energy’s platform, solar is basking in the sunlight that feeds it. “Here comes the sun” has become as much of a rallying cry as it is a Beatles hit.
“Solar has always had a bright future,” Reedy said, “but we had to get the truth out about it.”