Clean Energy Is on the Map in PA. Where Will We Go Now?

This blog was co-written by Sharon Pillar of Environmental Entrepreneurs.

In Pennsylvania, where unemployment rates have risen five times in the last six months, job-growth in the clean energy sector has helped keep the state’s economy afloat. Today, the state’s clean energy businesses support 66,000 jobs—a 15 percent increase since 2014.

Too often, these jobs go unnoticed or underappreciated. Now, though, Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) is putting Pennsylvania’s clean energy economy on the map—literally—in the form of the Clean Jobs Mapping Project, an interactive online map that shows the locations of many (but due to current limits on data ava​ilability, not nearly all) of the clean energy generation sites and businesses in Pennsylvania.

The map has layers to display four types of clean energy businesses (solar, energy efficiency, geothermal, and other); three types of utility-scale renewable energy facilities (wind, solar, and hydroelectric); and residential and commercial solar photovoltaic systems (i.e., the kind you see on rooftops).

The map also shows the total renewable energy capacity in each county (in megawatts, or MW), and has layers for state Senate and House districts.

Clicking on a utility-scale renewable energy facility displays the facility's generation capacity. Clicking on a county shows the total renewable generation built in that county.

How full is the glass?

On the one hand, there are thousands of dots, even with many businesses and generation sites not yet shown. (If you run a clean energy business and you don’t see yourself on the map, you can register to be added at http://www.e2.org/pamap/). Clearly, the clean energy sector is a significant part of Pennsylvania's economy.

On the other hand, it’s also clear that the state’s clean energy economy has a lot of room to grow. With the cost of renewable energy declining rapidly, and Pennsylvanians increasingly recognizing that they can save significant amounts of money by using energy more efficiently, the potential for clean energy growth has never been greater. Right now, though, the Commonwealth’s ability to realize that potential is limited, because its existing clean energy policies—including the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard Act and Act 129, the state’s energy efficiency and conservation statute—are modest and outdated. Pennsylvania lags behind other states. (Massachusetts, for example, has just over half Pennsylvania's population, but almost 50 percent more clean energy jobs).

The E2 Clean Jobs report: a snapshot of Pennsylvania’s clean energy sector

E2—a national, nonpartisan group of clean energy business leaders and investors—created the Mapping Project to illustrate the Clean Jobs Pennsylvania report that E2 and the Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance (KEEA) released in July, 2016. According to the report, Pennsylvania’s clean energy industry supports more than 66,000 jobs—about 1 percent of the state’s workforce.  By comparison, during the fourth quarter of 2015 (the last period for which data are available), the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction sector supported fewer than 30,000 jobs.

Pennsylvania’s clean energy workers are employed by almost 6,000 companies. While the majority of these jobs are in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas, there are many in rural regions, too, and in every single legislative district in the Commonwealth.

The field of energy efficiency is the leading clean energy jobs employer, with more than 53,000 Pennsylvanians installing high-efficiency HVAC systems, insulating leaky walls and foundations, manufacturing LED lighting and constructing efficient homes, factories, and offices. As the first annual Energy Efficiency Day recently reminded us, saving energy is a win for everyone, reducing the need for power plant generation and saving money that would otherwise be spent on energy bills.

The wind and solar industries are growing, too, with the former supporting about 1,500 jobs and the latter around 5,100. Those workers have installed more than 9,000 renewable energy generation systems in every county of the state. And most of the solar workers are employed by small businesses.

New technologies such as energy storage are contributing to the growing job numbers, as well. Pittsburgh-based Aquion Energy, for example, manufactures environmentally-safe, aqueous hybrid ion batteries that can store energy from solar panels for use after the sun goes down. The company now employs 150 workers at its manufacturing facility in Westmoreland County, and is expanding.  

Good news? Yes. But the numbers could be even better if Pennsylvania updates existing clean energy laws and policies, and limits pollution from all fossil-fueled power plants under the Clean Power Plan.

Act 129: energy efficiency, but only to a point

Pennsylvania’s first task should be to modernize Act 129, the state’s energy efficiency and conservation law. Among other problems, Act 129 arbitrarily caps the amount that can be spent on electric utility efficiency programs, even when additional spending would be cost-effective—i.e., would result in savings greater than expenditures. Because of this limitation, Pennsylvania cannot achieve all of the cost-effective efficiency savings that we know are available. Since Act 129 began, its programs have created more than $257 million in energy savings ($674 million in benefits against $417 million in costs). What kind of energy savings and jobs creation benefits could it generate, if the arbitrary spending cap were lifted?

Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard: a low bar, with open borders

Pennsylvania could also update the renewable energy goals in its Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS). Currently, the AEPS has two “tiers” of requirements. Tier I requires investor-owned utilities (IOUs) to get 8 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like solar, wind, and small hydroelectric by 2021. Tier II requires utilities to acquire an additional 10 percent of their electricity from less clean, “alternative” sources like waste coal and municipal waste.

To put the goals of the AEPS into perspective, consider that in 2014 the PJM Interconnection—the independent operator of Pennsylvania’s electricity grid—concluded that with some transmission upgrades, the PJM grid could operate reliably with up to 30 percent of its electricity coming from wind and solar.                                              

Another major deficiency of the AEPS is the solar “carve-out" from Tier I. It requires IOUs to acquire 0.5 percent of their electricity (about 6% of their total Tier I obligations) from solar by 2021. Not only is this a very low goal; the AEPS also allows IOUs to buy their solar electricity (in the form of Solar Renewable Energy Credits, or SRECs) from providers in 11 states other than Pennsylvania. Currently, more than half of the solar energy going to satisfy the AEPS requirement comes from other states.

Practically, the effect of this “open borders” approach to solar is to export Pennsylvania jobs (and ratepayer money) to other states. This makes no sense. The General Assembly can both raise the clean energy targets in the AEPS and close Pennsylvania’s borders. Both actions will lead to more in-state solar generation—and more in-state jobs.

The Clean Power Plan: will Pennsylvania seize the opportunity?

Finally, Pennsylvania can also create clean energy jobs with swift and effective compliance with the federal Clean Power Plan (CPP), the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from power plants. On September 27, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held oral arguments in a quixotic lawsuit that coal companies and allies have filed to evade pollution limits. The arguments, NRDC’s David Doniger wrote, showed that “the court had a strong grasp of critical issues in the case, and we are optimistic about the outcome.”

Assuming that the CPP is upheld, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection will have to make a number of decisions about how to meet its pollution-reduction goals. These decisions, which the DEP will make in a “State Plan” submitted to the EPA, will determine how much the CPP drives Pennsylvania’s power sector towards efficiency and renewables (and therefore towards renewable and efficiency jobs), and how much it allows the sector to drift in its current direction—largely towards gas generation. Later posts on this blog will explore the decision that currently looms as Pennsylvania’s most important: whether to cover new fossil-fuel power plants in the State Plan, or only existing plants.

The Bottom Line

Adding jobs to Pennsylvania’s economy is one of the many important contributions that effective clean energy policies can offer to the state. If our representatives in Harrisburg really want to create jobs in the Commonwealth and grow our economy, they need look no further than the out-of-date clean energy laws now on our books. Updating these laws and policies in ways that fast-track clean energy will help Pennsylvania create opportunities for new employment and businesses that will stimulate the economy and increase protection of our citizens’ health and that of our environment. Who could be against that?

About the Authors

Mark Szybist

Senior Advocate, Energy & Transportation Program

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