David N. Hommrich stood on a hill above his growing solar power park near Burgettstown, Pa., as the sun hit hundreds of panels. He is building it atop a coal refuse pile that for decades generated only pollution from stormwater runoff.
"It's a great business, and we're helping the environment. It's a good sign for the economy" because jobs are being created in manufacturing and installing the solar panels, said Hommrich, president of Sunrise Energy LLC of Green Tree, owner of the five-acre solar power generating operation in Smith Township, Washington County.
So far, Sunrise Energy has installed 500 solar panels that convert energy from the sun into more than 100 kilowatts of electricity that is sold to West Penn Power Co., the Greensburg-based utility that serves 720,000 customers in Western Pennsylvania.
Hommrich intends to place 3,500 panels within the park's fenced-in boundaries to generate nearly 1 megawatt of power -- enough to power about 800 homes at peak output. Using solar panels shipped from Canadian Solar Inc. of Kitchener, Ontario, Hommrich expects to finish the park by the end of August.
Hommrich's company is doing its part, albeit a small one, to help West Penn Power fulfill its obligation to supply customers with power generated from alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar and hydroelectric.
Nationwide, coal-fired plants generated 44.7 percent of the power in the United States so far this year. Natural gas and oil-fired plants added 21.4 percent, nuclear plants 20.5 percent and hydroelectric 8.2 percent, according to U.S. Energy Information Agency figures. The remaining 5.2 percent comes from other alternative sources.
So far, the state's utilities are meeting requirements mandated by the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act of 2004. It set targets for the utilities to obtain an increasing portion of the electricity they supply from alternative sources, said Public Utility Commission spokeswoman Denise McCracken.
Electric companies in Pennsylvania are required to have 9.73 percent of power sales come from alternative sources during the year that started in June through May 2012. The requirements began in 2006 and increase annually to 18.5 percent by June 2020.
"I have not heard any rumbles that the utilities would not be able to meet the requirements," said Courtney Lane, senior energy policy analyst for Penn Future, a statewide environmental organization.
"We don't see any problem, at least in the short term," said Cory Byzewski, vice president and general manager of Direct Energy's residential business in the Northeast. The company, which has an office in Pittsburgh, has 800,000 customers in eight states from Illinois to the Northeast.
"We're following the guidelines set forth by the PUC," said Joseph Vallarian, a spokesman for Duquesne Light Co., which serves 586,800 customers in Allegheny and Beaver counties.
West Penn Power is meeting alternative energy requirements through wholesale power purchases, West Penn spokesman Doug Colafella said.
A utility doesn't have to own or build sources of alternative energy, but can purchase sufficient power or credits from qualified alternative energy suppliers such as Hommrich's Sunrise Energy. Alternative energy credits are sold or traded in the United States and prove that 1 megawatt of electricity was generated from an alternative energy source. They are regulated in 29 states.
West Penn and Duquesne Light buy power or alternative energy credits from various sources available through PJM Interconnection LLC, based in Valley Forge, which runs the transmission grid for Pennsylvania, 12 other states and Washington by collecting power from more than 1,300 sources.
Alternative power sources include solar photovoltaic, solar-thermal energy that heats water, wind, hydropower, coal methane and burning of waste coal, municipal solid waste and wood pulp.
Experts don't seen any problems with utilities meeting the goals this year and the next couple of years. "There's more than enough (alternative energy) supply to meet the requirements," said Penn Future's Lane.
One major source of alternative energy in Pennsylvania is hydroelectric plants along rivers and lakes, which generates 1,953 megawatts of power, according to a PUC report.
West Penn Power's parent, FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron, Ohio, owns several hydroelectric generating plants, Colafella said. The company has a 52-megawatt hydropower plant at Lake Lynn -- where a dam straddles the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border along the Cheat River -- as well as hydroelectric plants on the Allegheny River at Lock and Dam 5 near Freeport and Lock and Dam 6 near Clinton. It has a pump storage station at the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River north of Kane, McKean County.
Wind farms in the state can generate about 750 megawatts of power at peak output, the PUC report said. About 3.2 megawatts were added this year, and 177 megawatts of capacity are under construction, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group in Washington, D.C. The state ranks 16th in terms of wind energy capacity, the association said.
Somerset County has four of those projects, including 23 turbines that generate 34.5 megawatts at Iberdrola Renewables Inc.'s Casselman project in Summit Township. FirstEnergy has a long-term lease on that wind power farm.
Solar power facilities in Pennsylvania generate about 75 megawatts of power, said Penn Future's Lane said.
Last month, Snyder's-Lance Inc. completed the state's largest ground-based solar farm across state Route 116 from its manufacturing pretzel plant near York. The 28-acre solar array, comprised of 15,092 panels, is expected to cut energy costs at the facility by 30 percent. It will produce 4.45 megawatts at peak output. The remainder of Snyder's power will be provided by Met-Ed.
Hommrich said his Sunrise Energy, which he started in September 2009, is one of many projects that benefitted from a $650 million Energy Independence Strategy the state enacted in 2008.
A $115 million grant program to reduce the cost of purchasing and installing solar photovoltaic projects to create electricity and solar thermal to heat water has been so successful that only about $8 million is remaining, said Evan Endres, solar power project coordinator for Penn Future in Pittsburgh.
With his initial solar project on its way to completion, Hommrich said he is looking at sites in Washington and Beaver counties, and eastern Ohio, for another solar power plant.
"The goal is 15 megawatts by 2015," Hommrich said.
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