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2017-07-14 / News

The state of renewables

Although a small part of Pennsylvania’s energy mix, renewable energy sources continue to grow
By r. brock pronko
Regional Business Analyst

As one of the nation’s largest producers and net exporters of coal and natural gas, Pennsylvania has long relied on fossil fuels to meet its energy needs. The state’s annual gross natural gas production, mainly from Marcellus shale, surpassed 4 trillion cubic feet in 2014, doubling the state’s 2012 production and making Pennsylvania the second-largest natural gas producer in the U.S. Pennsylvania ranked fourth in coal production in 2014, and it’s the only state mining anthracite coal, which has a higher Btu value than other types of coal.

In 2015, Pennsylvania ranked second in electricity generation from nuclear power. The state received 37.2 percent of its net electricity generation from nuclear plants, more than from any other source.

Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards mandate that 18 percent of the electricity sold by 2021 must come from wind, solar, biomass, and other renewable energy sources, including at least 0.5 percent solar photovoltaic power. In 2015, renewable energy accounted for only 4 percent of Pennsylvania’s net electricity generation; however, more than state mandates are motivating the growth of renewable energy in the state.

“Production and use of renewable energy continues to grow in Pennsylvania,” said Daniel Ciolkosz, energy specialist with Penn State Extension.

“Natural gas availability and policy uncertainty have made renewables less attractive for some, but the long- term financial and ecological benefits of renewables continue to motivate many new projects.

“Federal policies and tax incentives have also played a very large role in encouraging the renewable energy sector.”

Will the policies of the new regime in Washington that favors fossil fuels impact the continued development of renewables?

“I don’t really know how changes in Washington will affect renewables,” said Ciolkosz.

“Locally produced sustainable energy has a lot going for it regardless of one’s political affiliation, so I am hopeful that conditions will be favorable to their continued development in Pennsylvania and throughout the U.S.”

Is there one renewable that outshines others in terms of its widespread adoption?

“Solar photovoltaics are experiencing a particularly strong growth, in part due to the approach of pricing parity when compared to grid power,” said Ciolkosz.

Ciolkosz points to the May 15 report by his colleague Edward Johnstonbaugh, Penn State Extension educator in Energy Savings and Renewables, whose analysis found many regions in the U.S. are reaching a tipping point in terms of the economics of solar photovoltaics.

“In most states that allow net metering of renewable energy systems (which includes Pennsylvania), the cost of installing and owning a grid connected solar photovoltaic system is very close if not at ‘parity,’” said Johnstonbaugh in his report.

“That means that the cost of buying electricity from the utility is equal to the investment of installing and operating the Solar PV system over the period of time until the system investment is recovered.”

Net metering allows residential and commercial customers who generate their own electricity from solar power to feed electricity they do not use back into the grid.

“Electric utility ratepayers have the benefit of low generation costs because of the glut of available natural gas that is producing low cost electricity in a flat economy,” said Johnstonbaugh.

“This is the time to plan for the future by soliciting bids to install some renewable energy generation capacity - probably solar - to cover some portion of your future electricity needs.”

Solar power peaks during the day, wind power peaks at night, so they help offset each other except when its overcast and the wind isn’t blowing, which is when backup storage is needed.

“Cost, performance, and sustainability of energy storage are all challenges of renewable energy that are being worked on,” said Ciolkosz.

“Storage systems exists now, for example, Tesla Powerwall, among others, but the cost is on the high side.

“The prospects for future developments, however, look pretty good.” .

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