Understanding the Pennsylvania Governor’s Commitment to Solar Energy by 2023

Why is this such a groundbreaking and exciting initiative, even for those not in Pennsylvania?

On March 22, 2021, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf announced a new initiative to utilize solar energy. This new initiative is making a commitment for 50% of the Pennsylvania state government’s electricity to be powered via solar energy starting January 1, 2023. This is the largest commitment to solar energy that the United States has ever seen.

This project will be accomplished by building new solar arrays in six different locations throughout Pennsylvania. The government will be working with the Pennsylvania Project to Utilize Light and Solar Energy (PULSE) to complete this project.

This is actually not Governor Tom Wolf’s first commitment to creating a cleaner environment for Pennsylvania. In 2019, Governor Wolf signed The Climate Change Executive Order, which set the goal to lower Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2025 and 80% by 2050.

Governor Wolf’s commitment to solar energy is an exciting initiative for several reasons:

  • The Capabilities of Solar Energy 
  • Solar Energy Providing New Benefits
  • Influential Power for Future Solar Energy Initiatives
Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf announcing the state’s commitment to solar energy.
Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf announcing the state’s commitment to solar energy. Image courtesy of Governor Tom Wolf.

The Capabilities of Solar Energy

Solar energy does not get as much credit as it deserves for all that it can do.

It is very likely that you have seen solar panels at some point in your life, whether driving on the highway or even on someone’s roof, given their recent increase in popularity over the past decade. However, you may not know a whole lot about the extent of the capabilities that solar energy has.

Solar panels have actually been around for quite some time, with the first solar panel dating back to the 1950s and solar energy dating back to the late 1800s. So, why has it taken so long for solar panels and solar energy to be utilized in major and impactful ways? A lot of it has to do with cost, as well as how effective solar panels and solar energy were when they were first created. However, over time, they have continued to expand their power. Here are some of the greatest capabilities of solar energy:

Provides a Renewable Energy Source: One quality of solar energy is that it is a renewable energy source. What exactly is a renewable energy source? This type of energy source is any form of energy that is able to replace the energy that was utilized for consumption on its own through a natural reproduction cycle. As the sun is constantly shining and giving off energy via heat, it is constantly in the cycle of reproducing the energy that travels to earth.

Unlike fossil fuels that have a limited quantity here on earth, the sun has an unlimited quantity of heat that it can give off - well, at least for the next few billion years. Unlike solar energy, fossil fuels are not reproducing themselves. It takes millions of years for fossil fuels to form in the first place, so while they are technically capable of reproducing themselves, they are not going to be any useful during our current life time. Fossil fuels will be useless when all of them have been retrieved from the earth, but the sun and its heat will always be there.

Similar Efficiency to Fossil Fuels: When solar panels and solar energy were first invented, they had a very low efficiency compared to other sources of energy. However, over time with advanced technology, solar energy now has a very similar efficiency rate compared to fossil fuels. Fossil fuels typically use about 20% of the energy, and solar energy is now able to use 15-22% of the energy.

While coal continues to stand at a whopping 33-40% efficiency rate, the lack of emissions that solar energy and solar panels produce are not even close to comparable to those of their fossil fuel counterparts. It is also worth mentioning that this increase in efficiency has made solar energy a much more cost effective option than it ever has been in the past.

Solar Energy Has Various Uses: While solar energy is collected through heat from the sun, solar energy is able to be turned into other forms of energy other than heat. Most of the time, solar energy is transformed into electricity, which is what solar panels are primarily doing when you see them on houses.

Of course, with constantly evolving technology, electricity is now able to power cars. Think about a future where your car is powered by electricity generated by the sun. That would eliminate pollutants from your car, as well as the process of charging your car, with the lack of emissions from solar energy.

An oil fracking machine.
There are a lot of dangers that the planet is facing and will continue to face if fossil fuels are continued to be used.

Solar Energy Providing New Benefits

Through the continued use of fossil fuels, there are a lot of benefits that the world is not experiencing that are derived from using solar energy.

When you hear about solar energy and think about solar panels, you probably associate them with words and concepts like environmentally friendly, low emission, and good for the overall planet. To put it quite plainly, it’s because solar energy is all of those things.

Ability to Store Solar Energy: As previously mentioned, solar energy originates in the form of heat, but is capable of being transformed into different forms of energy. There is a system of solar panels known as concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) that consists of a series of mirrors that reflect and concentrate light and can move the energy into storage. This is an ability that is not seen in other sources of energy, as the energy that is not used in fossil fuels gets released in the form of emissions. 

Reduction in Water Usage and Waste: Whether you know it or not, using fossil fuels to create energy actually has harmful effects on the water system. Being released into the air, they oftentimes will find their way into the ground, nearby bodies of water, or even into the clouds, and thus polluting the water.

Other forms of renewable energy typically rely on water, such as hydropower and nuclear energy, but the water from the energy becomes wasted after being used for energy. Solar energy saves water from becoming polluted and does not use any water in creating or collecting solar energy.

A Lack of Emissions: As previously mentioned, solar energy does not release any emissions when utilized, unlike its fossil fuel counterparts. In regards to efficiency, solar energy and fossil fuels do not use about 80% of the energy that they have. So, where does it go? For fossil fuels, they turn into pollutants and infiltrate the air. This creates dirty air and comes in the form of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, thus contributing to global warming.

However, solar energy does not do any of that. When solar energy is used and the 80% is not used, it is given off in its original form - light and heat. So, while it is giving off heat, it is not contributing to the greenhouse gases and global warming.

No More Relying on Non-Renewable Energy Sources: As of right now, most of the United States is relying solely on non-renewable energy sources. However, as you now know, non-renewable resources will not be around forever. This reliance is dangerous to everyone, because it will not be a quick transition when non-renewable resources run out.

So, by transitioning to and utilizing solar energy to a greater degree will allow for a smoother transition into using renewable energy sources - as this shift is inevitable. The sooner that this transition begins, the better.

Construction workers checking solar panel efficiency.
This landmark commitment to solar energy in Pennsylvania will provide a launching pad to future solar energy commitments and initiatives.

Influential Power for Future Solar Energy Initiatives

There always has to be a first for everything, and that is just what Governor Wolf is doing for solar energy efforts.

All eyes will be on Pennsylvania and Governor Wolf over the next few years as this project comes to fruition. Being the first major commitment to solar energy, this project has already been drawing a lot of attention and will only continue to as it gets closer to the January 1, 2023, deadline.

There are currently over 12,000 solar energy projects in the Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA) project database that are spread throughout the entire United States. However, with Governor Wolf’s announcement, it is likely that other green initiatives utilizing solar energy will begin to be seen spring up throughout the country, particularly in government settings.

As Pennsylvania begins to progress towards achieving their goal, it is exciting to think about all of the possibilities that will come with it. By taking the first step, Pennsylvania is paving the way for future environmentally conscious efforts that can take on many forms in the near future.

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Dean Pinnell

Dean Pinnell is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh studying Communication and Fiction Writing.
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