The Inflation Reduction Act could fuel the development of solar power in Pennsylvania, prompting an additional 610,000 Pennsylvania households to install rooftop solar panels, according to a White House projection.
State action to enable and support that expansion, though, is just beginning, with a potentially important milestone set for today.
In Harrisburg, pending renewable energy legislation could encourage widespread development and increase access to solar power. But most proposed legislation has not moved out of committee despite substantial bipartisan support.
One bill, though, passed the House in June and will now be considered by a Senate committee. If it becomes law, the legislation would form a “PA Local Solar” program which would allow electric utility companies to subscribe customers to solar power.
Some solar advocates are voicing their opposition. And potentially more impactful legislation that would set higher targets for overall solar development remains in limbo. Here’s a look at pending renewable energy legislation in Harrisburg, where each bill stands, and what state policy might mean for Pennsylvania’s solar prospects.
Statewide solar goals
In Pennsylvania, one half of one percent of our statewide energy portfolio is sourced from the sun.
In 2004, the state established the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard [AEPS], which set goals for how much of our electricity should be generated from alternative sources, including solar. Pennsylvania’s current goal for renewable energy is 8%, and for solar it’s just 0.5%. Last year, the state reached that goal for sun-sourced energy, effectively plateauing growth in the commonwealth, according to Matt Mahoney, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Solar Center.
Bills introduced in the legislature would update the AEPS and increase statewide goals for renewable energy, which would likely be a boon to a further buildout of solar statewide.
- Nearly identical bills in the House and Senate, House Bill 1080 and Senate Bill 501, would increase the renewable energy goal to 18%, of which 3.75% would be required to come from in-state solar projects generating greater than 5 megawatts, and 1.75% would be sourced from distributed solar, like rooftop panels connected to the grid.
- A more ambitious bill, SB 300, seeks to increase the renewable goal to 30% by 2030, with 7.5% from in-state large-scale solar and 2.5% from distributed solar.
Neither proposed update has moved out of committee. And even if either passed, neighboring states would still have far more ambitious renewable energy goals. New York, for example, plans to be 70% renewable by 2030 and Maryland aims to be 100% renewable by 2040.
A solar installation photographed in Squirrel Hill on September 1, 2022. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)
While the bills have prime sponsors from both parties, efforts to pass even a modest update to the AEPS have met little success. According to Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Brighton Heights, who co-sponsored HB 1080, that responsibility falls on the majority Republicans and their committee leaders.
“Does the majority view changing the AEPS cap to be an important and immediate concern?” posed Kinkead. “My impression is that it’s just not a high priority for the majority party.”
Currently, people who rent, have old or shaded roofs or live in apartments or multi-family buildings do not have the ability to tap into solar power. Community solar legislation could change that by allowing residents who are unable to afford or otherwise install panels themselves to subscribe to solar power from a large array.
Bills introduced in both the state House and Senate, HB 1555 and SB 472, would “simply remove existing policy red-tape to allow customers to participate in a community solar project,” according to identical memos released by the bills’ prime sponsors, Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, and Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe and Northampton. Both bills have substantial bipartisan support; between the two there are 25 Republican co-sponsors to 44 Democrats. But neither bill has gained much traction and both have been stuck in committee since early 2021.
PublicSource’s requests for comment from Scavello and Kaufer were not immediately answered.
“Community solar legislation is popular, proven in other states, and bipartisan,” wrote Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, who co-sponsored both the community solar and AEPS bills, in an email to PublicSource. “It would unlock access to renewable energy for my constituents and Pennsylvanians across the state who are unable to install solar panels on their residences.
“Unfortunately, this bill and many others with broad bipartisan support are trapped in committee,” continued Fontana. “In Harrisburg, the legislative calendar is controlled by the majority Republicans. We can’t vote on any bill unless Republican leadership decides we do.”
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward told PublicSource in an emailed statement that “from the perspective of Senate Republicans, our focus is to advance energy policies that help keep energy costs low, create jobs, advance our economy, all in a manner that safeguards the environment. We support the responsible advancement of Pennsylvania’s diverse energy portfolio and discussions will continue in this fall session.”
An impending vote
One solar bill has met recent success: HB 1161 passed the House in June, by a vote of 167-33. It’s up for consideration today in the Senate Consumer Protection & Professional Licensure Committee.
If passed by the Senate and ultimately approved by Gov. Tom Wolf, the PA Local Solar program would allow electric utilities to establish subscriber plans through which customers could purchase solar power. The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Lori Mizgorski, R-Shaler, said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the bill, which has the support of local electricity provider Duquesne Light, will be passed in the Senate.
Kinkead, who also co-sponsored HB 1161, said it has the best chance of any solar legislation to become law.
Some solar advocates, though, oppose HB 1161 as written. Henry McKay, Pennsylvania program director for Solar United Neighbors, told PublicSource that the type of local solar program proposed by HB 1161 would “unnecessarily set up the electric distribution company as a gatekeeper” and “place a bottleneck” on new local solar projects.
“This is not true community solar,” wrote McKay in an email. True community solar, he said, would contribute to “a more decentralized energy system where local communities can have more control over where their energy comes from.”
HB 1161, he said, would “instead put electric distribution companies in the driver seat and allow for no competition between solar projects that would benefit consumers.”
Mizgorski said that the bill is “not the end-all-be-all for solar,” and that it is “just one way to expand access to locally generated solar.” She emphasized that the bill does not preclude other solar programs from being passed.
Getting a move on
A Republican majority controls the legislature, and much of the legislation is sponsored by Republicans. So why aren’t more bipartisan solar bills moving?
According to Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, bills aren’t moving because majority committee chairs hold immense power in Harrisburg.
When procedural rules are voted on, said Kuniholm, “most of our legislators are voting away their right to represent us. They are giving all the power to the leadership and the committee chairs.”
If Pennsylvania’s legislature worked the way many others do, she said, there would be hearings on solar legislation and stakeholders would be invited to weigh in. “But the way our committees work, there are often no hearings at all. And so the stakeholders have no opportunity to weigh in.”
Kinkead’s suggestion to a concerned citizen?
“Identify the majority chair of the committee and start making phone calls to them. Not just to your state representative, especially if your state rep agrees with you. The next step would be to start calling the office of the majority chair of the committee and say, ‘This is a bill that I think is incredibly important and you have a responsibility to all Pennsylvanians.’”
Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at PublicSource and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter and Instagram @quinnglabicki.
Aavin Mangalmurti fact-checked this story.
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However, only about .1% 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.