Solar United Neighbors

Henry McKay, Solar United Neighbors program director for Pennsylvania, spoke about solar energy and the Mon/Yough Solar Co-op at a recent informational meeting at Uniontown Public Library. The public will be able to learn more about solar energy at the Greene County Solar Festival Sept. 28 at the Greene County Fairgrounds near Waynesburg. (Photo by Frances Borsodi Zajac)

Sunlight has different meanings depending on who you talk to – and when you talk to them. Some want to escape it during summer, while others are happy to spend their days soaking in it. As fall approaches and days get shorter, a sunny day can mean a chance to warm up.

For Solar United Neighbors (SUN) and Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ), two nonprofit organizations, sunlight promotes empowerment. In Pennsylvania, it can lead to savings in utility bills and even employment opportunities. The organizations plan to explain why on Saturday, Sept. 28, when the fairgrounds will host the first-ever Greene County Solar Festival.

The festival will feature solar installers talking about recent advancements in solar technology; Greene County residents who have gone solar explaining how the process works and solar organizations and companies showcasing job training and employment opportunities in the industry.

Despite the name, the focus won’t be limited to solar energy, with a variety of local vendors selling food, crafts and goods. Nonprofits and student organizations are also expected.

“It is not just about making sure people have access to the information around what is possible with solar energy, but we’re creating community spaces to come together and have fun, too,” said Veronica Coptis, CCJ executive director. “This gave us the opportunity to have information about the potential of solar energy in Greene County and create a space where we can highlight local vendors, businesses and have fun, have food, listen to music and so we can be in community together while we’re learning.”

According to McKay and Coptis, solar energy represents job opportunities. First, because solar installer is one of the fastest growing job types in the country. Second, because it gives workers alternatives in a community with little economic options.

“Instead of having the only way you can sustain your family be in the fossil fuel energy sector, people now can have a choice, ‘Do I want to work in the gas well or in the coal mine or do I want to see if I can find a job installing solar?’” Coptis said. “I think it’s about creating more agency for folks who live here instead of giving them only one option to support their families.”

Not to mention fossil fuels are not renewable and resources are becoming sparse. For Coptis, it is time to plan for the future.

“We may run out of coal in the next 30 to 50 years and we shouldn’t wait 30 years to plan what’s going to drive the county’s economy, we should start that planning today so that when we mine the last ton of coal and the company bails on the county because it’s not profitable anymore, we’re not left in the dust,” she said. “We’ve been planning for this and we know what to do when that moment comes.”

Greene County generates a lot of energy; there are coal mines and gas wells. Why introduce yet another way? For Henry McKay, Pennsylvania program director at SUN, betting on solar energy is beneficial to community members, business owners, the environment and even utility companies.

His organization works nationwide to create co-ops, where neighbors come together to help leverage their collective buying power to get a better deal on solar panel installation.

Although there is some cost upfront, McKay said those who go solar save enough money on utility bills to make it worth it – even on cloudy days and long winters.

That is because they stay connected to their utility company in what’s called a grid tie. During summer and sunny days, solar panels can generate more electricity than a household needs. This extra energy goes back to the utility company, which will send it to other homes in the area, something that is beneficial because electricity doesn’t have to travel as far.

Utility companies will then give solar customers credits for this residual energy that they can use when they don’t generate enough electricity. This process is called net metering. According to McKay, Pennsylvania has one of the best net metering processes in the country, requiring that utility companies give favorable rates to customers.

“A way to think of it is when you have solar, you use your electric grid as a battery, you’re charging the battery by giving it to the utility and then you draw from that extra energy when you need to, just like a battery,” he said.

Plus, solar energy is environmentally and economically friendly.

“It is fuel-free, emissions-free electricity, but it also has broader benefits. It gives regular households of small businesses control over the energy system, control over where their energy comes from,” McKay said. “So it not only generates clean electricity but direct power and economic benefits back to local communities.”

Being at the front of energy development has been part of the state’s identity for years and there is no reason to fall behind now, McKay said.

“Pennsylvania won’t be able to maintain that energy leadership unless it really gets on board with solar,” he said. “We’re trying to help people make that transition in a way that it benefits them and their community. It really is achievable in Pennsylvania. We could really do all these amazing things with electricity generation in the past, we can be able to do it with solar as well.”

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