Wind turbines rise up above farmland on the outskirts of the state capital on Nov. 19, 2013 near Middleton, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
(*This commentary was updated at 10:57 a.m. on Thursday, 10/20/22 to remove a reference to vacancies on the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.)
By Elowyn Corby and Amani Reid
When President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, clean energy advocates celebrated the promise of an expanding workforce, cleaner air, and lower energy bills for communities across the country – but that promise has a long road ahead before it can come to fruition. Responsibility for implementing and taking advantage of many of the Act’s provisions will fall largely to states.
Right now, Pennsylvania is at risk of falling behind.
Clean energy has the power to improve health, create economic opportunity, and build a more equitable energy system for every community at the same time that it’s meeting our nation’s electricity needs.
Once a national leader in solar installations, Pennsylvania has slipped to the 23rd spot, with solar accounting for less than half a percent of the Commonwealth’s energy generation.
Our clean energy workforce development also has plenty of room for improvement.
According to the 2022 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, Pennsylvania is ranked 39th for clean energy jobs per 100,000 residents. Solar’s modest foothold in the Keystone State isn’t due to lack of appetite. Polling shows that more than eight in ten Pennsylvania residents view rooftop solar favorably, making it more popular than any coal, nuclear energy, and methane gas.
Despite solar’s overwhelming popularity, recent legislative efforts to maximize its benefits have quickly fizzled out. A stark example is the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS), which dictates how much electricity generation must come from renewable sources.
Pennsylvania’s portfolio standard, which has not been updated since the George W. Bush administration, still sits at a paltry eight percent. By contrast, our neighbors in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland all have targets of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. In 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced an amendment that would raise the AEPS to 18 percent. Not only did it fail to pass; it didn’t even advance to a full floor vote.
Bipartisan legislation to authorize community solar has also been kept out of reach. Unlike rooftop solar, community solar allows anyone with an electricity bill to subscribe to a large solar array, expanding access to renters and low-income households. Twenty-two states are currently experiencing the vast benefits of community solar programs, but Pennsylvania is not one of them. By not enacting community solar legislation, we’re leaving $1.8 billion in economic development on the table.
While these common-sense policies are stalled, some members of the legislature are instead spending time waging a contentious, years-long legal battle to block Pennsylvania’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The regional cap-and-trade program limits carbon pollution from power plants and requires plants to pay for the pollution they emit.
It’s currently helping eleven states cut emissions and lower energy bills for their citizens — if not for needless obstruction in the legislature, Pennsylvania could be number twelve.
Participation in the regional cap-and-trade initiative is projected to add 27,000 jobs to our workforce and $2 billion to the Gross State Product by 2030. Beyond the significant economic benefits, RGGI participation could reduce polluting emissions by as much as 227 million tons by 2030, leading to cleaner air and healthier people.
Currently, low-income communities and communities of color shoulder the heaviest environmental burdens, including disproportionate health harms — like asthma and cancer — that are exacerbated by poor air quality.
Not only are opponents of clean energy in Harrisburg dragging their feet on common-sense policies to clean up our air and energy supply, but they’re also undermining the background structure in place for good energy governance.
While the governor is responsible for appointing commissioners to the five-member Public Utilities Commission – a key agency that regulates Pennsylvania’s utilities, including approving where our state gets its energy and how much it costs – appointments must be approved by the legislature – and right now, some elected officials in Harrisburg are playing politics instead of approving much needed appointments.
By failing to embrace clean energy, Pennsylvania decision-makers are depriving the Commonwealth of economic windfall, family-supporting jobs, and a more equitable, modern, and resilient energy grid. The world is changing rapidly, and Pennsylvanians recognize the urgent need to leave the fossil fuel era where it belongs: in the past. It’s time for our decision makers to get on board.
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