November 29, 2023
The recent killing of a proposed natural gas-fired power plant in Allegheny County by environmental activists is a big deal in several respects:
For the past two years, environmental activists tied up the project’s environmental permit in court. Invenergy, which was to build the project in Elizabeth Township, finally pulled the plug in early November.
The environmental groups that filed suit against the project claimed victory. Said Clean Air Council executive director Joseph Otis Minott: “Instead of locking us into decades of fossil fuel use and fueling the climate crisis, Pennsylvania can invest in wind and solar, which are safer, cheaper, and guarantee our energy independence into the future.”1
Let’s see what that would look like.
Invenergy’s Allegheny Energy Center would have been a gas-fired power plant with a capacity of 639 megawatts on a 15-acre site.2 That is roughly the size of Acrisure Stadium.
What would it take to replace that with a solar farm?
Imagine a line drawn from the Allegheny River at the Pittsburgh Zoo south to the Monongahela River at the Hot Metal Bridge. Every bit of land between the rivers from the Point to that line – roughly 14 square miles – would be needed for a solar plant that could produce as much electricity each year as the proposed gas plant.3
Replace Downtown, the Strip District, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, the Hill District, the Bluff, and parts of Oakland with solar panels. Or Acrisure Stadium for natural gas.
And the map actually understates how much land would be needed. It assumes the hypothetical Pittsburgh solar plant would be as productive as the average solar plant in the U.S. as calculated by the federal Energy Information Administration. Under the best conditions, solar plants only work about half the time because the sun sets every day. But their daytime production relies on many factors such as weather, hours of daylight, and the strength of the sun.
The EIA says U.S. solar plants using photovoltaic panels had an average capacity factor, which is used to measure annual production, of 24.4%.4 But that average includes plants from the Arizona desert to rainy Seattle. And Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom third of states for solar potential.5
When the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection developed the state’s Solar Future Plan in 2018, it assumed that utility-scale solar farms in Pennsylvania would have a capacity factor of 16.4 percent,6 or one-third less efficient than the national average. In that case, the Pittsburgh solar plant would need to stretch out closer to the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.
How much electricity could be generated is only one part of the equation. When that power is generated is just as important.
It’s obvious that solar panels won’t produce after sunset. But even during daytime, production is at the mercy of the weather. You can’t increase production by turning a knob the way you can with a gas-fired power plant. You can only take what the sun will give you.
And if you rely on solar too much, on a hot day when everybody has their air conditioning on full blast just as the sun goes down, that can lead to insufficient power supplies and rolling blackouts, as it has in California.7
The groups in charge of keeping the electric grid working are concerned. The growth in solar and wind generation, which can’t be relied on to work when they are most needed, combined with the shutdown of more coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants, is creating risks, especially with the trend to use more electricity for cars, home heating, and other uses.
“In many areas, winter demand peaks in the early morning hours or other times of darkness, resulting in little or no electrical resource output from solar PV resources,” according to the 2023-2024 Winter Reliability Assessment from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation,8 which is tasked by the U.S. and Canadian federal governments with oversight of the North American electrical grid.
NERC’s 2023 State of Reliability Technical Assessment was clear about the necessary solution:
“Sufficient flexible resources are needed to ensure resource adequacy and energy sufficiency as the grid transforms and to reduce the exposure to energy shortfalls during times when (solar and wind) output is lower than forecasted. Until storage technology is fully developed and deployed at scale, natural-gas-fired generation will remain a necessary balancing resource to meet the flexibility needs of the system.”9
PJM, which operates the electrical grid in Pennsylvania and 12 other states, issued a report this year highlighting concerns about the trends toward a less carbon-intensive electrical system that “present increasing reliability risks during the transition…”10 The solution? “If significantly
more natural gas capacity achieved commercial operation, it could help avoid reliability issues.”11
In other words, environmentalists killed the kind of power plants that the grid operator says would help keep the lights on while at the same time pushing for more renewables that, given the current state of technology, are helping create the problem in the first place.
Plus, there’s one other thing that natural gas-fired electric generation does: It has helped the United States cut more carbon emissions over the past 20 years than any other country in the world. The total reduction in the U.S. has been almost as large as the combined reductions by all the countries in the EU, according to the U.N.12
Pittsburgh Works Together is a business-organized labor-workforce-economic development alliance working to grow jobs and expand the industries that are the foundation of our economy, including energy, manufacturing, and construction, to provide opportunity for all residents.
Director of Research & Public Policy firstname.lastname@example.org