"The 21st century will be a solar century"
The story of Centralia, Pennsylvania stands in stark contrast to the recent coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee. As Kingston residents cope with the task of digging themselves out of a toxic sludge, Centralia residents point with pride to the wind turbines that grace the ridge lines that heretofore were best known for the coal they harbored.
Positive, tangible signs of a new day dawning. (GW)
Settlers came to this Columbia County borough to mine its coal. Decades later, residents were forced out as a mine fire consumed the land beneath the community.
Now, a new form of energy development has sprung up near the ghost town. On the ridge above this shattered community, a series of long, sleek, modern-looking turbines disappear into the horizon.
The wind turbines above Centralia are part of a large wind farm that stretches into Schuylkill County. When completed next year, it will be the largest wind farm in Pennsylvania. And it's all happening in the shadow of old coal mines and patch towns that define the Anthracite Region.
To the southeast, Exelon Generation is constructing the largest solar energy farm on the East Coast on a Bucks County landfill. The company, known better for its nuclear plant at Limerick, is diversifying its energy portfolio through wind and solar projects.
Energy experts predict that wind and solar power will play an even greater role in the nation's quest for energy independence. Pennsylvania stands to benefit from the interest in both.
Two European wind companies have opened offices and manufacturing centers in the Keystone state. And state lawmakers have recently adopted legislation aimed at jump-starting the solar market by giving rebates for home installation.
"The 21st century will be a solar century," said John Hanger, acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. "I want Pennsylvania to be a leader in solar."
The state has made significant strides to promote renewable energy resources, he said.
In the next decade, Pennsylvania has the potential to supply more than a million homes with power from wind plants, Hanger said. More homes and business are likely to install roof-top solar panels in the coming years, he said.
"Pennsylvania might have been thought of as a state that was not progressive, but that is yesterday's news," Hanger said.
Three years ago, Joe Green broke ground on a project to bring wind power to the top of Locust Ridge in northern Schuylkill County. Green, who grew up in the area, saw the potential for wind energy.
That first project of 13 turbines near Mahanoy City has expanded into 64 turbines that will produce enough electricity to power 38,000 homes, Green said. Iberdrola Renewables, a Spanish wind company with offices in Pennsylvania, is financing the project.
The turbines dominate the ridge line, rising more than 100 feet above the crest of the mountain. Most residents don't mind the turbines, Green said.
"I speak to people on both sides of Locust Ridge and I am amazed at the positive response," said Green, who is the project manager for Locust Ridge. "People see this as the future. They are proud to have this on their ridge."
Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Iberdrola Renewables, said Pennsylvania is well situated to benefit from wind energy. The state has a promising wind supply, ample transmission lines and is close to the energy-hungry Eastern Seaboard, he said.
In 2000, the state did not have any working wind farms, Copleman said. Now, with 10, it has more coming each year, he said.
Pennsylvania is not the windiest state in the nation. It's away from the high-wind corridor that cuts through the Midwest from North Dakota to Texas.
Pennsylvania ranks 16th in the nation for generating capacity, said Christine Real de Azua, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association. Pennsylvania has the potential to generate 45 billion kilowatts a year, based on its wind resources, she said.
But the state is capitalizing on its available wind energy, both through putting up wind farms and attracting manufacturing jobs, Real de Azua said. Gamesa, a Spanish company, manufactures blades for wind turbines at a Bucks County plant.
"Pennsylvania has been a leader in realizing the opportunity provided in job creation and manufacturing," Real de Azua said. "Pennsylvania was one of the fist to spot that opportunity."
Early next year, Exelon expects that its 16.5-acre solar farm in Bucks County will begin producing power.
The farm, which will generate enough to power 350 homes, is one of the largest on the East Coast, with more than 17,000 solar panels, said Tim Wirth, a spokesman for Exelon. The company has also invested in four wind farms in southwestern Pennsylvania, he said.
"We are trying to have a diversity of generating sources," Wirth said. "There isn't one renewable energy source that can solve all our energy problems."
Hanger, the acting DEP secretary, said he expects to see an increase in the number of homes supplementing their power supply through solar panels. State legislation has provided $100 million in grants and rebates for households and small business installing solar panels, he said.
As the technology continues to advance, solar will become more cost effective, he said.
"We have enough solar energy hitting the Earth to supply all our energy needs," he said. "We have only captured a drop of it."