Behind the Ambitious Push for Solar Energy in Allegheny County

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By Daniel Moore

For solar power advocates, this part of the state has been a relatively dark and gloomy place.

Allegheny County is home to fewer than 3 percent of the more than 7,000 total solar-powered generators registered statewide. Including Allegheny, the nine counties that make up southwestern Pennsylvania have just 6 percent of the state’s solar installations.

Meanwhile, the eight counties surrounding suburban Philadelphia have more than half.

“Western Pennsylvania is very far behind,” said Sharon Pillar, vice president of SmartPower, a nonprofit marketing firm in Washington, D.C., that promotes alternative energy.

With that in mind, Ms. Pillar — a central Pennsylvania native and somewhat of a local solar celebrity — is leading an effort to double the number of solar installations in Allegheny County within two years. Partnering with a core group of local volunteers, the “Solarize Allegheny” campaign will sign up Pittsburgh neighborhoods and county municipalities, and flood consumers with competitive pricing options and other information aimed at helping them navigate lengthy and complex buying scenarios.

Likewise, Solarize is essentially “delivering a group of customers” to solar installation companies that spend much of their time and money nurturing sales from understandably skeptical energy consumers, said Evan Endres, solar manager at Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, or PennFuture, an environmental advocacy group.

The goal is to make solar photovoltaic systems accessible and their benefits understandable to the lay energy consumer.

“We don’t just buy things from a salesman anymore — we are informed consumers,” Mr. Endres said. “When I go buy a car, I don’t always believe everything the car salesman tells me.”

And though solar has indeed been slow to heat up in an area traditionally ruled by fossil fuel production, advocates said Solarize’s strategy has been proven to be successful anywhere.

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