The PA Sustainable Energy Funds – the best-kept secret in sustainability financing

I recently attended the Power & Foresight Conference for the Sustainable Energy Funds hosted at Penn State in State College. Starting my green energy career in Virginia, I wasn’t aware of all the ins and outs of the electric provider deregulation process that occurred in Pennsylvania (Virginia is still a regulated Commonwealth), including the establishment of the Sustainable Energy Funds (SEF). The diverse number of stakeholders at the conference demonstrate the Funds’ long lasting, wide reaching, and positive impact throughout the state over the last 15 years. I’m happy to share what I learned about the Funds – I found it to be very interesting – and show you a few specific projects, as well as where the Funds are headed.

A Look Back

In 1996, Pennsylvania enacted the Electricity Generation Customer Choice and Competition Act (Customer Choice Act) to restructure the electric industry in the Commonwealth.  Several Pennsylvania electric distribution companies (West Penn Power, PECO, PPL, Metropolitan Edison, and Penelec) established sustainable energy funds as part of the deregulation process.

According to the Public Utility Commission, the funds are designed to promote the development of sustainable and renewable energy programs and technologies on both a regional and statewide basis. The funds have provided more than $20 million in loans and $1.8 million in grants to over 100 projects over 15 years.

Early Impact

The opening panel at the conference included representatives from each of the SEFs, who agreed that the funds have celebrated long-term, positive impact in communities throughout PA. Each representative had a different perspective of the most impactful early projects that paved the way for clean energy in the state, ranging in the topics listed below:

  • Supporting utility- and community- scale wind power, including a total of $12 million in incentives and financing. These incentives helped developers avoid some of the risk associated with wind farm projects. It also paved the way for studies to be completed in site selection of wind farms, permitting, power purchase agreement structures, etc.
  • The creation of the SEF organization itself
  • The level of education and outreach conducted, which has led to more public acceptance and support of less widely-known clean energy technologies
  • LEED-certified buildings in New Castle, Johnstown, and the Berks County Commission office
  • The economic impact study conducted for the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS)
  • The ability to make nimble and creative decisions for financing green projects
  • Solar PV and incentives for the residential market
  • Public education and the Clean Energy Expo

The Funds have been very active and proactive in providing financing solutions to some great projects throughout the state that have made a significant impact on the environmental and energy landscape in PA today.

Recent projects

A few recently funded projects include the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, the Elk Country Visitor Center, and an energy plant conversion at Penn State University.

Geisinger Medical Center in Danville
The Geisinger Medical Center earned an EPA ENERGY STAR certification of 100, which indicates superior energy performance and identifies the facility as one of the most energy efficient health care centers in the nation. A few of the many energy-saving features at the facility include:

  • 38kW solar array
  • Motion-sensored, solar-powered lighting at all shuttle bus stops
  • Energy-efficient LED lighting fixtures along pedestrian walkways

The medical center features a tri-generation plant, which is 50% more efficient than traditional electricity generation plant. The medical center also shifts peak loads, which saves more than $350,000 annually. Many savings have been realized in process efficiencies as well.

Elk Country Visitor Center & Conservation Education Center
This is a one-of-a-kind facility. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources partnered with the Keystone Elk Country Alliance to realize the vision of the Elk Country Visitor Center. The Elk Country Alliance works to preserve the elk herd in Pennsylvania and educate the public about elk in their natural habitat.

Gfp-pennsylvania-visitor-center-of-elk-country

Elk Country Visitors Center. Photo: Wikipedia / Yinan Chen

The 8,400-square-foot building is an eco-friendly structure designed and built with energy efficiency and environmental conservation in mind, and is projected to achieve a LEED Silver certification. Some of the sustainability features include:

  • Building location sited to minimize ecosystem impacts
  • Energy-efficient materials and designs
  • Passive design to maximize solar gain from windows in the winter
  • Geothermal heating and cooling system
  • Recycled-content materials
  • Rainwater collection system utilizes recycled rainwater for use in bathroom facilities
  • Bio-mass boiler that is heated with local firewood (sustainably managed)
  • Six-zone radiant floor heating

The sustainability features are a part of an immersive experience in environmental education and natural resource conservation. The Elk Country Visitor Center attracts almost a half a million visitors (including students on field trips) annually. It is a successful project that exemplifies the combination of eco-tourism, economic development, environmental conservation, and innovative green technologies.

Rhett

Morningside Solar Decathlon home. Photo credit: Rhett Major

Penn State University
PSU doesn’t have an energy reduction goal- they have a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction goal. They achieved their first reduction goal of 18% (from a baseline, since 2005),
and the next milestone is a 35% GHG reduction by 2020. The goal is a 52% reduction of GHG emissions by 2030. The image below shows the reductions and targets for Penn State University. An interactive graph can be found at www.sustainability.psu.edu.

At the conference, we had the opportunity to tour the Sustainability Experience Center, which includes the Morningside Solar Decathlon home.  The building is powered by 100% renewable energy. They have a community garden on-site as well as a wastewater treatment plant. 

We also toured one of the two campus steam turbine generation plants, which was recently converted to a co-generation plant. Together, both steam plants provide roughly 20% of the University Park Campus electricity needs. The steam turbine plant also utilizes a reverse osmosis system to treat and recycle water.

penn-state-chart

GHG Emissions Reduction Strategy.

Additionally, we toured Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. It is a LEED Certified Stadium – the PSU baseball team uses the facility as well as the State College Spikes, a minor league baseball team. On-site recycling, recycled materials, site location, parking lot LED lighting, and low-flow urinals and toilets all contributed to the LEED Certification.

These projects are only a snapshot of what the Sustainable Energy Funds support and have undoubtedly had a significant impact on the communities of which they are a part.

Looking to the future

The Sustainable Energy Funds will be moving toward a more holistic approach to helping whole communities, not just a singular individual or project. They are looking to offer more innovative financing, including energy savings agreements for energy efficiency or alternative energy systems in buildings. A focus on positive impacts (shifting away from a neutral impact) on surrounding environments will be emphasized.

Community scale renewable energy, distributed generation, storage innovations for renewable technologies, technology improvements, and policy advancements are a few additional topics of interest moving forward. The SEFs would also like to see projects that focus on the Clean Power Plan and research presenting the truth behind energy prices and carbon. Additional capital is needed to finance some of these types of projects, and innovation and leadership is needed for creative financing mechanisms like on-bill financing, long-term contracting, PACE, and loan guarantees.

More information and additional resources about the Sustainable Energy Funds and related projects can be found at the websites below.

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