Pennsylvania focuses on renewables in latest energy plan

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Laura Legere

December 8, 2015

Pennsylvania’s path to a lower carbon future will include a significant expansion of renewable energy; fewer methane leaks from natural gas pipelines and coal mines; more efficient use of energy to power homes and businesses; new forest preserves; and more waste made useful as energy.


That vision, described in a new draft update to Pennsylvania’s climate change action plan, is a compilation of dozens of steps the Department of Environmental Protection says the state can take to help limit the damage caused by rising global temperatures, which the report calls “one of the most serious issues facing the world.”

Pennsylvania is the third largest emitter of energy-related carbon dioxide in the country. DEP is updating its strategy for reducing the state’s share of greenhouse gas emissions as representatives from around the world meet in Paris to reach a climate deal on the broadest scale.

The 2008 Pennsylvania Climate Change Act requires DEP to update the state’s climate change action plan every three years. The new update, which is still an early draft, was begun during the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and is being finished during the tenure of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. 

The draft update takes a tone different than the one released two years ago to Mr. Corbett, who generally did not make climate action a priority beyond his embrace of natural gas.

DEP Secretary John Quigley said the shift in tone was intentional.

“We have a responsibility to reduce the commonwealth’s emissions,” he said. “We have an opportunity to lead the nation.”

While natural gas was a focus in the last plan — it was mentioned more than four times as often in the body of the report as the words “renewable” and “solar” combined — an expansion of renewable energy is more heavily promoted in the new one. 

Natural gas emits roughly half the carbon that coal does when burned to generate electricity, and the state’s energy-related carbon emissions have been lower in recent years than they were in 2000 in no small part because more power plants are being fueled by low-priced gas.

Mr. Quigley emphasized that just relying on the carbon benefits of burning gas instead of coal is short-sighted.

“There is opportunity to grow the renewable energy economy and one of the drivers that we should be using is natural gas,” which he called the perfect complement to intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar because it can be dispatched quickly to respond to demand.

Despite bearing the Wolf administration’s mark, the new document isn’t a pure expression of the new administration’s take on climate change, Mr. Quigley said. Roughly two-thirds of the work on the update was inherited from the past administration, especially 13 work plans that make up the most concrete initiatives. 

The work plans include expanding utilities’ mandatory energy efficiency improvements and adopting a “fairly aggressive” transition to high performance buildings that consume little fossil-fuel energy. Impacts were quantified for 12 of the 13 plans, which collectively have the potential to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 338 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents through 2030, according to the draft.

The commonwealth’s net greenhouse gas emissions for 2012, which includes both emissions and sinks that absorb carbon, was 253 million metric tons.

Members of DEP’s climate change advisory committee were reserved in their reaction to the draft, since they expect it to be revised following comments at the meeting when it was unveiled in November.

Rob Altenburg, director of the environmental group PennFuture’s Energy Center who serves as an alternate on the committee, said the draft is a transitional document between administrations.

“I think people see this action plan as progress over the last action plan,” he said. “It implicitly recognizes climate as an issue.”

Patrick Henderson, Mr. Corbett’s former energy executive who sits on the advisory board, defended the 2013 plan as “critical because it was the first time the commonwealth laid out, in detail, the positive trends in reducing emissions that we’ve been seeing over the last decade.”

He said the challenge of the new update will be “clearly articulating what benefits Pennsylvanians will realize” if the recommendations are adopted.

The draft action plan contains seven legislative recommendations. Among them are increasing the percentage of state power generation that must come from renewable energy; funding solar incentives; and creating a demand-management program to make natural gas use more efficient.

One avenue for implementing some of the draft action plan’s ideas could be the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which sets a target for Pennsylvania to reduce its energy sector carbon emissions by 35 percent from 2012 levels by 2030. Initial state compliance plans are due next September.

But many legislators’ skepticism of the Clean Power Plan is deep.

At a recent meeting of the General Assembly’s coal caucus, lawmakers lambasted the EPA’s carbon-cutting effort.

“We’ve got to start taking the offensive,” said Sen. Don White, R-Indiana. “I think we need to … declare war on the EPA, on an entity that is basically uncontrollable, unregulated and has had absolutely no positive impact that I’m aware of on this issue of global warming, or weather change, or whatever you want to call it.”

Laura Legere: [email protected]

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