Salena Zito: Half-built Pa. solar farm shows renewables aren’t for prime time

By Salena Zito

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jun. 18, 2022


PORTAGE, Pa. — The pitch to the people of Cambria County when the Maple Hill Solar Farm was first announced two years ago was that the $200 million project would create 150 megawatts of electricity while eliminating 150,000 tons of carbon emissions that fossil fuel plants would have emitted — and that it would employ 250 workers at peak construction.


Even the Appalachian region’s reputation for cloudy weather was going to be overcome by technological advances that made the solar panels more efficient.


In short, the promise of the Green New Deal had come to coal country. In fact, the solar panel farm was to be constructed on an old coalmine strip.


With the exception of the reliably cloudy weather, though, none of it has lived up to its promise — to the frustration of the owners of the solar farm, climate change activists and the men and women who looked forward to new jobs to replace the ones lost in coal.


Climb to the top of the mountain where the solar farm is and you see thousands of racking systems spread across hundreds of acres that hold solar modules — but no panels.


The scene is jarring. The question is: Why?


The answer is Joe Biden — or at least that was the answer until a week ago, when Mr. Biden finally waived the tariffs on solar panels from Southeast Asia he had enacted after Auxin Solar filed an inquiry into whether China was circumventing tariffs.


The delay caused by the ensuing Commerce Department investigation has stalled solar farms like this one for months — others permanently — and threatened the climate change goals Mr. Biden laid out at his inauguration.


“The tariffs derailed renewable projects across the country,” said Tom Rumsey, senior vice president of Competitive Power Ventures, the developer behind Maple Hill. “Lifting the tariffs has helped, but here at this solar panel farm, we’re expecting it to go commercial second quarter next year.”


The uncertainty of the tariffs caused over 315 projects to be cancelled or delayed, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the industry’s top trade organization.


On the same day Mr. Biden lifted the tariffs, he also announced he was going to use wartime powers granted under the Defense Production Act to ramp up solar equipment production to speed up American-made clean energy manufacturing.


That’s the other rub: We don’t make solar panels in this country.


“The capability to manufacture the amount that you’re going to need, well that’s going to take probably over a decade,” explained Mr. Rumsey.


“And it’s not just build them — then where are you going to get the raw materials needed that go into them? That’s the part no one talks about. Yes, you can assemble them in the United States. You’re still going back to China, to the mines that everybody hates,” he said.


Solar energy requires rare earth minerals, and China holds most of them, primarily in Xinjiang, where manufacturing is tainted by the use of forced labor.


The problem here is the problem everywhere with renewable energy: It’s just not ready for prime time — at least not ready enough to produce the energy needed to keep this country humming.


Energy has become just another polarized “us versus them” issue, with climate activists treating it with religious fervor. Statements like “the world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change,” by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., make it extraordinarily difficult to have a pragmatic discussion about how to balance an “all of the above” solution to energy.


The other less visible problem at this facility is wages. Shawn Steffee, the business agent for the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 154, said the jobs available for this solar farm are a slap in the face — and won’t help the power plant workers who lost their jobs. “We were told these jobs were going to be family-sustaining jobs. Well, $16 an hour is not a family-sustaining wage,” Mr. Steffee said, shaking his head. “I honestly don’t know anyone who has gotten a green energy job.”


Mr. Rumsey said you’ll never hear his company talk green jobs: “That’s a political statement. We never say ‘green jobs.’ Why? Because it takes a day and a half to put up a wind turbine and once you construct the solar projects — and there are construction jobs there, for sure — but once they’re constructed, that’s it. There’s no operating jobs. There’s nothing,” he said honestly.


Mr. Rumsey, who has spent years in the energy industry, said ten years ago he was telling Republicans that they needed to be adaptable on climate change — and eventually, he said, they were. Today he is having the same conversation with Democrats, who want full renewable use to have started yesterday.


“There is no technology right now that you can simply call that can come up quickly if you have a bunch of wind or solar cut out, or go away — because like nuclear, you start it and you’re running,” he said.


Steady supply is an issue, Mr. Rumsey said of the renewable industry: “Battery storage just doesn’t have the capacity duration. There is no technology that can do it, other than natural gas. Our struggle is trying to break through the mindset that any new natural gas is just more dependence on fossil fuel.”


The hard truth is that renewables aren’t ready to play the role in the national energy mix that activists and politicians claim. But instead of acknowledging that an all-of-the-above approach keeps our electricity going while reducing our carbon emissions, the Biden administration remains beholden to a Democratic base resistant to compromise.


The worst part isn’t just the wind whistling among the thousands of empty racks that make up Maple Hill or the temporary, low-paying jobs to install the panels: It’s the blackouts that, according to the Washington Post, could hit much of the country this summer.


Many of the coal fired power plants that for decades lit our homes and kept us cool in the summer have gone offline, having been driven out of existence. But the country doesn’t have reliable renewable energy infrastructure to replace it.


And if that wasn’t enough, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission predicts electricity prices will rise as much as 233% over last summer’s prices, which will go nicely with the prices Americans are paying at pump.


Maple Hill is a symbol of both promise and overreach. Eventually, it will be productive. But without clear minds to manage the energy mix, the financial pain and inconvenience Americans are experiencing will only continue, or get worse.


Originally posted on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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