Rustbelt Residents taking Sustainable Energy into their own Hands

1,876 words

Running America on renewable energy may seem like a futuristic idea, but people in our region are already converting their homes and businesses to run off of solar, wind, and geothermal energy. These pioneer projects, whether on the scale of a residence, community, or industrial facility that feeds the grid, often have the effect of opening doors for future similar projects and are paving the way for a larger scale transition in the long run.

Cindy Walters and Mike Altherton of Greensburg, PA, installed 21 solar panels on their roof. The panels can generate 4.8 kilowatts, which powers all their electrical needs and more, “We can go any time during the day and watch the meter going backwards,” says Mike. Their solar project was done by a local installer, JB Solar, and the panels were even produced locally by Solar Industries in Mt. Pleasant, PA. They chose to purchase their panels outright, which required an initial investment, but according to Mike, “It’s actually more than reasonable; we’ll be getting our money back in 5-7 years. That’s a much better rate than you get in any stock market that I know of.”

Although prices have come down, there are now a variety of ways to start up solar projects that require less cash up front. Stefanie Spear is president of Expedite Renewable Energy, based in Cleveland, Ohio. “There’s opportunities for businesses, residents, non-profits, and government entities who want to have on-site projects, but don’t want to make the financial investment. You can get investors to come in and actually rent your rooftop, install the project, and then sell you back the electricity that’s being generated. And most times, in that contract, you are paying less for kilowatt hours than you would pay the utility you are interconnected to.”

Spear recently worked with the village of Valley View, a community just outside of Cleveland, to do a solar installation that was financed through this power purchase and lease agreement model. The 103 kilowatt installation now powers 30 percent of Valley View’s community recreation center.

Technological improvements have also made it possible to easily install solar panels one by one instead of all at once, which allows the home or business owner to spread the costs out over time. The paybacks, meanwhile, start immediately and increase as the system grows.

Cindy Walters emphasizes that the panels actually make them money in a variety of ways. “First of all, we don’t have to pay for electricity.” If they produce surplus electricity that goes into the grid, the power company pays them. The panels also save electricity. “They actually shade our roof, therefore they reduce the amount of heat that our house absorbs.” The value of their house went up. “As soon as we put our solar panels up, our house was instantly worth ten thousand dollars more. There’s a ten to one ratio that’s very standardized within the real estate industry. You take the electric bill that you normally would pay per year, you multiply that by ten, and that’s the value of the increase in your home value that you will enjoy when you have to sell your house.”

In contrast, shale gas drilling often causes property value depreciation [1 ]. Nationwide home insurance now refuses to insure properties with drilling nearby [2 ].

Finally, Walters and Altherton also profit from solar credits. The Pennsylvania Alternative Energy Portfolio Act of 2004 mandates that 18% of electricity sold in PA by 2020 comes from a list of alternative sources including solar. Power companies therefore buy solar credits from solar producers to meet this percentage, and anyone that owns solar panels qualifies as a producer.

Renewable energy projects often have a way of extending their impact beyond the site where they are installed. A few years ago Pearl Road Auto Parts and Wrecking came to Stephanie Spear and asked if they could power their business with a wind turbine. The business is located in the City of Cleveland, which had never had a wind turbine within its limits before.

“We obviously needed to go get a permit. We needed a permit to install a wind turbine," said Stefanie. "We went in front of zoning and they’re like ‘What? What is this, are you crazy – you want to do what?’ Fortunately, after that initial kind of shock, they were very open and willing to get educated on one, why this business owner wanted to make this investment; and two, is it viable, is it something they can do. And so when push came to shove and it went to a vote, we were very fortunate that zoning passed the variance and allowed the wind turbine project to move forward. And they also noted, after giving approval, they would never give approval again unless zoning was passed for wind turbines in the city.”

The zoning board’s decision was a message to city council and citizens that legislative action was needed. Spear responded by going to the council and the city’s sustainability coordinator; “Within maybe five meetings, we knocked out wind turbine zoning legislation for the City of Cleveland. We took it in front of city council, we got it passed, and now they have it. So, therefore, any other company that would want to invest in wind could then go to the city and know whether they have the right kind of project to meet the zoning regulation.”

Pearl Road Auto Parts now gets about 50% of its power from wind, and their effort to move towards sustainable power opened the doors for others. “The best thing, I think, was that it educated so many people within the city.” Three more wind turbines have since been built in Cleveland, and a year-long wind resource study was just completed. Since all the turbines are located along highways into the city, tens of thousands of people see them each day. “No matter which way you come into the city, you’re going to see a turbine.”

Cindy Walters and Mike Altherton were inspired by their own project to learn more about the potential of renewables. Mike quotes the book Reinventing Fire, by the Rocky Mountain Institute [3 ], “If we have about a 90 mile by 90 mile square covered with solar panels, it would produce all the annual electricity the United States now needs. So when people talk about, ‘oh, ah, we need these other fossil fuels as a bridge’ – well frankly they’re not a bridge, they’re a detour. We don’t have to wait for this halcyon day when we’ve finally gotten off fossil fuels. We could generate this electricity with the technology we have in our pockets today. And not just me, around the country, around the world, we could do this.”

They also learned that our current system of producing energy from large fossil fuel or nuclear power plants, then transporting the electricity across a vast grid to all the users, actually has a number of drawbacks that renewable energy is well-suited to fix. The plants themselves waste a tremendous amount of energy, which is lost as heat. Furthermore, electricity is lost as it is transmitted across the grid. “In contrast, when the sunlight hits our roof, those electrons are activated just a few feet away from my computer, right? So the electrons have no transport loss.” An astounding 68% of energy consumed to produce electricity is lost before it ever reaches an end-user [4,5].

Cindy Walters learned there are other risks, as well. “Those power plants that I mentioned earlier, those inefficient big lumps of stuff, are also big targets for terrorists. They’re vulnerable to windstorms. So whether it’s Mother Nature, or whether it’s some nasty human nature that is hitting us, when those power lines go down for one reason or another, thousands and thousands of people are without power. Instead, the solar panel, in household after household after household, allows us to have the potential for what we call a community power grid.”

The process of building a community power grid can also transform the community itself. Walters and Altherton cited the example of Wildpoldsried, a tiny, mostly agricultural town in Germany that, in the late 1990s, like many similar towns in Western Pennsylvania, was in deep economic distress. The community decided to re-invent itself around renewable energy, agreeing on three principles: 1) Renewable Energy and Saving Energy; 2) Ecological Construction of Buildings Using Ecological Building Materials (mainly wood-based); and 3) Protection of Water and Water Resources (both above and below ground) and Ecological Disposal of Wastewater. Today, the town generates 360% of the energy it needs, and $5.6 million in profits each year [6 ].

The initiative was spearheaded both by the mayor and town council, but also by people in the village. Property owners tested out renewable facilities on their own properties, like a biogas digester on a dairy farmer’s manure pit, and a constructed wetland to process sewage. Citizens sought out investors to finance wind turbines, then banded together to cooperatively purchase more. Today, the town has solar panels on 190 homes, 6 wind turbines, several biogas digesters, and the wastewater from all of its 2600 residents is treated through constructed wetlands along the nearby river. The wetlands also provide flood control, whereas in the past flooding was a constant worry for residents.

Mike Altherton can’t help imagining the possibilities for our region, “Think about the coal patch; so many of these towns around western Pennsylvania… what if we had sun patches? People could go anywhere they wanted. They could live in these little communities, face to face with their friends, and they’d have energy. They don’t have to worry, ‘Oh, the coal field is played out. Oh, the gas has played out.’ We’ve got the sun, it’s going to be here – we can live the life that we want to, where we want to, because the sun is going to reach us. It’s wonderfully democratic.”

Cindy Walters is thinking about the next steps to make it happen. “What I’d like to try to do, is get a collection of people interested in doing a two-step reinvention of energy manufacturing in southwestern Pennsylvania.” The first step would be to assess the potential from different sources like wind, solar, and small hydropower, and how much it would cost to install them. “So, we put together a prospectus, and then we say, ‘ok, well we would need this much investment to buy those many solar panels; we would need this much investment this much of this, and this, and this.’ And then we just go to these investors and say ‘here’s your legacy. You’ve got millions of dollars, what are you going to do with it? You can’t eat it, you can’t get buried with it, so why don’t you leave that as your legacy?’; to say ‘I invested in this community development.’ Ta-dam! That’s my dream.”

The simple act of installing the solar panels changed a lot in their lives. “My husband and I are now solar producers. We’re like a mini-company. I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur. You know, I’m a teacher. That’s what I am. I never thought of me as somebody who’s actually producing energy and making money, but that’s what I can be.”

[1 ] “Impact on Property Values, Mortgages, Insurance,” GDACC, n.d.,
[2 ] “US Insurer Won’t Cover Gas Drill Fracking Exposure,” Google News, n.d.,
[3 ] Amory Lovins and Rocky Mountain Institute, Reinventing Fire (Chelsea Green, 2011).
[4 ] Estimated U.S. Energy Use in 2009 (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 2010),
[5 ] Annual Energy Review 2010 (U.S. Energy Information Administration, October 2011),
[6 ] Christie Allen, “German Village Achieves Energy Independence…and Then Some,” BioCycle 52, no. 8 (August 2011): 37.


Well-written, positive article. I don’t really have any other comments – maybe a little on the fence about the terrorist bit…? – but that was a direct quote… (Also speaks to “energy independence,” I suppose.)