Pa. solar-power legislation in cooling-off phase

September 21, 2009

By Diane Mastrull

Inquirer Staff Writer

The sun, it seems, was no match for another source of scorching heat: a state budget firefight in Harrisburg.

Late last week, a somber State Rep. Greg Vitale (D., Delaware) said his bill to boost Pennsylvania’s clean-energy standards and the state’s commitment to alternative energy, including solar, had “taken a back seat” to two budget-balancing proposals he opposed.

“My attention has frankly shifted to those two big issues,” Vitale said.

He was referring to bipartisan-backed measures that would reduce the financing level for the Department of Environmental Protection and increase by 100,000 acres state forest in the Marcellus Shale territory that would be offered for natural gas drilling in 2009 and again in 2010.

Though considered the most important piece of energy/environmental legislation pending in Pennsylvania, House Bill 80 likely will see no action by the House and Senate until after budget matters are settled, Vitale said.

The measure bogged down all summer long while a variety of interest groups – including coal companies, environmentalists, electricians, roofers, and advocacy groups for consumers and businesses – fought to have their concerns addressed.

Sal DePrisco, a solar installer, and John F. Curtis III, who has proposed developing one of the nation’s largest solar-power plants, are among many who had hoped for a brighter legislative forecast.

DePrisco is director of operations at Russell Solar in Oreland, Montgomery County, a division of Russell Roofing created more than a year ago, when it looked as if the solar business in Pennsylvania was about to take off.

In July 2008, the state legislature approved Gov. Rendell’s $650 million Alternative Energy Funding Act, which allotted $100 million for a new solar initiative that would provide rebates of 35 percent to homeowners and small businesses to offset the cost of buying solar systems.

An engineer by training, DePrisco joined the legions this summer who wrote to lawmakers urging passage of the bill, in large part because it would amend the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act in favor of more solar-energy use.

Currently, those standards require that solar be the source of at least 0.5 percent of the alternative energy that utilities must tap by 2021. H.B. 80 would increase that minimum share to 3 percent by 2024.

What specifically triggered DePrisco’s letter-writing was a proposed amendment to the measure that solar installers perceived as a threat to work they had just begun to count on. Sponsored by State Rep. Bill Keller (D., Phila.) on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the provision called for all solar-photovoltaic systems and components to be installed by licensed electrical contractors.

Opponents were led to believe the IBEW wanted to claim every aspect of solar work, including affixing racking to roofs and delivery of solar panels there. That raised the temperature of the argument.

A resolution has since been reached that seems to have widespread support, Vitale said. It would require that in order for new or upgraded solar-photovoltaic and solar-thermal electricity systems to qualify for alternative-energy credits, they must be installed by licensed electrical contractors, if the relevant municipality licenses such contractors. Some do not.

In those cases, systems must be installed by a contractor the state has deemed qualified to participate in the Pennsylvania Sunshine rebate program.

Last week, DePrisco seemed satisfied, saying it was Russell Solar’s policy to use licensed electricians for the mechanical mounting and wiring of solar-power systems.

What had him more worked up was a concern that consumers who did not carefully evaluate the credentials of an installer could easily be duped. DePrisco described a customer who had recently gotten a quote for a system that was too big to fit on the roof of the house.

“There’s a lot of [solar installers] coming out of the woodwork,” DePrisco said. “The last thing I need is people sullying the reputation of the business.”

Curtis’ route to activism on H.B. 80 traces to 100 acres in Nesquehoning, Carbon County, where he had hoped to have 57,000 solar panels installed on former industrial-park land and generating 11.5 megawatts – enough to provide electricity to 1,500 homes – by this fall.

Financing for the $78 million project has been secured, but outstanding regulatory issues have delayed the expected start-up date for the solar park to July 1.

At his home office in Whitemarsh last week, Curtis revealed plans for two other plants: one near the Nesquehoning site, the other north of Allentown. Combined, the three plants would represent 40 megawatts of power.

His interest in pushing for legislation that would require increases in the use of solar power is obvious.

What may be less apparent, Curtis worries, is the economic-development impact that increasing the state’s solar-use requirements would have in terms of jobs created from the construction of solar plants and in ancillary businesses.

In written testimony to the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in May, he estimated that the state would lose $1.4 billion in economic development and 28,012 solar jobs if H.B. 80 were not enacted. Curtis’ Nesquehoning solar park will include a green-jobs-training/visitor center.

As part of a coalition of legislators, solar developers, environmentalists, and special-interest groups known as the Green Dog Caucus, Curtis attends meetings in Harrisburg to help refine H.B. 80 to “make sure we have more, rather than just enough,” votes for it to pass.

A jump-in-with-both-feet kind of guy, Curtis has been pushing for amendments to the bill that would ramp up the requirements for solar usage sooner than originally proposed.

“A true solar market,” he said in a recent letter to lawmakers, “is not a market without depth and liquidity.”

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