Is Solar Power a Viable Option for Philadelphians?By Tara Nurin |
Local businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and people are showing an increasing interest in going solar — sustainability is certainly something the Philadelphia region is taking seriously.
With the recent completion of the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity-generating system east of the Mississippi River in Bucks County, the Philadelphia region is striving to become a national leader in the field of solar energy.
In an effort to generate almost 60 megawatts of solar energy per year by 2021 — enough to power 300 city blocks — the Nutter administration is working to help develop a generation facility at the Navy Yard strong enough to power 112 average PA homes and is encouraging the Philadelphia Water Department to install solar panels at three of its locations to enable it to reduce the amount of electricity it buys from PECO.
The city is also purchasing solar energy for its public buildings, making clear and detailed information about going solar available to the public, and streamlining and reducing the cost of the permitting process for homeowners, landlords, and developers to construct solar power systems for their own properties.
But what goes into installing solar panel projects like these?
Both the city and its solar-minded residents must rely on cooperation from the power company to complete solar projects, and people who’ve worked with the utility to set up solar-power systems say those interested in doing so should be aware of some potential pitfalls.
Statistics do show PECO is striving to reduce its carbon footprint. The utility is spending $15 million over five years to incorporate eco-friendly practices like replacing more than half its fleet with alternatively fueled vehicles, seeking LEED certification for some of its buildings, reviewing suppliers’ materials for earth-friendliness and purchasing wind power for its participating customers. Currently, as mandated by the state, 3.5% of the electricity PECO sells is generated by renewable sources and by 2020 that number should climb to eight percent.
Drilling down to solar energy, PECO says it’s accommodated almost 2,500 projects in its service territory since 2007 and adds approximately 200 new ones per year. But despite a claim from a spokesperson that “we’re over-the-top committed to renewable energy, and solar in particular,” observers say the utility could do much more to facilitate the process.
“Delays and expenses like the ones PECO imposed on us have stopped many projects dead in their paths,” says Micah Gold-Markel, whose Kensington-based Solar States solar energy company became the largest supplier of solar power in Center City when it installed a system for the nonprofit organization Finanta this spring.
Gold-Markel complains that PECO employees frequently failed to respond to his inquiries or perform work in a timely manner and charged him for a transformer to distribute electricity to the neighborhood surrounding Finanta.
“If you ever wonder why there is not more solar energy in the U.S. it is because of companies like PECO that, while legally obligated to allow solar energy, throw every stumbling block in your way that they can,” he said.
But PECO Communications Manager Cathy Engel counters that PECO simply follows state guidelines that require permits at various pre-ordained intervals throughout the construction process and order utilities to install — and charge the customer for — new transformers if the project surpasses a certain threshold and risks overpowering the existing system.
“This ensures reliable service,” says Engel. “This additional energy demand would have been too much for the neighborhood infrastructure.”
Indeed, City of Philadelphia energy ombudsman Kristin Sullivan laments that many investor-owned utilities like PECO have solar generators paying for new transformers when it does not demand the same from traditional energy customers. The utilities, however, are controlled by state Public Utility Commission (PUC) regulations that sometimes end up providing more coverage for the utility than benefit to the ratepayer. That, however, doesn’t stop her from assigning some responsibility to PECO for being overly conservative and somewhat myopic when lobbying Harrisburg on the issue.
“A lot of what utilities argue against is uneven cost shifting/subsidizing of rate payers,” she said. “Whole tariff structures are based on subsidizing.”
Sullivan wishes PECO would stop resisting solar generators for collecting what the power companies consider subsidies for net metering, which measures the amount of electricity generators produce and credits them based on that amount for the energy they buy. She also hopes for more recognition that solar generators help by providing needed relief to the grid and would like to see utilities like PECO hire an ombudsman to help customers navigate the sometimes tricky process of embarking on solar power generation.
She also directs people to papowerswitch.com, where consumers can take advantage of energy deregulation to switch away from PECO in order to buy solar energy from one of 40 different suppliers, many of which sell solar.
Photos via the Mayor’s Office of Sustainabilityblog comments powered by Disqus