Community solar proposal getting bipartisan support in legislature

  • Rachel McDevitt

Energy issues in Pennsylvania can be fiercely partisan, but a measure in the state legislature to encourage clean energy development is gaining support on both sides of the aisle. 

The measure allows for community solar projects, which are larger than home rooftop panels but smaller than utility-scale grids. 

The behind-the-meter projects are owned by solar developers. The energy generated is shared by a group of subscribers who get a credit on their electricity bills for what they use. 

The projects can remove barriers to solar power, such as up-front cost or homeownership, according to Leslie Elder with the Coalition for Community Solar Access.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R-Luzerne), said over 200 potential projects in the state are just waiting for the legislature’s OK. 

“To the tune of over $2 billion of private investment waiting to happen here in Pennsylvania,” he said. “There are thousands of jobs on the line with this legislation. And I might add that there are no state tax dollars that are needed for these types of projects as well.”

Elder’s group and other advocates for clean energy say supporting the industry will help Pennsylvania recover economically from the COVID-19 crisis. 

Elder said projections show community solar could create 3,000 sustained jobs in Pennsylvania over the next five years. 

Supporters say the bill also gives an opportunity to struggling farmers, who could lease land for the solar projects. 

Lauren Brunsdale, an associate developer at Radnor-based Community Energy, said solar arrays have a low impact on the land where they’re placed. 

“Essentially solar is installed the same way you put in a fence,” she said. “You drive the piles into the ground and you can pull them back out.”

Farmers can even use the land around the panels while they’re active, Brunsdale said, growing cover crops that can ultimately improve soil quality by the end of the project. 

Lawmakers on the House Consumer Affairs Committee, which held a hearing on the bill Tuesday, said safeguards should be created so landowners don’t run into problems like those seen in the natural gas industry. Some gas royalty owners have taken companies to court over payments. The Attorney General is awaiting a decision from the state Supreme Court on whether the office can proceed with a case on what the AG claims is deceptive leasing practices.

Some lawmakers also expressed concerns about utilities losing out on money from community solar customers that would be used to maintain the electricity grid, as well as a potential loss of green space to solar panels. 

Brunsdale said community solar could contribute to a more resilient grid because it will reduce stress during periods of high demand. 

Pennsylvania currently gets .5 percent of its electricity from solar energy. Elder said community solar will work well with the state’s existing energy generation balance. 

“We are not looking to replace any other forms of energy generation,” Elder said.

Up Next

Clean air laws helped the U.S. reduce air pollution. But hotter days brought by climate change could reverse those gains