Fred Kraybill squinted as he looked out across his patio toward the 40 or so people gathered behind his home in Point Breeze on a warm August evening.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “I’d like to welcome you to the celebration for the Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest climate bill in the history of the United States.”
Polite applause ensued, accompanied by a few whoops and cheers. In the near distance, above a lush garden laden with peppers and lettuce and waist-high rows of green beans, 40 275-watt solar panels protruded into the fading summer sunlight.
Mingling in Kraybill’s yard was a group described by one member as “East End climate hawks” and longtime environmental activists, gathered to celebrate the accomplishment of legislation that could have momentous implications for how we respond to the ever-worsening climate crisis.
At face value, the Inflation Reduction Act [IRA] promises to be a boon to developing renewables in Pennsylvania, where photovoltaics account for just one half of one percent of our statewide energy portfolio. Solar had already become a cost-competitive, market-ready alternative to carbon-sourced power, and the expanded incentives and expected newfound market stability brought by the legislation aim to ensure a solid foundation for the growth of sun-sourced energy.
But even as activists celebrate the landmark bill and local developers scramble to meet surging demand, experts say that state policies — or a lack thereof — are preventing Pennsylvanians from fully taking advantage of the IRA’s substantial incentives and could cause the state’s already lagging solar development to fall further behind.
Later, at the edge of the patio, solar consultant Greg Winks addressed the crowd: “What we lack, still — and this is our next battle for all you activists — we need to get Pennsylvania legislation to change.”
Eight days earlier, President Joe Biden signed the landmark bill, which contained in its 273 pages sweeping (if not comprehensive) policies aimed at reducing our nation’s carbon footprint. Part of that effort is supporting a buildout of renewable energy sources, including solar. The bill includes new incentives aimed at increasing the number of homes, businesses and institutions around the country that draw power from the sun.
The White House projects an additional 610,000 Pennsylvania households will install rooftop solar panels as a result of the new legislation. But solar advocates say anemic state solar power targets and an absence of rules for community solar arrangements could dampen that forecast.
Business is booming
By the time Ian Smith took the microphone, the sun had sunk lower in the sky and he was the only person at the party still bathed in golden-hour sunlight. “The spotlight is perfect,” he said, chuckling, before focusing on what the new legislation could mean for solar development in Pennsylvania.
“We’ve got new legislation that, more than anything, gives us stability,” said the local solar developer.
Before the new law passed, incentives from the 2005 Solar Investment Tax Credit were set to drop in January and expire completely a year later.
Smith was scrambling to complete as many projects as possible, and he had a waiting list of potential customers hoping to take advantage of the incentives before they dropped. “I just can’t get a rest,” he said.
With the passage of the IRA, though, a new 30% federal residential tax credit will extend for 10 years, and there are new, similar incentives for commercial projects and battery storage.
“It seemed like solar was already growing a lot,” said Smith. It was hard to tell, though, if the growth he was seeing was because people wanted to get in on the incentives or if it was because solar was “just becoming more mainstream.” With the new legislation, he said, it doesn’t matter. “Solar is definitely just going to continue to grow.”
Smith has worked in Pittsburgh’s solar industry for over a decade. Now he works with Energy Independent Solutions (EIS), which earlier this year completed a large installation at the Pittsburgh International Airport and claims 110 ongoing local projects across residential, commercial, agricultural and nonprofit sectors.
Having the IRA passed this summer, said Smith, with a 10-year extension, “gives a very clear signal. … It really feels like this year solar has turned a corner and it’s starting to blow up.
“So we’re hiring,” he told the crowd. “If you want in, you can talk to me.”
Puttering state policy
Winks, a consumer-side consultant and co-founder of South Hills-based Solbridge Energy Advisors, told those gathered in Kraybill’s backyard that state standards for solar need to be raised.
“Right now, the generation companies in Pennsylvania are only required to have one half a percent of their generation coming from solar energy,” he said. “One half of 1%. That’s just embarrassing.”
The Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) is a law passed in 2004 that sets statewide goals for how much of our electricity is generated from alternative sources, including solar. Currently, Pennsylvania’s goal for renewable energy sits at 8%, and for solar production, 0.5%. Just last year, said Matt Mahoney, the director of government affairs at the PA Solar Center, Pennsylvania finally reached that solar goal.
“Now what happens?” he posed, in an interview. “It just stays at 0.5%. We basically flatlined in Pennsylvania for solar growth.”
Nearby, other states have much higher ambitions when it comes to advancing renewable energy development. By 2030, Virginia will source 30% of its electricity from renewable sources. New Jersey? 50%. In New York, legislators passed a goal of 70%, and in Maryland they’re planning to be 100% renewable by 2040.
The IRA, said Mahoney, is a signal that “shows Pennsylvania we need to step it up.”
Increasing the state’s portfolio standard and diversifying our energy sources could also help to insulate ratepayers from natural gas price volatility in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and rate spikes such as those the state Public Utility Commission announced this year. Currently over half of Pennsylvania’s energy portfolio is sourced from natural gas.
Somewhere near the back of the party, a hand shot up in the air: “Can you give an update on community solar legislation?” a woman asked.
“It’s dead right now in the water,” said Winks, who would later call it a “political potato” caught up in Pennsylvania’s stalled participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
If it were enabled through legislation in Harrisburg, though, community solar — in which multiple power consumers subscribe to a large array — could vastly expand photovoltaic participation in the commonwealth, particularly among low-income people and non-homeowners.
To install regular rooftop solar, said Henry McKay, Pennsylvania program director for Solar United Neighbors [SUN], you need to own your home or business. You need to have a relatively new roof, facing “somewhere between east, south and west to get the sun,” and it can’t be shaded by other structures or trees.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t meet all those criteria and can’t benefit directly from solar,” he said.
With community solar, though, a developer could build a large, off-site solar array and individuals, families and businesses could subscribe to the electricity produced and thereby lower their energy costs. McKay said community solar can take different forms: It could be an array placed on a church that congregants subscribe to; it could be panels atop a multifamily home or apartment building co-benefitting renters; or, most commonly, it could be built in a rural area with subscribers scattered throughout the state.
“You can do it if you’re a renter. You can do it if you just can’t afford rooftop solar. You can do it if your roof is 25 years old and you can’t replace it right away,” said McKay. “So it means that more people can be directly linked to a solar installation somewhere in the commonwealth and financially benefit from it.”
The IRA incentives could benefit community solar in Pennsylvania, but the state lacks enabling legislation to permit community solar in the first place.
McKay said efforts in Harrisburg have stalled despite bipartisan support and backing from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. “I hope the Inflation Reduction Act creates the momentum for a new push this coming year,” he said.
Smith, of EIS, said he recently had a residential project that was ready to break ground, but a local homeowners association shot down the plan at the last minute.
Homeowners associations can be a pesky obstacle to installing solar, said McKay, who has been pushing for years for Harrisburg to implement a solar access law that would prevent such organizations from barring solar panels on their properties. Currently there are bills in both the state house and senate that would address the issue, but McKay said neither has progressed much or is likely to be passed.
“That’s frustrating because you can see it as an environmental issue, but it’s also a property rights issue and a small business issue,” he said.
“Without a solar access law, a lot of people who are otherwise ready to jump on the bandwagon and benefit from solar and get the new tax credits are going to be blocked, and it’s going to cause lawsuits and fights between neighbors and a lot of lost business.”
PublicSource’s requests for comment from the state House and Senate majority caucuses were not met with responses.
Among the climate hawks at the IRA celebration were a few people who were contemplating installing panels on their homes.
“I came because I wanted to pick the brains of people who’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have,” said Mike Nelson, of Churchill.
He listened to Kraybill describe his own system as they stood with a few lingerers in the garden. Two dozen panels stood nearby, mounted on poles and situated high enough to accommodate one rather tall gardener. Fixed to the roof of the red brick home was another array; the entire system generates nearly 30 kilowatts of energy, and it’s used to power five separate apartments, a Tesla, a Nissan Leaf and a geothermal heating system that reduces the home’s reliance on natural gas.
Nelson and his wife have been considering solar for about six months. As the party wound down and the sun slowly slipped behind the horizon, he and a few others accompanied Kraybill on a tour of his uber-sustainable home.
“It’s really just a desire to do something greener, and hopefully it’s more economical than just relying on public utilities,” Nelson said.
The new legislation gives them a bit more time to figure out what to do and how to do it right.
“That’s kind of taking some pressure off,” he said. “The more we can get incentives into people’s pocketbooks to make the investment, the greener our grid is going to be.”
Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at PublicSource and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter and Instagram @quinnglabicki.
Jack Troy fact-checked this story.
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However, only .01% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.