Heating Up the Solar Market in Western Pennsylvania

It turns out that you donít have to live in sunny California to go solar. Some people think that the planets are aligning for the growth of a solar energy market in western Pennsylvania. As The Allegheny Frontís Ann Murray has discovered, among other things, it will take a trained workforce to really heat up this emerging market.

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OPEN: It turns out that you donít have to live in sunny California to go solar. Some people think that the planets are aligning for the growth of a solar energy market in western Pennsylvania. As The Allegheny Frontís Ann Murray has discovered, among other things ..it will take a trained workforce to really heat up this emerging market.

MURRAY: When Leo Chraska started planning his new house he decided to use the sun and wind to power the building.

CHRASKA: †I was looking at alternate ways of getting electricity without having to pay Duquesne Light† enormous sums to get me electric.

MURRAY: Chraska figured it would cost around $40,000 dollars just to connect his remote rural house to the electric grid. So he hired a company to install solar panels and a windmill. When the companyís owner showed up to look at the site, Chraska realized things werenít going to work out.

CHRASKA: I knew more than he did.

MURRAY: After that, he happened onto Dan Camachoís web site.† Camacho is an electrical engineer who started a solar installation business a few years ago. When I caught up with Camacho he was in the middle of installing 18 solar panels on Chraskaís steep roof.† Heís certified by the state to be part of Pennsylvaniaís new Sunshine Solar Program and he couldnít be happier.

CAMACHO: †The state of Pennsylvania has a sunny attitude.Weíre going to have the money. They devoted 100 million which has been funded. Only five to eight percent has been used so far.

MURRAY: The hundred million dollar state fund will save homeowners and small businesses up to 35 percent on the cost of a solar project which runs an average of $38,000. The rebates go through approved contractors like Camacho whoíve done at least three installations and passed a national certification test. Camacho and the handful of other installers working in western Pennsylvania say the state incentive, a 30 percent federal tax credit for residential solar projects, and a dip in the price of solar panels have started to attract customers .

CAMACHO: : Weíre getting† like maybe six calls or emails every week. People are interested.

MURRAY: Installers of solar panels and water heaters predict that interest will translate into more business. †They hope to hire sales reps and additional people with installation skills. The number of professional designers and installers is still small but training classes are popping up around the region. This is Gary McBurneyís third time teaching the basics of Solar Panel Installation and Maintenance at a union center in Pittsburgh. The class will get hands-on training but tonight is all about equipment demonstrations and the text.

McBURNEY:† Sun path charts are located in the back of your book. Look on page (NAT SOUND:TURNS PAGES) There it is on page 426.†Everybody find that? Thatís our window when we worry about how much weíre going to gain when we set up a solar system on a roof.

MURRAY: During a break, McBurney says the students in his 13-week class all have some kind of trade. Most are looking to get into something more cutting edge or expanding their skills. He thinks their solar education will give them a leg up in a greening economy.

McBURNEY: Jobs are going to be popping up and students are going to have an edge because there are going to be a lot of students that have no knowledge at all of solar.

MURRAY: Adam Rossi, one of McBurneyís students, already has made the jump. He and his dad have morphed their local family business.

ROSSI: We just transferred from having an electric company to a solar company. We specialize in solar thermal and weíd like to branch into wind and solar PV.

ANN: Do you think youíre going to be able to make a living?

ADAM: I hope so. Thatís the plan.

MURRAY: Experts suggest that some kinks will have to be worked out before lots of Pennsylvanians can make a living in the solar industry. It'll take bigger state renewable energy goals for solar, more funding for training and big solar projects and better coordination among solar manufacturers, distributors and installers. So maybe the planets are aligning for a western Pennsylvania solar market.† Itíll just going to take some time.

For The Allegheny Front, this is Ann Murray.