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Pa. lawmakers begin debate on new renewable energy goals

Windmills are seen in a field.
Tim Lambert
A wind energy farm in Somerset County.

Lawmakers are starting to debate Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposal to increase renewable energy in the state.

In March, Shapiro announced a plan to get 35% of the state’s electricity from clean sources by 2035. Right now, 8% comes from renewables.

Pennsylvania Reliable Energy Sustainability Standard (PRESS) lists clean sources as: wind, solar, geothermal, low-impact hydro and nuclear power, as well as captured fugitive emissions from landfills and coal mines.

More than half of the state’s electricity now comes from burning natural gas, which is primarily made of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Shapiro has said he believes the state can act on climate change while continuing fossil fuel production and protecting energy jobs.

House lawmakers pushing legislation to adopt PRESS say it will increase generation to meet rising electricity demand while reducing planet warming emissions.

Former Gov. Tom Wolf set a goal of cutting the state’s emissions 80% by 2050, compared to 2005 levels. Climate scientists say the world must curb emissions rapidly to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

During an informational hearing Monday in the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, Republican lawmakers questioned the need for new standards and whether the measure would hurt the state’s gas industry.

Rep. Martin Causer (R-McKean), the committee’s minority chair, said the effort is misguided. He said he would not call the last set of renewable energy goals – 2004’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards – a “glowing success.” He said he thinks there have been problems under the AEPS, but did not point to specifics. Causer said the state should focus on domestic energy.

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The AEPS required the state to get 8% of its energy from Tier I renewable sources and 10% from Tier II sources, such as waste coal, by 2021. Utilities are allowed to buy renewable energy generated outside of Pennsylvania. The state hit that goal and the standards have not been updated since.

David Taylor, CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, said his members rely on affordable, reliable energy to make their products. He said PRESS will hurt competition, prematurely shutter coal and gas plants and threaten grid reliability.

“We believe in letting our current market, which is functioning well, continue to work rather than being massively distorted by government interference through mandates, subsidies, et cetera,” Taylor said.

The Marcellus shale boom created a glut of cheap gas that coal plants struggled to compete with. The Energy Information Administration says Pennsylvania’s share of electricity from coal fell to 10% by 2022, down from 39% in 2012. The state’s largest coal-fired power plant, the 1,888-megawatt Homer City Generating Station, closed in 2023.

Jacob Finkel, a deputy secretary of policy with the governor’s office, said lawmakers need to recognize that more than 95% of new projects proposed for the electric grid are renewables.

“We need to be willing to accept that renewables and battery storage have an important part to play, but again PRESS is 21 different sources of power, it’s not any one thing. And we think we need all of those to solve this problem,” Finkel said.

Stephen Bennett with regional electric grid operator PJM said they are in “an excellent position” now in terms of resource adequacy, but if the current rate of retirement for older power plants holds, there is potential that resources will dip below the level that’s needed.

PJM is seeing significant growth in demand for the first time in a long time. Bennett said a lot of demand is coming from new data centers and electrification efforts.

Bennett said PJM wants more watts on the system, and has made changes to its process to help get new projects connected faster.

“PJM wants the watts. We want natural gas watts, we want nuclear watts, we want renewable. And if you look at our queue right now, it is largely made up of renewable generation,” Bennet said. “Whatever can be done to maintain generation we have and bring on new generation is a benefit to the grid.”

Modeling done by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that Pennsylvania could grow total electric generation and exports if it adopts PRESS and PACER – Shapiro’s plan to charge state power plants a fee for carbon pollution. The commonwealth is a national leader in electricity exports.

“In the next decade, Pennsylvania would be exporting twice as much as the next largest exporter in the country,” said NRDC’s Robert Routh.

Routh said the analysis also found the policies could create or retain a net 278,000 jobs by 2040 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the PJM grid over 20 years, compared to a scenario without the policies.

Sharon Pillar with the Pennsylvania Solar Center said ratepayers are vulnerable to big price swings when the grid is too reliant on one fuel source.

She said the grid of the future will feature an interplay of baseload power, renewables, distributed power such as rooftop solar panels, and battery storage.

“This is the new energy paradigm that we need to be working towards,” Pillar said.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.