Western Pennsylvania, home to coal mines and natural gas wells, might not be the first place you think of when picturing a clean energy transition, but Indiana Borough, Pennsylvania wants to change your preconceptions. It’s one of many smaller communities across the country that are embracing sustainability and renewable energy as a way towards the future.
Chartered in 1816 as the county seat of Indiana County, Indiana Borough strives to be a welcoming and sustainable place to live, work and play. As a gold-certified community in the Sustainable PA Communities Program, the municipality is acknowledged for progress in areas such as community design and land use; renewable and energy efficiency; health and wellness; intergovernmental cooperation; recycling and waste reduction; fiscal controls; and internal management and operations.
In addition, Indiana Borough is designated as a bronze-level Walk Friendly Community for its commitment to ensuring pedestrian safety and has been recognized as a Tree City USA Community since 2009 for its sustainable urban forestry program. Not stopping there, last year Indiana Borough officially became the first SolSmart Designee in Western Pennsylvania.
SolSmart is led by The Solar Foundation and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to help communities remove barriers and create better local markets for solar energy. With technical assistance from SolSmart, Indiana Borough has made changes to its local permitting processes, as well as planning & zoning procedures — making it easier and more affordable for homes and businesses to install solar.
“Indiana Borough joins a distinct group of communities around the country that have been recognized for encouraging solar development at the local level” said Nick Kasza, program manager at the National League of Cities.
Working with SolSmart is just one of a few ways Indiana Borough has begun to adopt and grow solar within the community. The municipality also partnered with the nonprofit organization Solar United Neighbors to launch the Indiana County Solar Co-op, which ran through 2019.
Solar co-ops take advantage of collective purchasing power to make it easier and cheaper to install solar. Participants select a single installer through an open and competitive bidding process. The contractor awarded the bid then provides personalized proposals for all co-op members at the discounted group rate. Essentially, the bigger the co-op, the better the deal to go solar.
It was Indiana Borough’s Council President, Peter Broad, who first stood up during a presentation by Solar United Neighbors in 2018 and stated a desire for a solar co-op in Indiana County. He asked Borough staff to be active partners in getting one launched.
“It seemed to me that the Borough was in an ideal position to serve as a clearinghouse for people interested in installing solar panels on their homes: everyone knows who we are and where we are, so making the contacts would be easy” said Peter Broad. Additional partners in the co-op include Evergreen Conservancy and the Indiana County Sustainable Economic Development Task Force.
Indiana’s co-op grew to become one of the most active in the state in terms of the raw number of participants and the percentage of people who signed contracts. Solar production in Indiana County has jumped 66 percent as a direct result of the co-op. Upon completion of the co-op, a free solar tour was held for the public to educate attendees on solar through first-hand testimonies of co-op participants.
Due to the success of last year, Indiana Borough and Solar United Neighbors are teaming up again in 2020 for a second round of the Indiana County Solar Co-op. Details are going to be announced during the 2020 Pennsylvania Solar Congress, the state’s premier solar education and advocacy event, which will be held in Indiana County on February 15.
Indiana Borough plans to continue growing out its solar market. They already have an expedited permitting process and made complying with regulations easy. They are integral to a county-wide solar co-op. They’ve begun to retrofit stop signs in high traffic areas with solar batteries for more visibility during night hours. Also, just last summer, a project by the borough and the county to connect downtown Indiana Borough with a regional trail network via a bike lane was completed.
The new trailhead for that project? It’s lit with solar lighting. Despite being located in a region mainly seen as a hub of coal and natural gas production, this community foresees a bright future ahead — powered mostly with solar energy.
About the Author: Kyle Mudry is the communications and grants coordinator for Indiana Borough. His work involves increasing government access and managing grant-funded projects. In his spare time, Kyle enjoys researching new ideas and rooting for the Pittsburgh Penguins.