Solar panels shining on Wash High stadium

Aaron Kiefer, an employee with Insana’s Garage of Washington, installs solar panels on the roof of the locker room at Wash High Stadium in this 2017 photo.

Once dismissed by some as the province of tree-huggers, solar energy is gaining ground in the United States.

The market expanded in 2017, with solar energy accounting for 30 percent of new electric generating capacity, with 250,000 Americans now employed in the sector, double the number in 2012. It made up a slice of the energy generated by renewables, such as wind and hydropower.

Residents interested in learning more about solar energy can attend a meeting at Washington & Jefferson College at 6 p.m. Wednesday, sponsored by Solar United Neighbors of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit group. More to the point, the organization will be offering information on how participants can join solar co-ops, which allow participants to save on the costs of installing solar by joining together and making a bulk purchase.

“By grouping together as a co-op, (installers) can take customers in one chunk,” according to Henry McKay, the Pennsylvania program director for Solar United Neighbors. That would lower costs of installation, which can sometimes run around $11,000. But advocates for solar energy point out that $3,300 comes out of that as a result of a federal tax credit, and other savings will be realized over years as solar energy lowers electric bills.

If someone opts to install solar panels and join a co-op, they will team up with other members and pick a single company to handle installations, and buy panels based on a group rate. The co-op is free to join, and will be assisted by Solar United Neighbors in the bidding process.

The meeting at W&J will happen in Swanson Science Center Room 005, 143 E. Maiden St. The group is making a push throughout the region, and they are holding similar meetings in Wheeling, W.Va., St. Clairsville, Ohio, and West Liberty, W.Va. One solar co-op in the Upper Ohio Valley has been formed, and Solar United Neighbors is looking to assemble more.

While solar is growing, it still has some distance to travel before it remotely approaches natural gas or coal as an energy source. Right now, it only accounts for a quarter of 1 percent of the commonwealth’s energy. Still, McKay said solar energy is “a juggernaut,” and that jobs in the solar energy sector increased by 26 percent in Pennsylvania last year.

“It’s mainstreaming,” he said.

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