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A Sunny Day For PennFuture

The environmental activist group PennFuture received a $315,697 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help promote and advance the use of solar energy in Western Pennsylvania.

PennFuture Vice President Heather Sage said that the application process was rigorous and only 22 grants were given nationwide.

PennFuture plans to use the money to implement a research and education project for the entire region. Sage said that 23 different municipalities are participating, each at a different level of awareness, readiness, and openness for solar energy. The funding will go towards research to help these communities understand permits and zoning codes, and what fees to charge with the implementation of solar energy.

"The more we can do to create and even the playing field within the region, the better it will be from a customer standpoint … and from an installation perspective," Sage said.

Sage said that PennFuture plans to bring together people to develop model language, or what makes sense for each municipality to have in common, by researching the region and elsewhere.

According to Sage, the goal of the program in its first year is to establish a seal or certification for municipalities who have gone through the program, and a process for making solar energy more viable in their community. In addition, they hope to produce a report and recommendations on financial and policy perspectives.

Jim Sloss, Energy and Utilities Manager for the City of Pittsburgh, explained that the grant may seem like a lot of money, but in renewable energy it is not that much.

"One solar installation, it's up and it's done, but this is reaching out to so many communities," Sloss said.

Project Manager Sharon Pillar says that the program funded by the grant will hopefully make solar energy a more common reality.

"As we see the prices in solar energy drop, and we see more creative financing tools, and people being able to install solar, there are more opportunities for people to get involved in the clean energy economy," Pillar said.

Sage says that in the past, there were innovative policies implemented at the state and federal level regarding solar energy.

"Those incentives are coming to an end, and so we're in a moment in time where we need to think hard about how to make projects affordable for people," Sage said.

The grant applicants included PennFuture, in conjunction with the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, and other sustainable energy organizations in the region.