FILE - PA solar panels 2-9-2019

Solar panels are seen Feb. 9, 2019, at the Frick Environmental Center in Pittsburgh.

As budget season gets underway in Harrisburg, I applaud legislative leaders looking at innovative ways to rejuvenate Pennsylvania’s economy. The private sector should play a critical role generating economic impact and getting Pennsylvanians back to work. In particular, the commonwealth’s expanding energy sector offers a bright spot: community solar.

I helped found the Pennsylvania Conservative Energy Forum as the conservative “voice for energy” in 2018, along with former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, former U.S. Navy Secretary John Lehman and former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jim Seif. We believe in an “all of the above” approach to Pennsylvania’s energy portfolio and want to see the commonwealth remain a leader in all types of energy production. We support solar energy because we support diverse growth in Pennsylvania’s energy portfolio.

When I served in the Legislature, my focus was on policies that would open up new markets, foster more competition and create good-paying jobs. The new Community Solar bill, recently introduced by stalwart conservative Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, is exactly that kind of policy.

The best way to honor Pennsylvania’s role as an energy leader is to continue to find new and innovative ways to lead. Community solar, which has already attracted millions of dollars in private investment to the commonwealth, is the next opportunity to revitalize our economy and create local jobs.

Best of all, community solar will jump-start the economy without raising taxes or spending public money.

Community solar can also increase the resiliency and reliability of our fragile energy grid by harnessing the power of the market to help us diversify the energy sources that can be drawn on to respond to an emergency – long-standing conservative goals and a national security imperative.

Up to now, solar installations in Pennsylvania have focused on two distinct corners of the market: large, utility-scale facilities that generate enough electricity to power thousands of homes and small rooftop arrays that provide energy independence for a single family.

Community solar would open an entirely new market, bridging this divide and expanding energy choice for customers who want to access solar right now but can’t under the existing regulatory framework. Renters, small business owners and others who cannot own their own rooftop arrays can subscribe to a nearby community solar installation and earn a credit on their electric bills for their portion of the energy produced. There are already 235 community solar projects planned in nearly three-quarters of Pennsylvania counties, so customers would experience the benefit of energy savings whether they live in rural, urban, or suburban areas.

Meanwhile, farmers and others who host installations on unused or underutilized land earn a new, stable source of income that can help sustain them during these difficult times. The devastation our current economic and public health crisis has inflicted on farms and agricultural communities is immense. We have an immediate need for market-based recovery solutions to prioritize hard-hit rural areas left behind by Harrisburg.

A recent study by Penn State found that community solar would generate $1.8 billion in economic output for the commonwealth during construction and $83 million in annual economic output during operation. These projects will also generate millions of dollars in property taxes for county and local governments across the state, as well as state taxes to help plug a pandemic-induced budget gap.

Community solar will deliver even more bang for its buck in 2021, after a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate ensured that key supports for the solar energy industry were embedded in a January COVID-19 relief package.

We need to leverage the investments national Republican leaders secured in that stimulus legislation and ensure these benefits make their way to local communities across Pennsylvania that have lost jobs as a result of the pandemic.

While 21 states, plus Washington, D.C., already enjoy the benefits of community solar, Pennsylvania’s outdated utility laws prohibit these types of projects from being constructed. Fortunately, Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, and Sen. Scavello have been champions for legislation to enable community solar in Pennsylvania in recent years and will continue to shepherd the effort in this new legislative session.

Community solar is the rare economic development tool that uses private dollars to create jobs and lower energy costs for businesses at no cost to state or local governments while also making our electricity grid better prepared to confront natural disasters and other challenges. Republicans should urge the passage of community solar legislation as a conservative priority in this first year of the 2021-22 session.

Tom Stevenson served as a Republican Pennsylvania state representative for 10 years, representing part of Allegheny County. He is a part owner of Green Roads Energy an energy services provider and lives in Mt. Lebanon.