Renewable energy is energy from naturally replenished sources. Unlike fossil fuels, which are exhaustible, renewable energy can be used again and again. According to the 2021 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, produced by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in 2020, about 20% of all electricity consumed in the U.S. was generated from renewable resources.
Available sources of renewable energy in Pennsylvania include solar, geothermal, wind, hydropower and biomass. Following is a brief description of each:
Solar is the conversion of sunlight into electricity by either solar photovoltaic (PV) panels or solar thermal systems. Solar PV panels are what you may see on the roof of someone’s house. These panels collect the solar power and convert it directly into electricity using photovoltaic cells. Solar thermal electric systems utilize the sun to heat a liquid, which is then used to produce steam that spins a turbine that is connected to a generator to produce electricity.
Solar thermal electric generation and solar hot water systems are not the same as solar PV systems. Solar PV systems convert sunlight directly into electricity, solar thermal systems concentrate the sunlight to create heat and that heat is used to run an engine, which turns a generator to make electricity. Solar hot water systems collect and convey the sun’s energy to provide domestic hot water; however, a solar PV system is designed to offset someone’s overall electric consumption and can therefore be used as a source of energy for electric hot water heating.
Geothermal energy taps into the heat of the Earth. Geothermal energy that is used to provide heating and cooling for buildings is typically referred to as ground source heat pumps or geoexchange systems. These systems function by circulating a fluid enclosed within a piping system that is buried within the ground. The constant temperature of about 55o F within these relatively shallow systems can provide cooling and limited heating. The more traditional geothermal energy taps into much higher temperatures located miles below the Earth’s surface. Hot water and steam at temperatures of between 100o F to well over 300o F can be used in the production of electricity. Geothermal electricity is currently not a practical option in Pennsylvania.
Wind is used to turn the blades of a wind turbine. This movement drives a shaft that connects to a generator, producing electricity.
Hydropower systems use the movement of water to operate a turbine, creating electricity. Hydropower is currently the largest and among the least expensive source of renewable electricity produced in the United States. Large and small-scale hydropower projects are most commonly used by clean-power generators to produce electricity. Micro-hydropower is very small-scale electricity production that might meet many of the needs of residential customers or small commercial operations that have access to this resource.
Biomass is organic material from plants or animals that can be utilized as a source of energy for heat, electricity and transportation fuels. It can be digested to produce methane, which in turn can be used to generate electricity or burned to simply produce heat or it can be fermented to produce fuels. Biomass should not be mistaken for a clean-energy source; while cleaner than most fossil fuels, it still produces emissions when used for energy production.
As with all forms of energy generation it is important to understand that during the process of planning, various permits and approvals are often needed from state agencies and/or local governments. The PUC does not regulate the generation of electricity or energy but other agencies such as the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will likely require some permitting. To learn more, contact your regional DEP office and speak with your local municipal officials.
The Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act requires that electric distribution companies and electric generation suppliers include a specific percentage of electricity from alternative resources in the generation that they sell to Pennsylvania customers.Learn About the AEPS Act
Solar energy is increasing in popularity for various reasons. The costs for owning and deploying a solar photovoltaic (PV) electric generating system have declined significantly in the last few years, but these costs are still very real. There are many factors that you should be aware of before committing to owning or installing a solar electric system on your premises. Several resources are available to educate you about solar electric systems. To better inform you about solar energy, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) has compiled a list of Frequently Asked Questions, as well as a fact sheet on Considering a Solar Photovoltaic System?, and other resources.
Benefits of Solar Energy
Solar works just about everywhere. Simply put, if you can see the sun, those rays can be converted to electricity to power your home, business, even your car. Solar power even works on cloudy days, albeit less effectively than on sunny days. Nearly 15,000 Pennsylvanian’s have already installed solar at their homes and businesses and this number is rapidly rising. To understand the basics of what’s involved in a solar electric generating system, go here. To better understand your options for purchasing, leasing and signing a power purchase agreement (PPA) for solar on your home or business, compare the information provided in the chart. Another good resource is the Rooftop Solar Financing 101 video provided by the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA).
Steps to Take to Pursue Solar Energy Further
Step 1: Regardless of whether you’re planning on installing yourself or hiring a solar installer (highly encouraged), contact your electric distribution company (EDC) that provides electric service to your property to understand the process of interconnecting your planned solar project with the distribution network (wires, transformers, etc.) managed by the EDC. EDC Contact List
Step 2: Search for solar installers and get quotes from at least three installers for a PV system sized to meet your needs. For convenience, a list of installers is provided and maintained by the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association. An excellent short video on Selecting a Solar Installer is also provided by CESA.
Step 3: Finally, do your math; understand the costs of the PV system including contractor costs and associated costs to interconnect with the electric distribution system. Once you know the costs, you can begin to calculate the payback. A short video from CESA helps to explain the process of analyzing your payback.
The PUC has compiled many other resources (see below) to assist in your planning. Educate yourself and be a smart consumer.
Understanding Solar+Storage: Answers to Commonly Asked Questions About Solar PV and Battery Storage - Link to a guide addressing commonly asked questions about solar PV and battery storage technologies released by the Clean Energy Group.
Solar Energy Development and Land Conservation Guide - Link to a Solar Energy Development and Land Conservation Guide provided by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.
Pennsylvania Solar Center - Link to information provided by the PA Solar Center on solar energy.
Renewable Energy 101 Guide - Link to a fact-based guide for consumers developed by the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC).
Residential Consumer Guide to Solar Power – Link to a Residential Consumer Guide to Solar Power developed by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
Homeowners Guide to Solar Financing – Link to a Homeowner’s Guide to Solar Financing, Leases, Loans, and PPA’s developed by CESA and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Buying and Making Electricity - Link to information provided by the U.S. Department of Energy on buying and making electricity.
Planning a Home Solar Electric System - Link to information provided by the U.S. Department of Energy on planning a home solar electric system.
Solar Power for your Home - Link to information provided by the Federal Trade Commission on what you should know about installing solar.
DSIRE - Link to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.
Energy Storage - Link to a short video about solar with battery storage for resiliency of critical infrastructure provided by the Clean Energy Group.
Land Lease Agreements for Solar
The solar market is growing fast and demand for land to install commercial, utility-scale solar farms is high. Throughout the Commonwealth, solar developers are contacting farmers and landowners to secure long-term land leases for the purpose of installing solar farms to generate electricity. Leasing acreage for solar development can provide extra income for landowners; however, entering into a land lease agreement is a significant decision.
Before signing a lease, you should educate yourself and understand how the agreement will affect your property. To assist in your decision making the PUC has compiled a list of Frequently Asked Questions and Answers. Always seek legal and tax counsel before you enter into any land lease agreement.
More information on solar land lease agreements can be obtained from the websites below:
Farmer's Guide to Going Solar – Link to information on solar energy for farmers provided by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Guide to Land Leases for Solar – Link to a Guide to Land Leases for Solar developed by the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Landowner Leasing for Utility-Scale Solar Farms – Link to information on landowner leasing for solar farms developed by Penn State University, College of Agricultural Science.
Most wind power development in Pennsylvania has been utility-scale wind farms. Wind farm development in Pennsylvania amounts to almost 1,400 MW of installed capacity. Opportunities for smaller, consumer-owned wind power exists but it is important to understand that wind power is very site selective. The use of existing wind energy maps can serve as a general approximation for wind resources in a given area, but they are no substitute for site-specific measurements. Ideally year-long measurements of wind speed should be monitored to determine the wind energy potential for any given site being considered for placement of a wind turbine. An average annual wind speed of at least 10 MPH should be a key consideration in your site selection for a small wind turbine. More information on wind energy maps and questions to ask if you’re considering wind energy development on your property can be obtained from the websites of Saint Francis University and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Biomass is organic material from plants or animals and the energy (bioenergy) that comes from it and can be in solid, gaseous or liquid form. Biomass can be utilized as a source of energy for heat, electricity and transportation fuels. Examples of biomass include plants and plant residues, wood and woody debris, animal wastes, food wastes and more. Biomass in its solid state can be burned or gasified to produce electricity and thermal energy or processed into liquids for use in transportation or heating fuels. Biologically derived methane gas, which is a Tier I resource under Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (AEPS), is the product of anaerobic digestion or decomposition. The resultant methane gas from anaerobic digestion can be used to generate electricity and heat or it can be converted to produce liquid fuels. Under the right circumstances biomass can provide net reductions in carbon/CO2 emissions but it is not a zero emissions energy resource, like wind, solar or hydropower.
Anaerobic Digestion/Biogas Systems
Anaerobic digestion is a natural process and is the microbiological conversion of organic matter to methane in the absence of oxygen. The decomposition is caused by natural bacterial action in various stages.
Anaerobic digestion/ biogas systems produce conditions, in an oxygen-free environment, that encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria. These bacteria naturally breakdown organic matter, such as animal wastes and sewage, to produce
- Biogas - a mixture of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), which can be used to generate heat and/or electricity
- Solids/Fiber - can be used as a pathogen-free nutrient-rich soil conditioner, and
- Liquids - can be used as a weak/diluted liquid fertilizer.
These liquid or semi-liquid waste streams are often combined with other types of biomass such as food residuals, to produce even greater yields of biogas for energy utilization. Pennsylvania has numerous examples of anaerobic digestion systems in operation. Anaerobic decomposition also takes place inside of landfills. The heat and pressure from the weight of all the trash inside a landfill produces methane that is required to be collected and is quite often recovered for energy utilization including, at times, for use as a natural gas supplement or substitute. Many of Pennsylvania’s landfills have energy recovery operations to better utilize this resource.
For more information on anaerobic digestion, including farm-based systems located in Pennsylvania, turn to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) AgSTAR Program. AgSTAR has been helping farmers and communities to develop and implement anaerobic digestion/ biogas systems for 26 years. These systems are critical for reducing methane emissions from manure management operations, while also providing other environmental and economic benefits.
More information about landfill methane energy projects located in Pennsylvania and nationally can be obtained from the U.S. EPA’s Landfill Methane Operation Program (LMOP) database and website.
Renewable Natural Gas
Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) is a form of biomethane, which is biogas that has been cleaned and brought up to natural gas pipeline-quality standards. Biogas typically contains between 50% and 60% methane. To be considered RNG, the methane concentration of biogas must be increased by removing moisture and other impurities; thereby making it possible to distribute RNG to customers via the existing network of natural gas pipelines, making it an attractive means of supplying customers with a renewable energy product to meet their heating, cooking and/or industrial needs. The existing natural gas network also allows distribution of gas energy over vast distances at a minimal cost in energy. RNG can also be converted into liquefied natural gas (LNG) for direct use as a transportation fuel.
The American Gas Foundation recently released the Renewable Sources of Natural Gas Report: Supply and Emissions Reduction Assessment to characterize the economic potential of RNG as a greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction strategy. The report assesses RNG production potential from various feedstocks (including livestock manure), corresponding GHG emission reduction potential, and estimated costs of bringing the RNG supply to the system. View the full report or the summary fact sheet for more details.
If you are interested in being a producer or provider of RNG, you need to meet specific criteria established by the industry and should speak with the natural gas distribution company in your area about the requirements of injecting RNG into their distribution system.
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