As part of his GreenGov initiative, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced that seven new solar energy arrays totaling 191 megawatts would be built around the state. Pennsylvania PULSE (Project to Utilize Light and Solar Energy) will go into operation on January 1, 2023. The state has a goal of obtaining at least 40 percent of its electricity from renewable energy generated in the state, despite Pennsylvania being the second-largest natural gas producer in the U.S.
Solar arrays will be built in seven locations in six Pennsylvania counties: Columbia, Juniata, Montour, Northumberland, Snyder, and York. When completed, the 191-megawatt project is expected to deliver 361,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year and create 400 or so jobs. Constellation, a Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission-licensed electric generation supplier, is expected to obtain a 15-year fixed-price supply agreement. Lightsource BP will build, own and operate the solar arrays. Lightsource BP is the largest solar developer in Europe, and third largest in the world outside of China. It is a British company with headquarters in London.
Wolf’s Climate Change Executive Order in 2019 set a goal of lowering Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050 compared with 2005 levels. The GreenGov Council is charged with developing strategies to ensure that state government plays a lead role in greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Goals include obtaining at least 40 percent of electricity from in-state “clean energy sources;” reducing energy use at least 3 percent annually; replacing 25 percent of the state vehicle fleet with electric vehicles; and attaining energy high-performance standards in building construction, lease, or renovation.
Issues with Solar Energy
If it sounds too good for the hype about solar energy to be true, it usually is. First, most solar energy jobs are construction jobs that are temporary. Further, those jobs are lower-paying than many of the jobs Wolf’s program will be displacing, but the program puts those new jobs into producing the same electric output, which, sadly, is negative for economic growth and jobs, since China controls the world’s supply chains for solar panels. The output they will be displacing—coal and natural gas generation—is likely to be for technologies with most if not all of their capital costs paid, which means that electricity prices will likely go up because new capital will be required to pay for the part-time generation sources.
Because solar energy is intermittent, it requires backup power from existing traditional technologies that can be dispatched as demand changes, not as the weather elements dictate, or by storage capacity, such as batteries, that can store excess energy produced when the sun is shining. Because the premise is to get rid of fossil fuels, the long-term solution is battery technology, which is expensive. According to the Energy Information Administration, battery storage is more expensive per kilowatt-hour than a coal plant (65 percent higher), a natural gas combined cycle plant (223 percent higher), and an advanced nuclear plant (73 percent higher). To be fair, the cost of storage should be added to the cost of the solar plant to get the true cost of replacing existing technologies, since the only reason batteries are required is because inherently intermittent sources such as wind and solar are being mandated by the government.
Further, solar panels need rare earth metals (e.g. neodymium and dysprosium) for their manufacture. China dominates the production and processing of rare earth elements with 85 percent of the processing capability. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States gets around 80 percent of its rare earth imports from China. The United States lacks resources in 14 key rare earths—out of the 35 overall types of rare earth elements. On December 1, 2020, China implemented its new Export Control Law. The law stipulates that the state will implement export control on dual-use items such as military products, nuclear, and other goods, technologies, services, rare earths and other items related to national security and interests, and fulfilling international obligations such as non-proliferation. That means China now has an official mechanism to reduce rare earth exports at a whim. And, as the global supply of rare earth elements shrink because of huge new demands of “clean” or “green” energy, their prices will rise. In fact, the price of these mineral elements has already risen as their demand has increased.
Also, the land requirements needed are immense. If the United States were to generate all of the energy it uses with renewable energy, 25 percent to 50 percent of all land in the United States would be required compared to today’s energy system, which requires 0.5 percent of land in the United States.
There is also a waste disposal issue. Solar panels contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel. While disposal of solar panels has taken place in regular landfills, it is not recommended because the modules can break, and toxic materials can leach into the soil, causing problems with drinking water. One of the biggest challenges with solar panel waste is its large quantity. Solar panel waste disposal is a growing problem that needs to be addressed in the United States and internationally before progressing on a major undertaking to replace existing technology.
Lessons from California
In August of 2020, California faced rolling blackouts because heatwaves and wildfires hit the state, solar generation declined from the smoke and ash, and surrounding states could not make up the shortfall from the reduced output and higher demand. Californians pay more for electricity than most Americans. In December 2020, California—with 30 percent of its utility-scale electricity generated by non-hydroelectric renewable energy—had the fifth-highest residential electricity price in the nation. California’s residential electricity price at 20.45 cents per kilowatt-hour was 56 percent higher than the average residential electricity price in Pennsylvania (13.15 cents per kilowatt-hour). Pennsylvanians may not be aware that the path their state is taking mirrors that which has raised prices in California.
Governor Wolf will bring higher prices to a state that is the second-largest producer of natural gas in the nation. The state has enough domestic resources to maintain reasonably priced energy for heating and electric generation due to the vast amount of natural gas produced from the Marcellus shale basin using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Instead, Governor Wolf wants to push higher-cost renewable energy on his constituents, which will eventually need battery storage for backup, as Wolf rids the state of fossil energy according to his stated goals. His latest endeavor of 191 megawatts of solar power will increase electricity prices; result in temporary, lower-paying jobs than the fossil fuel technologies that they have displaced; need additional transmission and storage capacity; and result in potential problems to landfills due to the toxic materials in the panels when they are disposed. Switching Pennsylvania’s energy from home-grown sources to sources overwhelmingly dependent upon China may not be something Pennsylvanians are familiar with, but those are the consequences of Governor Wolf’s plans.