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  • Rob Altenberg, PennFuture

Smog and mirrors in West Virginia

Since it was signed into law in 2004, Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) has guaranteed a certain percentage of the electricity sold at retail in the state comes from clean and renewable sources. When fully implemented in 2020, this will mean .5 percent of our electricity will come from solar, 7.5 percent from clean “Tier 1” renewables like wind power, and an additional 10 percent from “Tier II” alternative sources such as waste coal. According to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission's (PUC) 2014 annual report on the program, the 16 MW of solar installed the prior year “resulted in $171 million of investments that help sustain the 2,900 person workforce from 428 companies involved in manufacturing, sales, distribution and installation of solar power components and systems in Pennsylvania.” Similarly for wind, the PUC reported more than 1,000 direct and indirect jobs (including jobs at 28 in-state manufacturing facilities). This is a positive step but we have barely scratched the surface of our potential for solar and wind, and for the jobs and other economic benefits clean power would provide.

For all the good news, Pennsylvania’s AEPS has fallen behind surrounding states. Compared to our program, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. all require 20 percent or more renewable energy between 2015 and 2026. Even Ohio is ahead of us with a 12.5 percent standard. While we could be moving forward and joining our neighboring states, opponents of clean energy are hard at work to prevent this. It looks like our neighbors in West Virginia will succumb to politics and be the first to take a giant leap backwards. The state had enacted a portfolio standard in 2009 that would have required 25 percent of electricity coming from renewable and “alternative” sources. At the time, the coal industry supported and even helped draft the law. (Not surprisingly, they managed to ensure a number of different coal technologies could generate credit under their plan.) Now, the industry has had a change of heart and is claiming the plan threatens jobs.

With economic indicators such as jobs, earnings, consumer spending, and housing starts all up since 2009, are we to believe that this law creates a “jobs problem” that didn’t exist prior to the economic recovery? It wasn’t the technology or economics that changed so much in six years—just politics. One industry representative was quoted as saying this was a reaction to new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions regulations. That is no doubt true, but there's a bit more to the story... In its Clean Power Plan, the EPA made sure its targets were achievable by basing them on existing state plans. West Virginia has one of the more complex laws out there so it’s hard to guarantee how much clean renewable energy will result. Although they would probably need to modify their rules to make reductions under the law creditable, it’s possible that the existing law would result in enough clean energy resources being built. While most folks would think this was good news, it put the state's coal industry between a rock and a hard place. Continuing to support the law they helped draft could be seen as supporting one element of the Clean Power Plan. Worse yet, it would make it much more difficult to peddle the talking point that no element of the plan is achievable. There was only one solution—their own law had to go. When the industry wants to convince people to vote for more pollution, less clean energy, and worse public health, there is only one way to go: Cloud the issue with smog and mirrors and then threaten jobs. This might not impact Pennsylvania directly but our own law could very well see a similar challenge. Hopefully, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and enough of our legislators will see through the industry’s smog screen and keep our AEPS law in place. Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.

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