Wind and sun a powerful pair

Solar and wind

Courtesy Mark Williford


By Ben Cramer

Pennsylvania's vast coal deposits were once an economic boon and were a key factor in the state's development as an industrial powerhouse. Unfortunately, the Keystone State has been left with a gritty legacy of pollution and dependence on traditional fuel sources. Nearly 60% of Pennsylvania's electricity is still generated from coal, which is one of the dirtiest and most polluting power sources. However, there is real potential for renewable energy generation in Pennsylvania, which is just beginning to be tapped.

Pennsylvania's greatest potential renewable power source is wind, which is plentiful and abundant in much of the state. Except for the extreme northwestern and southeastern corners, almost all of Pennsylvania is covered by high ridges with parallel valleys, or plateaus dotted with hilltops. Any experienced outdoor enthusiast in Pennsylvania's rugged regions will know how windy those hilltops and ridgelines can be. In fact, several different renewable energy organizations, most notably the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), concur that Pennsylvania has the greatest potential for wind power east of the Mississippi.

Right now, the most noteworthy wind power generation in the state is taking place at a complex of turbine farms in Somerset and Fayette Counties. Substantial facilities have also come online recently at Waymart in Wayne County and Meyersdale in Somerset County. According to AWEA, the coal that has been replaced by Pennsylvania's operational wind facilities would have produced 26,000 tons of greenhouse gases, plus hundreds of tons of smog and acid rain emissions. This is equivalent to the emissions of several thousand passenger cars.

Over the next several years, more wind power generating facilities are planned around the state, which could provide as much as 10-15% of Pennsylvania's energy needs. Other than the required access roads and initial construction challenges, plus the possible visual pollution of such tall and stark structures, the environmental impacts of wind turbines are very small, especially in comparison to traditional energy sources. The turbines themselves take up only a small patch of ground space, and standard industry practice is to place power transmission lines either alongside or underneath the access roads. There have been some concerns with the danger of turbine blades for migrating birds and bats, though these problems have been at least partially ameliorated through wise site selection and larger, slower-moving blades.

Meanwhile, there is potential for increased solar energy generation in Pennsylvania. Solar technology has traditionally been very expensive, with inherent problems concerning economies of scale and dependability during non-sunny weather, though these challenges are being addressed by ongoing research efforts. Currently, only a fraction of a percent of Pennsylvania's electricity is coming from solar sources, provided by a variety of private companies. However, the great advantage of solar energy is that it is abundant exactly when there is the most demand for electricity – hot and sunny days. Residents of Pennsylvania's cities can attest to the availability of sunlight during the dog days of summer.

The price of renewable power generation is falling rapidly due to growing consumer interest and commercial investment in research. Best of all, these wind and solar power generation processes produce little or no emissions, and are mostly immune to the price and supply shocks of the nonrenewable energy markets. Renewable energy has long been playing catch-up to the oil industry, due to taxation and subsidy structures that favor entrenched fossil fuel interests. With the recent upsurge in traditional fuel prices and growing worries over supply levels, it is time for citizens to demand that politicians reevaluate the status of renewables in the American energy economy. We're already off to a pretty good start here in Pennsylvania, with plenty of untapped potential in our windy hills and sunny skies.


Ben Cramer serves as outings chair for both the Moshannon Group and the Pennsylvania Chapter.


Published November 2005