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Solar Power Heats Up in Pennsylvania

As solar-power tech continues to get more efficient and its price drops, more and more people are turning to the sun to power their homes and businesses.

by Brad Rhen, Reading Eagle / April 5, 2016

(TNS) — A bright, early spring sun shone down on Bill Hennessy as he made an adjustment to a solar array his company recently installed at a residence in Jefferson Township. The system — two separate arrays, each with 24 panels — generates enough electricity to power the owners' house.

"It's going to eliminate their electric bill," said Hennessy, co-owner of Berks Solar LLC, a solar-panel installation business he runs out of his home in Longswamp Township. "It's a fairly big system."

As solar-power technology continues to get more efficient and its price continues to drop, more and more people are turning to the sun to power their homes and businesses. In 2015, the number of solar-power generating systems installed across the U.S. set a record.

And while the numbers in Pennsylvania aren't as high as they were in previous years, Hennessy believes solar power will continue to grow in popularity here.

"If you look at the climate and fossil fuels, in the long run, solar is going to continue to grow, and it'll be one of the dominant sources of electricity," he said.

Hundreds of thousands installed

Nationally, 2015 was the biggest year in solar history, according to the Solar Energies Industry Association, Washington. About 311,143 solar-power systems, capable of producing about 7,286 megawatts of electricity, were installed. Those numbers are up from 198,922 systems that can generate 6,248 megawatts in 2014 and 53,117 systems that can generate 851 megawatts in 2010.

"On a national level, the growth of solar is mind-boggling," said Dan Whitten, vice president of communications for SEIA. "By 2020, the number of solar jobs will double to 420,000, and the amount of electricity generating capacity will grow by four times. The solar industry will create more than $30 billion in new economic activity every year. Last year, for the first time, the U.S. built more solar capacity than the new capacity for natural gas, nuclear and coal combined."

The numbers in Pennsylvania over the past two years are not as good as the national numbers. For one reason, market demand dried up.

For the 2012 fall in demand, "This is a negative case of Economics 101: a glut in the marketplace and very low demand," explained PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur, as quoted in Greentech Media.

And it's largely due to the expiration of the state's Sunshine Solar Program, which gave rebates to homeowners and small businesses that installed solar panels or solar hot water equipment. The program ran out of funding in November 2013.

A total of 601 solar-power systems capable of generating 13 megawatts of electricity were installed in Pennsylvania in 2015, up from 452 systems capable of generating 10 megawatts of power in 2014. But those numbers are down from 2013, when 1,430 systems capable of generating 38 megawatts of electricity were installed. They're well below the peak year of 2011, when 3,215 systems capable of generating 88 megawatts were installed.

"We'd like to see the market in Pennsylvania pick up, and we are confident that will happen," Whitten said. "The state remains in the top half in the nation in solar installations and is home to about 500 solar companies and 2,500 employees."

Hennessy confirmed that, for him, installations are down over the past several years. He's fairly certain that's due to the expirations of the Sunshine Program.

Prices dropped

"People seem to think there's no subsidies, so it's not worth it," he said. "But you can have a system put in now for less than when they had the program, just because the prices have dropped so much."

Although the state program has ended, Hennessy noted that there is still a 30 percent federal tax credit for installation of solar technology.

Prior to the Sunshine Program, Hennessy said, many of his customers had solar installed for environmental rather than financial reasons. The Sunshine Program sparked an interest in solar power, but things are tapering off now, he said.

Meanwhile, Hennessy said, solar panel technology is constantly improving and becoming more efficient.

"In terms of power, in the same footprint they've improved and become more efficient, and the price has dropped as well," he said. "But interest doesn't seem to be as much as it was five years ago. It's still going to be the future, though."

Business is brisk

Business may be slowing for Hennessy, but other companies that install solar equipment say business is brisk. Joe Corrado, a manager at Geoenergy LLC in Muhlenberg Township, which installs solar-energy systems, said business is booming.

"It's up almost 400 percent from last year," he said. "Last year it was up 200 percent from the year before."

In fact, Corrado said, this past winter Geoenergy employees were shoveling snow off roofs to install solar systems on them. The company had never done that before, he said.

"We've been working all through the winter," he said. "We had more jobs this winter than we ever did during the winter in the history of our business. It says to us that people get it now, that this is in their interest to look into."

The sustained growth has surprised Corrado in light of the ending of the Sunshine Program. Many of Geoenergy's sales were based on funding from the program, he said.

However, he said, systems now cost 60 to 70 percent less than they did just a few years ago.

"Their plan worked," Corrado said. "Their plan was to supplement it initially and create demand, which would drop the price down. Production has been built up now where a lot of our panels come from Georgia."

More than just panels

Not all of the systems that generate power from the sun's rays utilize flat panels. Wyomissing-based CEWA Technologies Inc. holds a patent for a device that harnesses solar rays, called a concentrating solar power dish. The device, which looks like a large satellite dish, is fabricated and assembled at Summit Steel in Muhlenberg Township, where two are on display.

The curvature of the dish's reflective surface concentrates the sun's rays into a beam that is collected by a funnel-like device extending from the front of the dish.

Normal radiance is about 1,000 watts per square meter, and this concentrates it to about 3 million watts per square meter, said J. Paul Eisenhuth, president and CEO of CEWA Technologies.

"You've got a huge amount of concentration," he said. "It allows the conversion to electrical or thermal energy to be a lot more efficient than what you get with a flat panel."

Another difference between the dishes and flat solar panels is the dishes are designed to track the sun throughout the day.

"So when the sun rises in the morning, it will be pointed at the sun, and then it will follow it all day," Eisenhuth said.

CEWA, which was founded in 2009, has only sold about two dozen of the dishes to date. But, Eisenhuth said, several more are on order, and the company is in negotiations with potential customers around the world.

With the company now just leaving the development phase and entering commercialization, Eisenhuth said he anticipates sales ramping up dramatically.

"The reception in the marketplace so far has been phenomenal," he said. "We have a tremendous amount of orders pending throughout the world. I expect our sales this year to see a very dramatic increase since we're now exiting development."

Oil not a factor

Oil prices seem to have little to no effect on the popularity of solar technology. People don't tend to buy solar panels when oil prices are high, nor do solar sales drop when oil prices are low.

"People just aren't interested as much anymore," Hennessy said. "If you look at the climate and switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the sooner that gets done, the better."

Corrado said potential customers rarely mention oil prices. That's because there's more to solar than the initial cost, he said.

"People are getting more educated about it as an investment," he said. "They're aware of how oil prices can go up and down. Most of my customers, they weren't struggling to pay their bills. They have enough capital where they ask, 'Where can I spend this money to get the best value for my money?' "

Even if solar prices continue to drop and oil prices increase dramatically, Eisenhuth doesn't think fossil fuels will ever go away. He believes there's a place for many different types of energy generation.

"Solar, wind; they definitely have a place," he said. "It's hard to store energy. With wind and solar, there are times when you're not generating electricity because of cloudy days or calm days. I think there will always be some element of baseload fossil fuel, nuclear fuel. There's a place for all of it."

©2016 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

 

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