Pa. can do more to promote solar energy

President Obama, shown here speaking at Florida Power & Light's solar energy center, has called cutting carbon-dioxide emissions "a debate between looking backward and looking forward." (STEVE NESIUS / Associated Press)

With Pennsylvania boasting the nation’s second largest number of solar-industry jobs, state officials would be foolish to let the sun set on such a nascent but promising industry. But that could happen due to a temporary mismatch between solar-energy financing and market demand.

The construction of more than 4,000 solar projects has been a roaring success, responsible for generating several thousand jobs at 600 solar businesses. Growing that industry from scratch, with state and federal aid, also boosted the use of nonpolluting and renewable energy. That will be particularly helpful in meeting summer’s peak demand.

Yet, the boom in solar projects has outpaced the amount of solar energy utilities are required to buy under the state’s alternative-energy rules. That has depressed the value of solar-energy credits needed to provide a return on photovoltaic solar systems, which have a steep, up-front price tag.

The best way for state officials to spur solar to new heights would be to boost the modest solar-energy standard — now far lower than neighboring states, at only 0.5 percent — by 2021. But last year, that idea ran into strong opposition from Exelon and other utilities, coal producers, and business groups — and a certain Republican candidate for governor.

Fortunately, a fellow Republican, State Rep. Chris Ross from Chester County, unveiled a legislative proposal Tuesday that should be more to Gov. Corbett’s liking. Ross would accelerate the amount of solar energy utilities are required to purchase for the next few years, but leave the overall standard at just 0.5 percent. He would also follow other states by barring out-of-state solar producers contributing to the solar glut in Pennsylvania.

The Ross proposal amounts to a tweak, but one that could be critical to maintaining the state’s foothold in solar energy. Corbett and Republican legislative leaders could fall back on tea-party ideological antagonism toward so-called government mandates — or they could prove themselves progressive enough to embrace a modest plan that makes sense for the state’s 21st-century economy.

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