Pa. lawmakers are skeptical of a proposed nuclear rescue. Could more solar panels and wind turbines get the job done?

By: - March 11, 2019 5:02 pm

Rep. Greg Vitali, center, leads a discussion around the pros and cons of a deal to add the state’s nuclear industry to Pennsylvania’s alternative energy standard (Capital-Star photo).

Whether it’s a bailout, subsidy, or just correcting the market, Pennsylvania lawmakers greeted Monday’s long-awaited plan to save the state’s ailing nuclear power plants with skepticism. But they say they remain open to a deal.

The plan by Rep. Thomas Mehaffie, R-Dauphin, would add the nuclear industry into the state’s existing alternative energy portfolio.

That means electricity distributors would need each kilowatt of power to include some percentage originating from one of the state’s five nuclear plants. 

The House’s free market backers see the bill as a bailout for a still profitable industry.

“As a Republican, I don’t believe subsidies are the way to handle any economic concerns of any particular industry,” said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, who chairs the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

His concerns were echoed by other Republicans, who pointed to an early estimate from the University of Pennsylvania that put the consumer price tag of the deal at nearly $1 billion.

Study author Christina Simeone, director of policy and external affairs at Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, later revised her estimate — nearly halving the proposed cost to $500 million. Mehaffie and nuclear allies cited the lower number throughout the day.

The No Nuke Bailout coalition — which includes the AARP, gas industry interests, and commercial electric users — pointed to a recent statement from Exelon, which owns three of the state’s nuclear plants, bragging about record profits to question the need for state intervention.

“Why are we creating a regrettable solution for a problem that doesn’t even exist?” spokesperson Steve Kratz said in a statement. “Our legislators need to stand firm for the ratepayers of Pennsylvania and not be duped by avaricious corporate tactics.”

As of Monday, the bill had 20 cosponsors — 13 Republicans and seven Democrats, spread out from rural districts near the plants to urban centers far from a reactor. The Legislature’s Nuclear Energy Caucus, meanwhile, boasts 67 members of the state House and Senate, in both parties.

Some caucus members don’t plan to support the bill. Mehaffie’s measure has also received cautious backing from Republicans who haven’t signed their names to it.

“We have zero chance of reaching the governor’s emissions goals if we don’t bail them out,” Rep. Chris Quinn, R-Delaware, said. Earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf called for cutting state greenhouse gasses by 26 percent by 2025. 

One person staying mum is new House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, whose district is right across the Susquehanna River from the Peach Bottom plant in York County. 

Cutler’s spokesperson, Mike Straub, said the House GOP floor boss wants to hear more from his fellow Republicans before commenting.

House Democrats, meanwhile, had their own unofficial hearing on the bill led by their ranking member of Environmental Resources and Energy committee, Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware.

Environmental lobbyists, consumer advocates, analysts, and two former Department of Environmental Protection secretaries made their points for and against a deal to a room of more than a dozen interested state lawmakers Monday morning.

The state’s environmental community — including PennFuture, the Sierra Club, Clean Air Council, and Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania — released a statement pushing back on the bill as well.

They’re seeking more aid for solar and wind and caps on carbon from the bill.

“We urge Pennsylvania legislators to shift their focus from preserving the aging energy sources of the past and instead look ahead toward real climate solutions that will advance a clean energy future in our Commonwealth,” the joint statement read.

The concerns environmentalists raised were shared with some of the more progressive Democrats, including Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny.

“It’s not a simple answer,” Innamorato said. “You don’t want to bend to corporate interests, but we don’t want to go back — we don’t want to see carbon levels rise.”

A report from Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Andrew Place found that it could take 12 years to replace the carbon free energy that Three Mile Island, in Dauphin County, provides, and 28 years to replace the output of the Shippingport plant in western Pennsylvania.

Rep. Robert Matzie, D-Beaver, who’s a co-chair of the Nuclear Power Caucus, said answering some of the environmental concerns could mean Democratic votes — and passage out of the House.

“There are a number of Republicans who aren’t voting for anything,” Matzie said, adding that the needed changes to the bill “will require Democrats being at the table.”

Not that the bill doesn’t already have a few carrots to lure environmentalists. One provision would phase nuclear out of the alternative energy portfolio if the General Assembly passes a $15 per ton carbon tax. But even that is low number, according to Innamorato.

To John Quigley, former secretary of the state Environmental Projection and Conservation and Natural Resources departments, the plan Pennsylvania has put forth is more complicated than need be.

For all the concerns over bailouts and subsidies, he said having no price on carbon has been a long time giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.

The most elegant solution would be a carbon tax — even if it could be a tough sell for a state that can’t even pass a tax on natural gas production.

“It just seems to be politically problematic to go for the simplest solution,” said Quigley, who now heads Harrisburg University’s Center for Environment, Energy & Economy.

“So Pennsylvania is going to do something that is likely to be the hard way.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.