Solar Energy Right Here in Pittsburgh

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Hotline, Spring 2000

As we all know, one of the leading causes of air pollution and ozone is older power plants. These plants use outdated equipment that doesn’t control emissions of NOx and SOx as well as the newer power plants. What are the alternatives to using fossil fuels? The answer is renewable energy.

Renewable energy is supplied by something that is replenished naturally by the environment. Coal and natural gas have finite supplies, and it is foreseeable that those supplies could run out if we continue to use them at the rate we do today. Examples of renewable energy are solar, wind, biomass (gases and heat given off by organic waste), geothermal, and small hydro (small dams under 30MW.) The best known of all these types and possibly the one that affects the environment the least is solar.

There are a few different types of solar energy that can be implemented in the residential setting. Having a structure that is oriented towards the southeast with large insulated windows to collect heat naturally is passive solar energy. At The Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace at Carnegie Mellon University, you can see this at work, on the top floor of the Margaret Morrison building. Practically the whole floor is one big window. With a special coating, these windows optimize the amount of light coming in with out allowing too much heat gain. To arrange for a tour or a workshop, call (412) 268-2350 or email iw@andrew.cmu.edu.

Another way to get energy from sunlight is photovoltaics, or active solar. Solar panels collect the light and turn it into energy. They have no moving parts and produce power silently. They are durable, withstanding severe weather conditions including hurricanes, snow and ice. The benefits are numerous, especially the fact that there are no known pollutants caused, and very little maintenance is required.

The only problem is that the installation costs are very high, and the payback in an area like Pittsburgh is 15 to 25 years, assuming no maintenance. A typical 75 W panel costs about $100.00. A 75-watt panel will power a 20-watt fluorescent light 24 hours a day in most areas (or a 75-watt light for 4 to 7 hours). To outfit an average home with a complete set-up to replace your current supply of electricity may cost you $20,000, including panels, batteries, inverters, and other mounting structures. Let’s say your average electricity bill is $60 a month, multiply that by 12 months, and then by 25 years, that would equal $18,000. So it could make sense to convert all your power over to solar, if you have the capital at hand. Plus there is the added benefit of not adding any of the extra air emissions into the atmosphere, the true environmental cost of which is unknown.

Active solar power makes the most sense at remote sites that are far from power lines or where the power is very unreliable. Costs for power lines can be as much as $75,000 per mile. As a general rule, if you are more than 1/2 mile from a line, solar may be the best option. But of course, here in Pittsburgh there are almost no areas that are not connected to the grid already. Another consideration is the fact that there are some areas of the United States that continuously get more direct sunlight throughout the year. Someone in California or Arizona might have a greater advantage for having solar panels installed to generate electricity.

So is active solar energy actually worth pursuing in Pittsburgh? Curtis Magnuson at the CCI Center, on the South Side, is researching the possibilities. He feels that solar panels are a valuable source of savings in electricity and as a research tool. GPU Energy from Eastern Pennsylvania donated two large arrays of photovoltaic panels to the renovation project at CCI. The panels were integrated into the architect’s design and serve a second purpose as a shade for the patio and building, which reduces the air conditioning load. The building was renovated about a year and a half ago, and they have been collecting data on the panels since then. CCI has a custom software program that provides real time data from the solar panels. Peak collection times are between 11:00 am and 1:30 pm depending on the time of year, although the software program does register collection from dawn till dusk. As far as monetary savings, Curtis estimated that they save about $45-$55 a month, or around $550 a year on their electricity bill. There is almost no maintenance on the small battery system. It serves as a back up for their computer server. You can arrange for a tour of the Center by calling Mary Whitney at (412) 431-4449 ext. 208

Whether or not you can install solar panels, there are many things that you can do to reduce the amount of electricity you use, and therefore fossil fuels you consume. Buy the most energy efficient appliances and electronic devices you can afford, and install compact fluorescent light bulbs. Set your thermostat a few degrees cooler in the winter, and warmer in the summer; fix leaks in your house where heat or air conditioning may be escaping. Invest your money in renewable energy companies, or ones that use it. If you haven’t already looked into the rates of any renewable energy electricity companies in your area, do so. So far, Greenmountain.com is the only one available to Pittsburgh residents.

by Brigid Ferkett, GASP Office Manager