Here’s how to build a more equitable future for Pa. with clean energy | Opinion

Keystone Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Armstrong County, about 50 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

(*This post was updated at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, 5/5/21 with new information, and a new headline)

By Odette Mucha and Elena Weissmann

In the midst of a contentious political battle over Pennsylvania’s future in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), plans to formalize the transition are moving forward. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently wrapped up a months-long public comment period, during which tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians voiced support for the Commonwealth joining the regional cap-and-trade initiative.

Public testimony focused largely on the fact that by participating in RGGI, Pennsylvania stands to reduce climate pollution from carbon emissions by 188 million tons and boost the Gross State Product $2 billion by 2030.  However, another noteworthy and under-the-radar benefit of implementing RGGI is the opportunity it provides to build a more equitable Commonwealth.

This appears to be a benefit DEP recognizes, as evidenced by their recent pledge to include equity principles in the program. According to the department’s website, “these reductions will particularly benefit those most often impacted by marginal air quality, such as children and at-risk seniors, especially in low income and environmental justice communities.”

This public commitment to environmental justice is both highly encouraging and urgently needed. Today, energy burdens are disproportionately high for households at or below 80 percent of the median income, with low-income Pennsylvanians facing energy burdens three times higher than the Commonwealth’s average.

Unaffordable energy bills lead to power shut-offs, leaving families in the dark and at risk of eviction and homelessness. These socioeconomic discrepancies are unacceptable and make it clearer than ever that energy justice must be at the forefront of all energy initiatives. As RGGI program details continue to take shape, DEP has the opportunity to prioritize easing the burden on Pennsylvania’s families struggling to make ends meet.

One opportunity to increase equity is through the workforce. The Commonwealth is still recovering from the economic hit caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with the rate of unemployment claims rising, even as the nation’s unemployment rate trends downward. RGGI funding is slated to add 27,000 jobs to the Commonwealth by 2030, a much-needed economic boost.

The key will be ensuring that these clean energy jobs go to Pennsylvania residents, particularly displaced energy workers or those in disadvantaged communities. By partnering with labor and the clean energy industry, DEP can reduce unemployment, and support career pathways and job readiness initiatives for those who bear the brunt of the economic downturn.

DEP should also prioritize equitable financing for clean energy solutions. Renewable energy projects are often difficult to finance or limited to those with the disposable income to foot the bill.

By allocating RGGI funds for financing products like no-interest loans, DEP can help knock down the financial barriers to clean energy. Connecticut’s Green Bank is a prime example of clean energy financing done right. Their program has closed 330 loans worth $184 million to finance efficiency upgrades, EV charging stations, and solar projects. All told, they’ve saved Connecticut nearly $300 million in energy costs and created over 2,000 jobs.

The broader, overarching theme of these specific program recommendations is the need to prioritize vulnerable communities in the deployment of clean energy. By targeting the benefits of clean energy investments to low-income households and communities exiting the fossil fuel industry, DEP can lift families out of energy poverty, improve public health, and build local wealth.

This can only happen if the department proactively engages with environmental justice communities and conducts ongoing, public reviews to ensure that RGGI benefits are maximized. Funding safeguards, including a 40 percent minimum carveout for funding benefitting environmental justice communities, should also be implemented.

In navigating entry into RGGI, Pennsylvania faces a unique opportunity to take bold steps toward a fairer and more just Commonwealth. We’re hopeful that the DEP will rise to the occasion. Pennsylvania’s underserved communities cannot wait.

Odette Mucha is the Mid-Atlantic regulatory director for Vote Solar, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group. Elena Weissmann is Vote Solar’s Campaigns Director for the Mid-Atlantic.