I’ve been fortunate to have been the engineer for more-than-my-fair-share of photovoltaic (PV) projects in past few years. PV projects have been a very enriching and a very satisfying part of my career. IÂ’ve been involved with such big name corporations as Tiffany & Co. and Johnson and Johnson as part of this work. But, of all the PV experience I have, the projects have one thing in common – they are ALL located in New Jersey. Why is that? Does New Jersey have more sun than Pennsylvania? Is it because New Jersey is a “flat” state without mountains to shade a lovely landscape of flat warehouse roofs, ripe for the placement of PV panels? No. The simple reason – no matter how “green” we want to be, the number one motivating factor for PV installations is a different kind of green – money.
The cost of PV systems is significant. Current pricing is around $7/watt. So, a “small” PV system to be integrated in parallel with the local utility company might be around 100 kilowatts, which would be installed at a cost of around $700,000. The most favorable payback scenarios would still suggest a >20 year payback – not typically a payback that triggers such significant capital investment. So why is there such a proliferation of PV systems in New Jersey? Simple – the utility company is subsidizing projects that utilize renewable energy sources – sometimes up to 60% of the installed cost. Once a facility takes 60% out of the $700,000 price tag and runs the same financial analysis, the payback looks more like 7 or 8 years – still outside the magical 5-year boundary, but still workable in an effort to be “green”.
Because of my PV project experience, I’ve been asked a number of times to consult on potential PV projects in Pennsylvania. To date, I have not engineered any in the Keystone State and cost is the buzz-kill as you might expect. PA utilities currently do not participate in a renewable energy rebate program and, therefore, the same financial incentive to be “green” doesn’t exist for even small-scale commercial installations. I am aware that other various grant monies are available, and I’ve seen them being applied to very small scale residential applications, but until the folks in Harrisburg see what’s happening in the Garden State where they can’t ship PV panels fast enough to meet demand, we’ll still send people into holes in the ground looking for anthracite.