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  • Rob Altenberg, PennFuture

Yes, Senator Casey, we can

On December 10, Senator Bob Casey issued a statement entitled The Need to Act on Climate Change. The statement began on a very positive note, saying We must take action on climate change because it poses a serious threat to public health, the environment and national security. It then went on to voice support for the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Power Plan and highlighted a number of reasonable points.

With the other member of our U.S. Senate delegation in Pennsylvania, Senator Pat Toomey, completely opposed to limiting carbon pollution, and even our own Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) opposing many of EPA’s efforts, Senator Casey deserves our thanks for being a voice of reason. As much as we would like to praise the entire statement, there is one sentence with which we take issue. Midway through the document, the Senator says:

"EPA’s renewable energy target for Pennsylvania imposes an unequal burden on the Commonwealth relative to other states with much greater renewable energy potential, and it wouldn’t be possible to get greater carbon pollution reductions from the other three building blocks in Pennsylvania."

While we can appreciate constructive criticism that fosters debate and will ultimately make a good rule better, this particular statement takes an overly pessimistic view of the EPA’s proposal. The claim that EPA imposes an unequal burden on us sounds bad, and it is bound to be repeated often by those opposed to the Plan. But, is it really surprising that EPA is proposing more reductions from states that emit more carbon pollution? Sometimes, being unequal is not only fair but also reasonable public policy.

The EPA derived its regional renewable generation targets by averaging existing renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in nearby states. This guarantees that the regional standard will be more moderate than what other states have already found to be achievable. Of the states with existing standards in our region, Pennsylvania is in last place with an 8 percent target—half of the 16 percent average. So, it’s not surprising that we need to do a little extra to catch up. (West V​​irgina and Virginia are even further behind as neither has a state RPS.)

Because we generate more electricity (and emit more pollution) than many other states, we also need more renewable generation to see the same percentage improvement. Of course, just because it’s unequal doesn’t mean it’s a burden. As a state with more generation, we also have the potential for more cost-effective reductions in many cases. Also, when we consider the benefits of having a clean and inexhaustible energy supply that protects public health and the environment, creates local jobs, avoids volatile fuel prices, and provides a more resilient power grid, the real burden would be remaining dependent on fossil fuels for another generation.

We Can Do It The second part of the Senator’s statement is not only more troubling but saying that we can’t achieve more from the other elements of the EPA plan is just plain wrong. The EPA’s plan sets a state’s target by calculating what is achievable using fourbuilding blocks (see graphic). These building blocks are simply used as a means to calculate the target. EPA does not require Pennsylvania to use any particular block in its plan nor does it require any particular facility to achieve any specific reduction. States will have the flexibility to choose what measures are best and most cost effective. We could follow the EPA plan; we could choose to pool our resources in a multi-state approach (which could be as much as 30 percent cheaper); and we could even make use of other sources of emission reductions that EPA didn’t consider. Even if we stick to the EPA’s building blocks, we can clearly achieve far more reductions than they have assumed.

We certainly have the potential to exceed EPA’s target for renewable generation (Block #3). Their plan assumes we can get about 35,000 GWh total renewable generation by 2029. Our existing Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) should get us about halfway to that goal with more than 18,000 GWh expected by 2020, leaving us nine years to install the rest. Between solar and wind alone, we have the potential to exceed that target.

A 2009 study showed Pennsylvania could get over 29,000 GWh from on site solar alone and such resources have already become more cost effective. A study from the U.S. Department of Energy showed we could get over 20,000 GWh from offshorewind in lake Erie. Additionally, a study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) showed we could get almost 10,000 GWh from land-based wind. That doesn’t even consider out-of-state resources that could be used if they prove more cost effective. Not only can we meet the goal, but doing so looks more and more like a smart business choice even without an EPA rule. An analyst at Deutsche Bank recently found that the cost of rooftop solar will reach grid parity in all 50 states by 2016 (ten states are already there.) Our grid operator, PJM, reported that getting 30 percent renewable penetration in our grid (mostly solar and wind) would reduce production costs by up to 16 percent over business as usual and can reduce wholesale electricity prices by over 21 percent. While we can get all the expected reductions from renewable energy, that isn’t the only option. Contrary to what Senator Casey has said, we can get more reductions than the EPA predicted from many of the building blocks.

  • For redispatch of coal generation to gas (building block #2), we already have. Over the past several years, a number of old coal-fired power plants have either retired or announced their retirement. As as result of low natural gas prices, these are being replaced, for the most part, with new natural gas capacity.

  • For more clean and renewable generation (building block #3), we can take credit for more than just new renewable energy. Because of uprates in capacity at an existing nuclear plant, we are already achieving more than EPA estimated.

  • For energy efficiency (building block #4), we probably have the most potential to exceed EPA’s projections. A recent PUC report prepared by an independent evaluator noted that we could likely triple EPA’s projection with cost-effective measures. These are measures that are already putting roughly $3 into consumers’ pockets for every $1 spent.

The Time is Now Senator Casey, you said we must take action on climate change. The Clean Power Plan will keep energy cleaner and more affordable. It will create more jobs for Pennsylvania workers. It will protect the health of our citizens, particularly children and the elderly. And, it will help keep Pennsylvania a leader in technology and innovation. We’ll keep up the fight to reach these goals but your full support would help a great deal. Are you with us?

Rob Altenburg is senior energy analyst for PennFuture and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.

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