A rush for green gold in the heart of Pa. coal-mining country

CARBON COUNTY, Pa. -- The Appalachian Mountains rippling across Pennsylvania's interior aren't as blustery as the Texas Panhandle or as sunny as the Mojave Desert, but there's a renewable energy revolution starting here in the heart of coal-mining country.

It's been nearly a century since anthracite coal production peaked in aptly named Carbon County and its neighbors in northeast Pennsylvania. Valleys filled with mining waste are a reminder of this hardscrabble region's past, but its wide ridges may portend a more diverse economic future.

The Philadelphia-based startup Green Energy Capital Partners plans to break ground next April on a 10.6-megawatt array of solar panels on a mountain that overlooks the borough of Nesquehoning. The PA Solar Park -- composed of almost 50,000 photovoltaic panels -- would be the nation's second-largest solar farm, said the company's chief executive, John Curtis III.

"Economic development is slow to come here, so this project is a big deal," Curtis said while walking the site of the would-be solar farm, a 100-acre tract owned by local business magnate John "Sonny" Kovatch. "This slope gets a lot of sun."

It's all relative, really. The Allegheny ridge and plateau region has better wind- and solar-energy generation potential than the state's lowlands but far less than that of Western states.

Texas leads the nation with 4,356 MW of grid-tied wind farms, according to industry data. California is the top solar state, with 89 MW of installed capacity.

Pennsylvania gets just 294 MW of power from wind turbines (No. 14 in the nation) and less than a megawatt from PV panels, despite having some of the best solar radiation exposure in the Northeast.

A multibillion-dollar infusion of public and private capital promises to push the Keystone State up the renewable energy rankings quickly, however.

"We're very committed to renewable energy, and the way we show it is with our investments," said Lissette Santana, a spokeswoman with Allentown-based PPL Corp., which plans to invest at least $50 million in solar, biomass and biogas energy projects during the next few years.


Driving the state's commitment is one of the nation's most ambitious renewable portfolio standards.

Last year, the Pennsylvania General Assembly amended the standard to require that the state get 18 percent of its electricity from alternative energy sources by 2021. At least a half-percent of the renewable portfolio must come from solar, while the rest may come from wind, hydropower, gasified coal and other sources.

Clusters of new projects

Most of the new energy projects are clustered in the ribbon of mountains that curves northeasterly from Somerset County to Wayne County. Six wind farms have come online in the region since 2003, including the 26-MW Locust Ridge wind farm in coal-rich Schuylkill County.

PPL Corp. buys the electricity generated by the wind farm's 13 turbines. The project's owner, Portland, Ore.-based Iberdrola Renewables Inc., is installing another 51 turbines atop a ridge that straddles Schuylkill and Columbia counties, said Paul Copleman, a company spokesman.

"Pennsylvania offers a [political] administration and regulatory environment that's favorable to renewables," Copleman said. "But more importantly, Pennsylvania has good transmission and generation capacity."

Mahanoy Township supervisor Sharon Chiao, whose rural township surrounds the Locust Ridge project, said she would like to see less coal and more "clean-energy" jobs.

"We have the high mountains," she added. "If you go to the Schuylkill Mall here -- even in the hot summer -- the wind will blow your door shut."

Carbon County businessman Kovatch -- who owns a coal-fired cogeneration plant, an auto dealership and a fire-truck manufacturing plant -- is also bullish on wind and solar.

He intends to lease the Nesquehoning site to Green Energy Capital for 30 years, with options for two 10-year extensions. Kovatch said he owns another 6,000 acres in the area.

"I have a mountain over there I wouldn't mind putting wind [turbines] on," he said.

New financial commitments from the state could make such dreams a reality.

State of energy independence

Four years ago, Gov. Ed Rendell (D) resurrected the state's moribund Energy Development Authority. The Department of Environmental Quality program has subsequently awarded more than $32 million in loans and grants, including $750,000 for a new hydroelectric power plant in the borough of Lehighton.

Last year, Rendell unveiled a far more ambitious "energy independence" strategy, which is aimed at leveraging $850 million in state resources to attract $3.5 billion in private investments and create 13,000 jobs.

"For far too long, Pennsylvania has been held back because so much of its economy was in industries that were shrinking," Rendell said at the time. "Now we are well positioned to compete with other states and other nations for more of these projects."

Rendell's energy independence plan received a boost this summer when the General Assembly approved a $650 million package for alternative energy projects. The legislation, signed by Rendell in July, includes $80 million in grants and loans for solar energy projects. Another $50 million is earmarked for commercial-scale wind and geothermal energy projects, as well as energy-efficient "green" buildings.

The new policies will create more than 800 MW of solar and 3,000 MW of wind energy capacity by 2021, estimated Michael Smith, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Quality.

He credited Rendell's policies with attracting $1 billion in private investment and creating 3,000 jobs so far.

Green Energy Capital's Curtis said he plans to seek state funding for his PA Solar Park -- which carries a $65 million price tag. He's also counting on Congress renewing an investment tax credit of 30 percent of the installed cost of commercial solar projects.

PA Solar Park's most public feature would be a green-jobs training center, he said. The Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) building would have solar panels on the roof, a wind turbine and real-time monitors that show how much energy the PV panels are generating.

"This is really the fruit of Gov. Rendell's energy plan," Curtis said.

But this is Carbon County, after all. So Rendell's package also provides for coal.

Money for coal projects

So-called "clean" coal gasification projects that turn coal into electricity and transportation fuels are eligible for $165 million in loans and grants for "alternative" energy projects other than solar, noted Bob Caton, a spokesman for Pennsylvania House Majority Whip Keith McCall (D-Carbon County).

"America was built with the coal first found in Summit Hill in Carbon County," Caton said. "We have to move forward while making clean coal part of our future."

Schuylkill County businessman John Rich Jr. is trying to cobble together enough public and private money to build a refinery that would gasify waste culm into liquid diesel and naphtha, a product used in gasoline refining. The $1 billion refinery, located near Gilberton, would produce about 5,000 barrels of low-sulfur fuel per day, Rich said.

"People can talk about renewable electricity until they're blue in the face," Rich said. "My position is we need liquid fuels.

"We have the coal here, and we know how to use it cleanly."

PPL Corp., which gets more than half of its electricity in Pennsylvania from coal, doesn't plan to build additional coal-fired power plants in the state, said Dan McCarthy, PPL's corporate communications director.

"We can produce coal power cleanly from a particulate and [nitrogen oxide] standpoint, but the big issue is carbon dioxide," he explained.

So for its next plant, PPL might choose a far different -- and carbon-free -- energy source: nuclear.

PPL officials are mulling whether to build a 1,600-MW nuclear plant near Berwick, in Columbia County, where the utility already has two reactors in operation, McCarthy said.

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