For the sustainable energy sector, business is picking up for an industry that’s been drawing more interest from companies and consumers.
That’s according to several speakers who discussed some of the topics and trends at EnergyPath 2018, a sustainable energy conference presented by Sustainable Energy Fund today at DeSales University in Upper Saucon Township.
The field is also ripe for job growth as companies need people to design, manufacture and install renewable energy technologies, according to one expert who has been in the industry for 40 years.
“It’s the best time to be in energy,” said Rudy Shankar, director of the energy institute at Lehigh University in Bethlehem. “It is the most important issue, having a stable supply of energy.”
Shankar spoke about the challenges and opportunities for energy integration for the 21st century.
“Coal generation is going down and is expected to continue going down,” Shankar said.
While renewable energy technology will continue to grow, natural gas should replace the dying coal sector, according to Shankar.
Compared to coal, natural gas is about 50 percent less harmful to the environment. Though the process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing, which is the extraction of fuel by blasting into the earth) should be examined more closely, Shankar said the use of fracking still provides a very important fuel in natural gas.
Nationwide, the country is using less electricity, mainly because people have more efficient appliances and are cutting back on peak demand, Shankar said.
To maintain efficient energy grid integration, there is a need for grid flexibility at every point of the supply chain, such as the grid points of transmission, distribution, and consumer demand.
The industry also needs grid scale batteries and utility scale renewable resources, he said.
On the transmission side, energy companies are aggregating generation fleets and pooling renewable resource commitments.
The consumer is also playing a huge role in grid integration opportunities because they are more capable of choosing what energy they want, Shankar said.
Utilities can manage grid flexibility by dynamic pricing, such as tariffs as well as developing network flexibility through a smart grid, which allows consumers to use the energy they want, when they want.
As technology continues to evolve, the skill sets needed to enter the sustainable energy industry are the ability to understand power flow and data science, predictive analytics and technology and business processes.
“Today’s workforce is still contract-based,” Shankar said.
Tomorrow’s workforce will be more integrated because data will be more digitized, he said.
EnergyPath provides a full day of programs and speakers exploring topics such as solar power, advanced biofuels, maximizing the value of electric vehicles and chargers and transitioning cities to 100 percent renewable energy.
About 330 people registered for the conference and about 120 have been at DeSales since Sunday, said Jon Costlow, president and CEO of Sustainable Energy Fund, a nonprofit based in North Whitehall Township.
Participants took a solar photovoltaic technology training class, learned how to build a solar array, wire it together and integrate it into the grid, Costlow said. Also, participants built a small wind turbine and others took a course introducing them to the concepts of sustainable energy.
Overall, Costlow sees growth in solar power in Pennsylvania, particularly since installation prices are dropping.
“Prices are declining,” Costlow said. “The prices now are less than 30 percent what they were four to five years ago.”
About eight years ago, the state had tax incentives for installing solar power systems.
“Now, without those incentives, the cost is still lower than it was at that time,” Costlow said.
The federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit in effect until Dec. 31, 2019 for solar installations. That percentage will decline each year until it phases out, he said.
Costlow said Pennsylvania has been laggard in solar power adoption but believes that’s changing.
Sustainable Energy Fund advertised for its Solarize Lehigh Valley program in early May and about 140 people signed up for getting a solar installation estimate on their home or business, he said. The program encourages solar installation and uses Evoke Solar, a local company, to perform the design and installation.
“It’s amazing when we do marketing studies, the number of businesses that want to examine putting in solar [is growing],” Costlow said.