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Solarize Allegheny powers up with more communities

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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Dr. Mark Greathouse, 58, and his wife, Janet Greathouse, 53, of Moon look over the instructions for the 28.5 kilowatt solar array on their front lawn.

On a hillside beneath Beaver Grade Road in Moon, an array of solar panels the size of a small set of bleachers silently powers Mark and Janet Greathouse’s home.

Joe Morinville, president of Robinson-based Energy Independent Solutions, which installed the panels this summer, walked the Greathouses through reading the meters mounted underneath.

Tap on the displays, and they’ll show how much electricity the panels are generating, how much they generated that day, and how much carbon dioxide the system was saving by not drawing on coal- or natural gas-fired power plants, Morinville said during a recent visit.

After about a month with the 28.5-kilowatt array operating, the Greathouses were disappointed that they hadn’t gotten their electric bill to see how much they saved.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been anxious for a bill,” said Janet Greathouse, 53.

The Greathouses are some of the latest participants in Solarize Allegheny, a campaign aimed at promoting small-scale solar generation in Pittsburgh neighborhoods and suburbs.

Interest was so high during the campaign’s first phase that information sessions in the second round of communities, including Ross, Highland Park, Friendship, Morningside and Squirrel Hill, were spread out over three months so installers had time to consult with interested homeowners.

“We were a little overwhelmed, in a positive way, from the response, so we had to pull back on our outreach because the installers were overwhelmed,” said Sharon Pillar, project director. “Everywhere we talk about this, people are really excited, which is great to see.”

The campaign to promote small-scale solar power adoption, funded by The Heinz Endowments and run by nonprofit SmartPower in Washington, gave out 130 quotes from contractors and got 20 people to sign contracts for installations during its first phase, which ended June 20. It focused on South Fayette, Moon, Etna, Millvale and Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze.

The second phase started June 27, and the information sessions last through late August.

The last “kick-off meeting” of this phase was held Thursday at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill branch, though another meeting to discuss solar energy is scheduled Sept. 21 at Northland Public Library in McCandless.

Statewide, solar power installations were up 37 percent in the first quarter of 2015 compared to last year, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Pennsylvania ranked 12th for total solar capacity, SEIA said.

“We do about two new systems a week. We’re the only ones around here with a full-time solar installation crew,” said Morinville, who said the Greathouses’ array was the first ground-mounted one his company installed through the Solarize Allegheny program.

Most are roof-mounted panels, but that would have been impractical for the Greathouse home because of the age of its roof and tall trees around the house, Mark Greathouse said.

The panels’ size and proximity to the road generated some complaints from neighbors, but the family planned to put in landscaping to screen it from view, he said.

Pennsylvania has enough solar installations to generate 247 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 30,000 homes, SEIA said. By comparison, the Cheswick coal-fired power plant in Springdale can generate up to 570 megawatts.

The Greathouse family discussed ways to reduce its environmental “footprint” around the dinner table, and then Janet Greathouse read about the Solarize campaign. She and her husband went to the informational meeting, got a quote they liked from EIS Solar and had the $90,000 panels installed.

“We’ve been very pleased with being able to do our little part for the environment,” said Mark Greathouse, 58, a cardiologist at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon.

During a sunny day, the panels produce enough power to run the Greathouses’ electricity meter backward and feed power into the grid, Morinville said.

At night, or when clouds reduce solar power to less than what the house needs, they draw from Duquesne Light Co.’s lines.

The system doesn’t include a battery to power the house at night or during electrical outages, but Morinville and Mark Greathouse said they’d discuss one.

One selling point for Solarize is a federal tax credit that lets solar adopters take 30 percent of the installation cost off their income or alternative minimum taxes.

The credit is set to expire at the end of 2016.

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or [email protected]. Staff writer Katelyn Ferral contributed.

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