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Q & A with West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund Director Joel Morrison

In December 1996, Pennsylvania passed legislation to restructure the electric industry. This led to the creation of sustainable energy funds across the state, one of which is the West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund. The West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund is a non-profit organization that was founded to promote sustainable energy technologies that benefit the region. This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the establishment of these funds. A series of events called “Power and Foresight” will be held throughout the year to highlight the leaders and organizations in the field. We spoke with Joel Morrison, the Director of the West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund, to learn more about the history, current projects, and future of the fund.

How has the fund grown and changed since it was established?

Our bylaws were approved in June of 2000. Penn state became involved in October 2000. Back when the fund started there wasn’t a market for sustainable energy in Pennsylvania. We had one wind farm that had I think 15 megawatts. Today we have probably 1000 – 1500 megawatts, so the market has changed since we became a fund. We were part of that change.

The funds were established to create that change. The state has really bought into sustainable energy. Prior to 2000 there just wasn’t any focus of any meaningful amount on sustainable energy. So what has happened since the 2001 time frame is that we’ve seen the market develop, our fund has grown from $11 million to almost $27 million and we have seen a wide variety of programs coming in that need funding: wind power, solar power, biomass. We’re focused in on clean energy. We’re focused in on how we use energy. There wasn’t an ENERGY STAR® program in Pennsylvania before we existed; we helped bring that in to Pennsylvania. LEED construction (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a building certification program) was in its infancy back in 2000. There were hardly any LEED buildings in the state.

People just didn’t know what sustainable energy was. We worked with Penn State Public Broadcasting and made a documentary about what it is. We rented the Bryce Jordan Center in 2004 and 2006 to have a statewide expo about what sustainable energy is. Up until that time people never saw wind blades. I still think we have the record for the largest item ever placed in the Bryce Jordan Center – a large wind blade. We’ve seen markets develop and the breadth of activities increase. Now you hear about sustainability everyday. You hear about green energy all the time. West Penn has been a small player in this but we have taken a leadership role. We saw this flurry of activity and rode that wave if you will. We helped create that wave.

What are some of the most significant and innovative projects that the fund has helped make possible?

I don’t think in terms of projects. I think in terms of projects or programs that have had impact. So certainty I think the two Clean Energy Expo events that were held in 2004 and 2006 were the state’s largest expos dedicated to sustainable energy. We drew 25,000 people total for 2004 and 2006. We drew people from all along the east coast; it wasn’t just a State College thing. I think we showed a leadership role being able to organize that.

We worked with companies like GM and utilized Penn State’s infrastructure to get fuel cell cars when no one even knew what a fuel cell car even was. And we helped provide Penn State and Carnegie Mellon with funding for US Solar Decathlon. It was a competitive award.

We like to think in terms of our mission. That’s kind of like our outreach. For our power project we have The Bear Creek Wind Farm. We worked with the other funds to raise a total of $5 million, which drew about 75 million dollars of development into the state. That is a utility scale wind farm. We’re very proud of that.

Energy efficiency suffers from one thing: it’s invisible. What is energy efficiency? Most people don’t know what that is. So I think one of our biggest contributions is working with the EPA to bring programs into Pennsylvania that we have received special recognition for at a national level. One is called PA Home Energy and deals with comprehensive energy audits. Another program called Home Performance from ENERGY STAR® is for existing homes. And we have a new homes program, ENERGY STAR® Qualified Homes.

So we helped develop that work force. When we started that we had about five people that were Building Performance Institute certified and about five that were resident certified, who do the ratings for ENERGY STAR® homes. Today we have crossed trained about 150 people in both of those certifications. It’s becoming a much more common way to do business. Back then, we just didn’t have the work force and didn’t have the homes.

One of our fun projects that we’re currently working on is putting together a LEED certified building in at the Elk Country Visitor Center called the ECCO Building. It has the largest elk heard east of the Mississippi and we put biomass heat in that building. Right now, as we speak, Geisinger Medical Center is putting on a 38-kilowatt solar array on top of Janet Weiss Hospital. They’re linking clean energy back to health. Your lungs have to be healthy and they don’t like dirt, so we try to work with clean air. Today I am leaving to go to the Audubon Society and they’re renovating some barns to LEED standards.

Why do you think the fund is important?

Well first of all, Pennsylvania is unique. Pennsylvania is the only state in the U.S. that has sustainable energy funds. That is, moneys were collected and then sent to the regions that the parent utility was in. For instance, West Penn Power, they paid a settlement of $11.4 million dollars to start this non-profit that was focused on providing benefit to the rate payers. The way most states handle sustainable energy funding is that it goes into the state. Having regional funds in Pennsylvania gives us regional ties because we live in those areas.

And the second thing is that we don’t have large bureaucracies and can move fairly quickly. That is important when people need financing quickly. These funds are meant to be invested in an entrepreneurial manner. Also, we need to take risks because a lot of these sustainable energy technologies are newer and they are not frequently deployed. It’s not something you could just run down to your local bank and get a loan for.

So the purpose, why the funds were established, is because the commonwealth of Pennsylvania wanted more focus on renewable energy technology relative to conventional technologies. I think the funds are well managed. We have every penny that we’ve ever been provided by the utility. And to be in business 15 years and have that type of track record is pretty good.

Although we’re celebrating 15 years of operation, we’re really positioning ourselves for the next 15 years. No one knew about sustainable energy when we first started. It’s becoming more common. And what we need to do is make that become the standard way in which we do things. And that takes time. And to get time, you have to be sustainable yourself.

Our fund focuses on sustainable energy but to have a meaningful, lasting impact it has to be sustainable itself. Otherwise you go through a fair amount of money real quick. We can never go back to the way we used to think.

Can you speak about some of the events planned to celebrate the anniversary?

All of these sustainable energy funds started at the same time. And what we wanted to do was to use the anniversary to showcase the fund and position our self for the future. We really wanted to showcase some of the facilities that we believe are doing it right. We shine a light on those, so that people who want to do similar projects will have the ability to go tour a facility or go talk to a facilities’ manager or talk to a president about why they tried to build this building, why they chose that way.

Our first event is going to be down at Geisinger at Pine Barn Inn in Danville and we’re going to go the Danville hospital campus and learn about everything they’re doing. They’ve made a corporate commitment in Danville to build all of their buildings to LEED standards and that campus is rated by EPA ENERGY STAR® a 100, that’s perfect, you can’t get any better. They have a large thermal recovery. There is no heat wasted at Geisinger. That attitude in healthcare is what we believe other hospitals should be striving for.

As for our Power and Foresight event that we are having at Penn State, we’d like to bring the sustainable energy community together. These people have worked so hard over the past 15 years. We will get them together, reconnect and think about where as an industry we are going to go in the future. And we want to have the next generation of leaders there so we can learn from the old geezers. It’s important to pass the torch.

We have a wide verity of events we’re going to. We’ve kind of marketed this as energy behind the scenes. We’re going to be going to Geinsinger, the Elk Country Visitor Center, touring Penn State and more. These events will be scattered out throughout a two-year time frame.

We would like to have more field excursions, so we can get out more and see these things because once you see these facilities they kind of sell themselves. A lot of people are apprehensive about trying new stuff. Sometimes it costs a little bit more, sometimes it has a little bit more of a risk, sometimes its harder to sell to the people who just don’t care about this stuff. So if you can get out and see it and smell it and feel the warm heat, that’s pretty powerful stuff. So the events are meant to showcase our heroes, our champions, shine a light on groups that are doing it right with the hope that other people will be attracted to that light.

What do you envision for the future of the fund?

As my boss once told me, we can work on anything we want but we can’t work on everything we want. So certainly I think efficiency. The way we use energy is every bit as important as the way we generate it. We can’t waste energy. If we as a society are trying to lower carbon, if you are worried about climate change, if you are worried about safety and comfort in your home, if you’re worried about your home energy bills, if you’re worried about your university energy bills – efficiency can go a long way to addressing that. Efficiency is going to be at the heart of everything we do.

I think another thing we’re going to try to do is help communities become more sustainable. Thinking about the big picture about how all these different homes affect the health of that community. So I think we’re going to be more into community-based activities. We’re probably going to be funding some earth day events. But in that we want to be showcasing what is going on in that community. And for those communities who want to do projects, and have no idea where to start, we need to provide them a blueprint or a template on how they can work within their little communities and put together a plan.

As far as new wind farms or solar, that technology is starting to mature. We’re interested in something called community solar. If you can’t afford solar because it’s expensive, you could put in a large solar facility in State College and buy a portion of your power off that. Thinking about that, how does it apply to people who rent? We also have to find a way for people who rent homes to participate. We have to be more innovative in our programs.

We’re working with the Pennsylvania Treasury Department to try to put together a large bond-financing program. That will enable large users to make large energy improvements. So we provided $150,000 to develop this program with the treasury. They hope to deploy tens of millions of dollars.

This is the only fund that is tied to a major university, which has a large infrastructure to help deliver its programs. It has great technical expertise both with technology development and the ability of faculty to engage students and learn about sustainable energy. As a facility and as an institution, Penn State is taking a leadership role.