Solar electricity expected to rise globally, but York market in question


An international report is predicting a meteoric rise for solar power electricity over the next 25 years, but York-area experts have mixed feelings about the timetable and degree to which the renewable energy source will grow throughout Pennsylvania.

The current local market for solar electricity is thin by many standards.

PJM Interconnection, which coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in Pennsylvania and 12 other states, tracks and reports the year-to-year capacity of each fuel type.

In 2014, its most recent report, PJM reported that "other renewables," which includes solar, accounted for just about 1 percent of the capacity. Spokesman Ray Dotter said wind power accounted for a larger portion of that than solar.

Adams Electric Cooperative, an electric supplier to a portion of York County, also released a report recently that showed less than 1 percent of its electricity came directly from renewable energy projects.

However, almost 36 percent of the cooperative's supply came from market purchases, the sources of which can't be traced.

Subsidies and incentives: Much of the solar power available in York likely came as a result of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Solar Program, which, starting in 2009, set out to provide $100 million in rebates — provided by the federal government — for solar electricity and solar hot water programs for homeowners and small businesses.

Jeff Georg, president of Ascom Inc., said his company was one of the first 30 contractors in Pennsylvania certified to install solar panels, and that program led to an immediate boom in solar installation.

"When it hit, people were watching the news, saw (what the Sunshine Program was), and our phones started ringing," Georg said. "I would say I did several hundred quotes from 2009 to 2011."

But the money from the federal program, which Georg said was expected to last five years, lasted less than three years.

And although there's a separate federal tax credit incentive program that runs until 2016, he doesn't believe there's enough of a potential market left for solar to thrive in the region.

"The people that could afford it bought it, and the people that can't afford it probably will never buy it," Georg said.

"The problem with solar is there are 25-year warranties on the stuff. It doesn't break unless there's an act of God."

By 2011, Ascom was in competition with about 600 other contractors that had become certified to install solar in Pennsylvania, but they all worked themselves out of business with the program, and solar panel production companies were left with a problem, Georg said.

"The market became super-saturated with product there was no longer a market for," he said.

Prices dropping: The increased availability of product, though, has led to decreasing prices, which is why others believe the solar market is poised for rapid growth.

The Bloomberg New Energy Finance report — published in June — provides a comprehensive look at how the world's power markets will evolve. Among the report's predictions is the claim that the price of solar production will continue to drop for the foreseeable future, making it the cheapest form of power in many national markets.

Seb Henbest, lead author of the study, which combined the expertise of more than 65 technology experts across 11 countries, said these dropping costs are only amplified by the trend of fossil fuel prices rising.

The study did not even account for potential policies or subsidies, which have helped aid the growth of solar thus far, past 2020, he said.

"We see a lot more growth (in the solar market) coming before any sort of plateau," Henbest said.

Scott DeBroff, a central Pennsylvania lawyer who previously worked for 10 years at the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, believes those falling prices give the solar market a chance for large growth in the region.

"Because the rates have come down, it becomes affordable without any kind of subsidy," DeBroff said. "There's a lot down the road to look forward to."

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com.