PA's Renewable Energy Goals Are Not in the Super Bowl

Credit: Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, 2016 AEPS Report

Pennsylvania established its first clean energy target 14 years ago by enacting the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act of 2004 (AEPS). At the time—just before the Philadelphia Eagles faced the New England Patriots in the 2005 Super Bowl—the AEPS was a relatively forward-thinking policy. By today’s standards, though, the renewable energy targets in the AEPS are extremely weak and long overdue for revision. Strengthening the AEPS before 2021, when its targets flat-line, would re-establish Pennsylvania as a clean energy leader. Failing to do so would effectively shut the door on thousands of clean energy jobs and increase our dependence on fossil fuels, even as the need to act on climate demands the opposite.

The only real renewables target in the AEPS is that by 2021, one-half of one percent (0.5 percent) of the retail electricity sold in Pennsylvania must come from solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. Another 7.5 percent of sales must come from any combination of “Tier I” sources, which include both renewable sources (solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal) and non-renewable sources (coal-mine methane, biomass, and wood manufacturing waste products). And an additional 10 percent must come from non-renewable “Tier II” sources like waste coal and municipal garbage incineration.

These targets represent the end-goals of the AEPS, and Pennsylvania has been ramping up to them slowly since 2005. Right now—i.e., during the AEPS compliance year running from June 1, 2017 to May 31, 2018—the Tier I requirement is 6.5 percent, the Tier II requirement is 8.2 percent, and the PV solar “carve-out” is .34 percent.

Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania's electricity suppliers have easily kept pace with these interim goals. But after 13 years of the AEPS, Pennsylvania generates less than 4 percent of its electricity from renewables like wind and solar, even though 14.2 percent of the retail electricity sold in the Commonwealth is generated by AEPS-sanctioned “alternative” sources. Meanwhile, the cost of renewables has plummeted (since 2009, wind prices have fallen by 70 percent and solar prices  by 85 percent); PJM,the operator of the electrical grid in Pennsylvania, has found that the grid could support up to 30 percent wind and solar power without any reliability issues; and worsening climate change—along with better understanding of its consequences - has confirmed the need for more zero-carbon renewable generation.

Despite all this, Pennsylvania has failed to revisit the AEPS to set more ambitious renewable energy goals. By contrast, a recent report on state renewable standards by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) found that of the other 29 states with renewable energy standards, 23 have revised their standards since 2012. Maryland, for example, increased its target in 2017 to 25 percent renewable energy by 2020. In 2016, New York went to 50 percent by 2030. In fact, Pennsylvania has the weakest renewable percentage target of all 30 states.

State Renewable Portfolio Standards (2017)
Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

The AEPS has helped renewable energy gain a foothold in Pennsylvania, though. (To see where most of the state’s large "utility-scale" renewable projects are, see this map from Environmental Entrepreneurs.) And the growth of renewables has boosted the state’s economy, creating thousands of jobs. Of the 70,000 clean energy jobs in Pennsylvania today, more than 10,062 are in renewable technologies. (Most of the rest are in energy efficiency, and more than 10,000 of all clean energy jobs are in rural areas).

It turns out that renewable portfolio laws are critical in driving the clean energy economy in the U.S., especially in the mid-Atlantic region. Since 2000, about half of the growth in U.S. renewable electricity generation and capacity has been driven by state standards, according to the LBNL report. In the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and West, renewable portfolio standards account for a full 70 to 90 percent of the capacity added since 2000.

Meager as the renewable energy goals of the AEPS are, the law is often criticized for going too far. The critics—including many members of the General Assembly—tend to dress up their attacks on the AEPS in free-market talking points: “We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers,” say, or “We’ve propped up renewables long enough, it’s time they stood on their own two feet.” These talking points are designed to sound like principles, but those who amplify them generally have no problem with subsidies for oil and gas or nuclear and coal, which historically have dwarfed support for clean energy. Some critics say, “we should level the playing field and get rid of all subsidies," but they know that in that case, the many decades of subsidies to non-renewables would give those sources a huge market advantage. 

Others claim that AEPS say compliance is expensive—but both the LBNL analysis and the Pennsylvania’s Public Utilities Commission confirm that compliance costs are minimal, only about 1 percent of electricity bills in Pennsylvania. To put this in perspective: the average electric bill for Pennsylvania households has increased by 48 percent since 2004 (and over 16 percent when accounting for inflation).

In fact, criticism of the AEPS has less to do with free market chauvinism and consumer affordability than it does with market share. Coal, nuclear, and fracked gas interests dislike the AEPS because they see it as taking too many crumbs of an energy market pie they feel entitled to eat in its entirety. But of course, there are good reasons to favor zero-fuel-cost renewables over fossil fuels and increasingly uneconomical nuclear generation. Notwithstanding all the cant of level playing fields and winner-picking, energy is not a game of football. The stakes are infinitely higher. If we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050, and as a recent NRDC analysis found, expanding renewables must be an integral part of our efforts.

When the AEPS became law in 2004, the number one song in the U.S. was “Over and Over” by Nelly, and Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens were leading the Eagles to their last Super Bowl. That's another way of saying that 2004 was a long time ago. Since then, the Eagles have installed 11,000 solar panels and 14 wind turbines at Lincoln Financial Field (far outshining, by the way, what the Patriots have done at Gillette Stadium. Go Iggles!). Shouldn’t Pennsylvania get serious about clean energy too? With the year 2021 approaching quickly, Governor Wolf and the General Assembly should make strengthening the renewable targets in the AEPS a legislative priority—to drive the Commonwealth’s clean energy economy, create clean energy jobs, and cut greenhouse gas pollution.



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