Solar panels provide the greatest benefit in areas with consistent sunshine, right? Wrong, say researchers at Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Solar energy, which aims to improve human health and reduce pollution by phasing out coal plants, actually provides the most benefit in the cloudy East and Midwest, as opposed to the sunny Southwest. In fact, the researchers found that by displacing coal, a solar system in New Jersey or Ohio would be 15 times more valuable than that same solar system in Arizona — a state where solar would largely replace clean-burning natural gas.
The CMU study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, acknowledges that coal plants in the eastern U.S. are particularly harmful because of their proximity to major population centers. “If you are interested in mitigating climate change and improving human health, you get significantly greater benefits from wind or solar in places like Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania,” says co-author Kyle Siler-Evans.
But it takes more than unveiling the social benefit of solar power in fossil-fueled states to facilitate clean energy acceptance. Solar policies and incentives, community support, job creation and economic potential are just a few factors that can help or hinder solar energy adoption.
Ohio and Pennsylvania
Both Ohio and Pennsylvania hold respectable rankings from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) for their amount of installed solar. Last year, Ohio installed 25 megawatts of solar for a national ranking of 16th while Pennsylvania came in 9th with 54 megawatts.
But the states flip-flopped in the letter grades they received from Solar Power Rocks in June, which measured each state’s residential solar incentives, state tax credits and solar rebates.
With the funding for Pennsylvania’s Sunshine program now exhausted, and the state's lack of solar tax exemptions, the Keystone State has gone from “boasting one of the strongest solar power rebate programs in the country” to “just OK.” But despite issuing a ‘C’ grade, the Solar Power Rocks analysts remain hopeful: “The legislature still has a golden opportunity to return Pennsylvania to a national leader with just a few tweaks.”
Ohio received an honorable ‘B’ for offering two solar tax exemptions (sales and property) and building its Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) into its state Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). “Overall, Ohio is doing a pretty good job promoting solar power and making it easy for residential customers to make the switch,” the 2013 report stated. Suggestions for improvement include an up-front solar rebate to lower initial costs, and a stronger RPS (Ohio requires 12.5 percent of retail electricity be generated from renewables by 2024).
Solar incentives were lowest in West Virginia, the leading state for underground coal production that would benefit significantly from clean energy initiatives. The Mountain State received a ‘D’ grade for its lack of RPS, meaning there are no performance payments or utility rebates for solar energy. But West Virginia did experience one of the largest gains in clean energy jobs during the first quarter of 2013, according to Ecotech.
“There is tremendous job growth in the cleantech sector and signs of positive momentum,” said Ecotech spokesman Kyle Crider.
West Virginia also placed in the middle (24th out of 50) of the Optimum Solar Deployment Index (OSDI), which analyzes each state’s solar energy viability based on a number of factors like cost to install, average sun exposure, and amount of carbon emissions that may be offset.
A 2012 study by Marshall University notes that West Virginia receives better sun exposure than many states to its north. But since intermittent solar energy relies on coal for backup power, researchers say “grid integration issues” will prevent solar from conserving fossil resources as much as predicted. However, the research team acknowledges that as solar panel efficiency increases, smart-grid applications will become more widespread, “allowing the potential benefits of solar [in West Virginia] to be more fully captured.”
Installing Solar to Yield Maximum Benefits
There is plenty of potential to increase solar energy in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. CMU engineering professorInês Azevedo who co-authored the regional study recognizes the skepticism regarding the amount of health and environmental damages that may be avoided with renewable energy. But he feels more effort must be made in these commonly-overlooked areas.
"If we are going to justify the added cost of wind and solar on the basis of the health and climate benefits that they bring, it's time to think about a subsidy program that encourages operators to build plants in places where they will yield the most health and climate benefits," Azevedo said.
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