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Pennsylvania’s Solar Future Is Sunnier Thanks to Heinz College

By Scottie Barsotti

In the solar energy realm, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has some ground to make up. Heinz College students are here to help.

The Green New Deal has dominated the environmental conversation in 2019, but that doesn’t mean the debates around climate change and renewable energy only happen at the federal level. State and local governments have a major role to play and are stepping up investments in renewable energy across the country. That’s a big reason why renewables recently overtook coal in the U.S. energy market for the first time.

Solar generation is one of the fastest-growing electricity sources in the U.S., and some states—such as California, North Carolina, and Arizona—are way ahead of the game. Others, like Pennsylvania, are still getting up to speed where solar production is concerned, but the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has set a goal to generate 10 percent of the state’s energy from solar by 2030.

It’s an ambitious goal, in part because Pennsylvania gets its fair share of clouds. (Ok, maybe more than its fair share.) 

To help make that 10 percent goal a reality, the DEP worked with a team of Heinz College students from the Master of Science in Public Policy and Management (MSPPM) program to research potential sites for large “grid-scale” solar installations in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvania has not been a hot spot for solar, but we do have the resources to achieve [the DEP’s goal],” said Clarissa Paz (MSPPM ’19), who was part of the student team. “We need more panels to generate the same amount of energy when compared to states that get more sun, like Nevada or California, but it’s still an opportunity.” 

“Working with the DEP, and several commercial developers and utilities, our team identified 675 financially- and environmentally-feasible sites for the deployment of grid-scale solar in a nine-county region in the Pittsburgh metro area,” said Anna J. Siefken, Heinz College adjunct faculty member and executive director of CMU’s Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation, who served as the project’s advisor.

As the students considered possible sites for grid-scale solar, they had some minimum qualifications that had to be met. Any old tract of land wouldn’t pass the test…they had to be at least 100 acres, have a low risk of flood, meet certain topographical requirements, and couldn’t be located on protected lands.

Using geographic Information systems (GIS) to perform geospatial analysis, the students determined there were 3,771 such parcels in Southwestern Pennsylvania that would be suitable for grid-scale solar. Having so many possibilities meant the students could be even choosier!

Financial analysis of some of the larger sites (250 acres or more) helped the students narrow that number to 29 top candidates—sites that met all established criteria and would be financially feasible for the development of grid-scale solar. The students delivered that list to the DEP. 

In addition to these analyses, the group was diligent in their approach to understanding the current regulatory environment and state of play in solar energy.

Solar PA Capstone Group shot

Members of the Solar PA Capstone Team
(from left: Krista Mobley, Clarissa Paz, Atsumi Kainosho, Natasha Gonzalez

“Our team benchmarked other states to learn more about existing solar programs that were working,” said Paz. “Pennsylvania has certain regulations that can hinder development of grid-scale solar. We hoped that by looking at other nearby states like New York and New Jersey and getting a sense of what’s been successful there, we could find examples of policies that Pennsylvania could adopt.”

Early on, the group felt optimistic about a community solar solution—which would involve smaller investments from community members and organizations rather than one large investment from a single entity—as their research showed that such programs had been effective in other states.

But there was a catch.

“Current regulations prohibit community solar in Pennsylvania.” said Paz. “Which is too bad because community solar would offer different opportunities for meeting the requirements of grid-scale solar installations and would help the DEP meet its goal.”

However, in addition to giving that insight to DEP, the team provided recommendations that could enhance solar development without running into regulatory challenges. These include increasing the state’s Solar Renewable Energy Credits, creating public-private partnerships to build and expand solar incentives, and making a central GIS database of feasible sites available and free to access.

“As Heinz College students, our quantitative background allowed us to approach a problem like this in unique ways and determine for our client whether or not a policy would work based on evidence,” said Paz.

A hands-on education in policy and politics 

Paz had a head start on this project. During her summer internship, she began some of the early geospatial analysis that fed into the DEP capstone project in the fall. She was approached by Heinz College Professor Rick Stafford to collaborate on this research during the summer term, specifically due to the GIS strengths she’d gained in her first year.

“I took a GIS course in undergraduate, but it was more focused on the cartography and theory aspects. At Heinz, the focus was on data analytics,” said Paz. “I fell in love with GIS because I found it to be such a powerful tool. I want to continue to use it in my career and so I knew I wanted to apply my GIS abilities to my capstone project.”

She got to do even more than that. Once the capstone was finished, Paz was asked to continue her GIS analysis for the Scott Institute.

“For the capstone, the team was able to analyze nine of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, and they had only analyzed sites that met the larger acreage requirement,” said Siefken. “The Scott Institute wanted to expand the site analysis so the project could make an even bigger contribution to the state’s goal.”

Up until she graduated in May, Paz used GIS to find smaller sites in the nine-county region that were adjacent to each other and could possibly be combined to create additional feasible sites for grid-scale solar. Up until she graduated in May, she had identified 675 feasible sites in total, comprising 93,000 acres. Siefken says that based on the acreage of these sites, the potential capacity is the equivalent of 11 gigawatts of electricity—enough to meet the DEP's 10 percent goal for solar, despite only using 0.32 percent of the state's acreage..  

Siefken presented the team’s results at the Green Building United’s annual Sustainability Symposium in Philadelphia in May, and has plans to present at the upcoming Energypath Conference as well. There are plans to extend the project methodology into eastern Pennsylvania in the near future.

“I love that the work has continued beyond the capstone project, and is still going. It’s exciting that it wasn’t just a project for a grade,” said Paz. “It just goes to show that the skills we learn here at Heinz can be applied and have an impact on policy, and you can have that impact before you even graduate.”

This project is also supported by CMU’s Metro21: Smart Cities Institute.

This capstone project, entitled “Evaluating and Elevating Southwestern Pennsylvania's Grid-Scale Solar Future,” was completed by Natasha Gonzalez, Atsumi Kainosho, Krista Mobley, Clarissa Paz, and Isaac Schiffman.

Read the final report

Learn more about the Scott Institute

Learn more about Metro21