A former governor supports a bill to aid Pa.’s nuclear industry, but a Senate committee isn’t so sure

Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, testified before the Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee.
Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, testified before the Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee.

Now that it’s been 15 years since he championed Pennsylvania’s clean energy law, Gov. Ed Rendell wishes he could go back in time and change a few things.

The law mandates that 18 percent of the state’s energy come from renewable, low-carbon resources that can’t compete with coal and natural gas prices in the free market.

Those resources include solar and hydropower, but low-carbon nuclear energy isn’t among the mix.

In written testimony to a Senate committee on Wednesday, Rendell urged senators to fix that by adopting a bill that some call a “bailout” for the nuclear power sector.

“If I knew in 2004 what I know now about global warming and climate change, I would have certainly included nuclear power as a qualifying energy resource” under the law, Rendell, a Democrat, said. “As in the case of solar, wind and hydropower, nuclear clearly provides … carbon-free energy that does not create greenhouse gas emissions and does not exacerbate [climate] change.”

Rendell is the second former Pennsylvania governor this week to support some form of assistance for the state’s nuclear industry. Former Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, announced his support for a similar bill in a House committee hearing on Monday.

The Senate proposal, introduced by Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, would amend the state’s clean energy law to classify nuclear energy as a renewable energy resource.

But it would also raise electricity bills for consumers across the state by requiring utility companies to buy clean energy credits from the nuclear industry. Those transactions are expected to total at least $450 million per year, or $1.53 per month, for the average Pennsylvania household.

The bill got a tepid reception before the committee Wednesday, where senators said they were reluctant to do anything that would raise electricity prices for their constituents.

Interest groups like the AARP have expressed particular concern for senior citizens and people on fixed incomes.

“You guys are not winning the war in my district,” Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, told a group of nuclear industry lobbyists. “When [constituents] are told their electric bill is going to go up, that really throws them.”

Scavello said a slim percentage of constituents who contact his district office support the bill. That makes him doubt recent polls that found support for the bill among 50 percent of registered voters, he said.

Those polling surveys did not mention the anticipated cost the bill would have for consumers.

Kathleen Barron, senior VP for Exelon Corporation, which owns the Three Mile Island plant in Dauphin County, said legislators in other states have accepted rate increases to avert long-term energy cost hikes that would result from the closure of nuclear power plants.

Lawmakers in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois have all passed laws in recent years to support the nuclear industry.

Exelon says it will close Three Mile Island starting this summer if Pennsylvania’s lawmakers don’t follow suit. The Beaver Valley Plant in western Pennsylvania is also slated to close in 2021.

Proponents of a nuclear bill say that thousands of jobs would be lost if the plants go offline.

In a preemptive move on Wednesday, Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, sought support for a bill that would let municipalities apply for state grants if a nuclear plant in their jurisdiction closes.

But lawmakers and energy industry professionals remain skeptical that the General Assembly should pass a bill that interferes with the energy market to aid a particular industry.

Aument argued Wednesday that his proposal aims to avert climate change and job loss, not funnel ratepayer money into corporate pockets. But a former chair of the Public Utility Commission wasn’t convinced.

Glen Thomas, who also served as an environmental policy adviser to Ridge, testified Wednesday as the president of GT Power Group, a consulting firm whose clients include public utility companies and alternative energy companies, according to its website.

“When you’re putting your finger on the scale for a certain resource, when you’re giving them an advantage by providing an additional revenue stream, that’s a subsidy,” Thomas said. “That helps one resource at the expense of another.”

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