It’s Time to Normalize Solar


By Will Brown


April 21, 2021

…In case you missed it, the short answer is Yes! Solar works in Pittsburgh. While dreary weather sows the seeds of doubt, clouds are not the biggest challenge to the solar industry in this region. Rather, the belief itself that solar isn’t viable represents one of the greatest hurdles for this highly capable and adaptable technology.

Our region has a massive opportunity to capitalize on renewable energy, and it’s imperative to realize that the shift toward renewables is already happening. Pennsylvania’s energy-rich history clearly demonstrates what happens when we unite around a common goal, and solar energy is poised to carry on this legacy. In this article, you’ll learn more about PA’s past energy leadership, current initiatives and trends in renewables, and how you can contribute to our clean energy future, no matter who you are.

Pennsylvania’s History of Energy Leadership

Pennsylvania has historically been a leader in energy production and innovation. We were home to the first commercial oil well in the country, as well as the first full-scale nuclear power plant in the world. Today, our state remains the third largest overall energy producer in America due to our abundant supply of fossil fuels like natural gas and coal.

Disappointingly, PA has fallen behind the renewable energy wave seen in neighboring states and other parts of the country. While extractive industries have received massive government subsidies, state incentives for renewables fail to make a significant impact. We were one of the first states to enact an Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS), but these standards now pale in comparison to newer programs launched elsewhere.

The Pennsylvania solar market has still seen significant growth in the past decade, with plenty of room for future growth. Equipment prices have fallen 45% over the last 5 years, helping PA become one of the top 20 states for solar jobs, employing over 4,200 in the state.But despite the progress we’ve seen locally and throughout the Commonwealth, we are barely scratching the surface of what’s possible.The state represents a hugely untapped market for clean energy development —a 2017 report estimated $7-9 billion in viable distributed clean energy projects in the state.

So, what can be done to reach this potential? There are opportunities to contribute on every level, and the more we can pull together across private, public, and party lines, the more we stand to gain. 

Renewables are Gaining Momentum

Allegheny County alone is home to over 2,500 registered solar arrays, the second most in PA after Bucks County. These solar arrays range from small residential rooftop systems to commercial installations on retail and manufacturing facilities, to larger arrays that generate enough electricity to power hundreds of homes.

On the city level, Pittsburgh has seen a number of high-profile PV installationsthat have helped boost the local visibility of solar. Namely, Hazelwood’s Mill 19, Frick Environmental Center and Phipps Conservatory have included solar as integral parts of building plans and project budgets. Visitors to these sites can see the solar panels and understand their benefits, which is fantastic.

Regionally, large solar development projects have recently made headlines, proving that solar is capable of bringing huge capital investment, jobs, and widespread tax revenue to Pennsylvania. However, it’s easy to let large, expensive projects like this reinforce the idea that solar is not accessible to the masses.

On the contrary — the localized benefits of solar are oftentimes most dramatically realized through smaller, individual projects spearheaded by homeowners, business owners, and decision making groups like municipal councils and school boards. Investing in solar energy is a great way to demonstrate forward-thinking leadership that can bring benefits in both the immediate and long term.


What Can Architects and Developers Do?

Architects and developers are key facilitators of Pittsburgh’s current construction boom. Every new construction project represents an opportunity for stakeholders to not only demonstrate forward-thinking leadership but also strengthen the financial viability of the project by implementing solar. However, facilitators do not always have the full appreciation or understanding to thoroughly consider or communicate the various applications and benefits of solar. 

Professionals throughout the building industry must educate themselves and consider solar early in the building process. Learning the basics of how solar works and the benefits it can provide to owners and occupants does not take long and can help uncover solar design and financing opportunities, as well as implementation efficiencies that help make solar more affordable and easier to integrate into new construction projects.

What Can Business Owners Do?

Business owners should similarly consider the benefits of taking ownership of their electricity. For-profit businesses are automatically eligible for various tax incentives that can cut the cost of a solar installation in half. By leveraging these incentives, most commercial solar owners can break even on a solar investment in well under 10 years. After that, the asset continues to produce low- to no-cost clean energy for decades to come.

What Can Homeowners Do?

The residential solar market has been one of the most rapidly evolving in the past few years, with new financial products making solar accessible to more homeowners than ever before. However, false advertising and misinformation have been a challenge in this area, with some of the largest solar sales teams driven primarily by sales metrics and revenue, not an interest in providing accurate information and guidance. This has resulted in a poorly educated consumer base.

Residential solar owners and prospective customers must have a clear understanding of what can and cannot be achieved with solar. Believing that solar works and pays for itself is one thing, believing that it will earn you “free” money from day one is another. Be sure to do your homework, and stay educated on current pro-solar legislation!

We’re In This Together.

Now is the time for solar and other renewables to uphold one of Pennsylvania’s greatest legacies, while contributing to a more equitable region for everyone. Best of all, everyone can play a role in its growth!


Author Will Brown is a principal of Solbridge Energy Advisors, a Pittsburgh-based independent solar consulting and brokerage firm, providing education and guidance to decision makers of all types in the ideation, analytical, financing, and construction processes.