In 2013, the United States finally became the world’s leader in installed photovoltaic capacity, putting in 4,751 new megawatts of energy production and beating Germany, which had held the lead for the previous 15 years despite having 3.6 percent of America’s land mass, 225 million fewer people and 20 percent less average annual sunlight.
The U.S. also leads the world in the number of geothermal (ground source heat pump) installations; the annual growth rate has doubled in the past decade, making geothermal a $2 billion a year domestic industry.
Despite dwindling prices for Solar Renewable Energy Credits, cuts in state incentives and the sometimes daunting reality of upfront investment, Americans are saying yes to renewables and no to nonrenewable fuels.
The number of residential and commercial installations increased more than 300 percent in the past five years, and 100,000 new geothermal heat pumps are installed each year.
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Solar Energy Industries Association President and CEO Rhone Resch recently said, “This unprecedented growth is helping to create thousands of American jobs, save money for U.S. consumers, and reduce pollution nationwide.”
Indeed, the Solar Foundation says that between 2010 and 2013, the job growth has increased by 53 percent, adding about 50,000 new jobs.
In 2013, solar was the second-largest source of new electricity capacity in the U.S., trailing only natural gas. “But already the groundwork has been laid for a mainstream solar future,” according to Shayle Kann, vice president of research at Greentech Media.
And with geothermal, because of our unique geology, most of this region can enjoy higher than average efficiencies due to the greater moisture content and water movement qualities of our underground soils, which allow faster heating and cooling transfer to the closed geothermal loops.
Our community doesn’t have to stake its future on depletory fuel sources, because we can invest in renewable energy sources. In contrast with fossil fuels and nuclear energy — in which exploring for hidden fuels is a costly hit-or-miss process through which profits (if any) go to shareholders and losses are subsidized by the taxpayer — renewables are safer and more predictable.
Every dollar invested in renewable energy installations is a gusher — they create a predefined amount of returned energy.
These goals — cutting emissions, saving money, increasing local energy autonomy and laying foundations to transform our community into a net energy exporter — motivated my work in drafting a West Campus Renewable Energy Plan 2013-2043, submitted to Penn State last fall.
Matt Walker, of the Clean Air Council, said at the Oct. 30 state Department of Environmental Protection hearing on Penn State’s West Campus steam plant conversion project: “The council urges decision-makers in the OPP to use this document as a basis for completing their own voluntary alternatives analysis to determine the feasibility and cost savings of using a combination of additional energy efficiency measures and renewable energy in the form of geothermal and solar.”
To date, the Penn State Office of Physical Plant has maintained a public commitment to displace coal combustion with natural gas combustion and to install a high-pressure gas pipeline through campus.
But if the West Campus Renewable Energy Plan were adopted, $4.5 million would be saved and more than 16 million pounds of emissions would be avoided in 2014, the plan’s first full year of implementation.
Towns in Germany that have invested in renewables are enjoying millions in profit each year by selling excess produced energy to the utilities.
We should develop a similar renewable-energy lifestyle right here in central Pennsylvania and enjoy the freedom from a never-ending-payment cycle with nonrenewable energy sources.
And we should.