Skip to content

Unlocking Pennsylvania’s Energy Potential under the Next Administration

While education was the main focus of Governor-elect Tom Wolf’s campaign platform, with a proposed five percent severance tax on natural gas as the funding mechanism, he and Gov. Tom Corbett vigorously debated whether the natural gas industry could absorb additional fees without cutting back operations in Pennsylvania.  The General Assembly passed a series of bills aimed at promoting natural gas conversions and increasing natural gas availability, and state incentive programs for research and alternative fuels were tweaked to include natural gas.

With so much focus on natural gas drilling, one might easily wonder, what about renewable energy?  Just six years ago, the General Assembly moved landmark legislation to promote alternative and renewable energy and to set up more than $650 million in state funds as incentives.  Pennsylvania had an expanded focus on renewable energy development and was actively working to meet the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards.

Over the past four years, the state has not simply been about drill and burn.  Industry and government have been using these state programs to expand use of alternative and renewable resources for energy production – and Energy Information Administration numbers show much of the increases have come from industries themselves.  One question now being asked is, “Is Governor-elect Wolf ready – and more importantly able – to work with the General Assembly to move the state to a sustained “all of the above” energy portfolio?”

Wolf made a campaign promise to make Pennsylvania a national leader in the development of clean energy sources. And he shocked some supporters on election night when he advocated for coal during his acceptance speech.

“Everyone is talking about gas, but we have coal,” Wolf said. “We’ve got to make sure coal is relevant in this new age we’re entering into. We have to make sure we take advantage of our freshwater resources, our timber and our open space.”

This assertion may have calmed some Republicans and coal-county Democrats, but left others scratching their heads.  Wolf’s Fresh Start plan includes a list of environmentally friend energy initiatives including expanding the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards, accelerating new investments in energy efficiency retrofits and building a renewable energy workforce.

The reality is that Pennsylvania isn’t ready to wean off of coal, and combined with nuclear power, the state is a major electric generator, needing significant infrastructure upgrades. While nearly 40 percent of homes are heated with natural gas, electricity production is the biggest sticking point.

In 2012 and 2013, Pennsylvania was nationally ranked fourth in coal production and second in electric generation from nuclear power. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, in 2013 Pennsylvania generated 40 percent of its net electricity from coal and 35 percent from nuclear power.

Clearly Pennsylvania can’t ignore coal, but, pending any revisions at the national level, the state is on a timeline to implement a Clean Power Plan as part of a national initiative spearheaded by the EPA to curb greenhouse gas emissions. While the EPA maintains that flexibility is the key to making the plan work, outdated coal power plants don’t have a chance. How does a cash-poor state, independently or through public-private partnerships, make the sweeping changes necessary to be all things to all people? Renewables must play a key role in that offset discussion.

The growing majority of Republicans in the House and Senate does not necessarily doom a bright renewable energy future for Pennsylvania, but it will require Governor elect Wolf to negotiate and possibly find common grounds with the General Assembly if there is any hope of enacting meaningful legislation over the next two years.

The legislative leadership and more conservative/impacted members of the House and Senate are opposed to a severance tax, but how these members’ views on renewable energy and what can be done to comply with the Clean Power Plan (CPP) is yet to be seen.  The legislature added a layer of bureaucracy to the already cumbersome CPP process by giving itself approval over the state plan. This interjection in and of itself may make it difficult for Wolf to stick to his promise of “proactively addressing climate change and promoting policies that are in the best interest of current and future residents – not special interests.”

Wolf has already enlisted former DEP head Katie McGinty as his chief of staff. McGinty is no stranger to legislative battles, and brings a wealth of knowledge to the office. Understanding energy, business and the environment can help the Wolf administration craft productive plans, but that doesn’t guarantee legislative buy in.

Candidate Wolf talked about the need to grow renewable energy resources in Pennsylvania, and his administration needs to keep that conversation alive by not just challenging the legislature and business community but inviting them to be part of job creation, increased revenue, and sustainable, clean, and affordable energy for heating and electricity.

With a Democratic governor and a Republican House and Senate, Wolf will need to provide leadership, not instruction, to focus on strengths and what’s doable without further polarization of state government.  And his supporters – including environmental and renewable energy activists – may need to learn how divided government works, rather than advocating for the unreachable, to allow the new Governor the opportunity to create the bargaining chips and trust needed to push his energy agenda.

The political world seems more divided and polarizing than ever, but Pennsylvania has an opportunity to become a national leader in all areas of the energy industry by carefully crafting a plan that will utilize its wealth of natural resources wisely.