It’s More Than Just the Power Sector

Note: this post is part of a series highlighting PEC’s upcoming conference, Achieving Deep Carbon Reductions: Paths for Pennsylvania’s Energy Future, March 15-16 at the David L. Lawrence Convention center in downtown Pittsburgh. This piece was contributed by Lindsay Baxter, Program Manager for Energy & Climate at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

Read other pieces in the series and learn more about deep decarbonization on the PEC Blog. Register for the conference at

PEC’s upcoming conference will focus on potential pathways toward deep decarbonization of Pennsylvania’s power sector. There are several reasons we’ve chosen to focus specifically on electricity. For one, it accounts for 36% of the Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making it the single most significant contributor of emissions statewide. Lindsay BaxterAdditionally, most decarbonization strategies involve electrifying everything you can, from industrial processes to space heating to motor vehicles, so it only makes sense to get as much carbon out of the electricity system first. Besides which, since we have only two days and much to discuss, there are practical reasons to limit the scope of the conversation to a single area of impact.

But it bears mentioning that although electricity is our primary focus, it is not the only– and some might argue not even the most important– aspect of decarbonization. Other sectors that will need to be decarbonized if we are to prevent irreparable damage to our climate. Some of the most significant of these include:

  • Transportation– Vehicle transportation in Pennsylvania accounts for 23%* of GHG emissions produced in the state. Strategies to address these emissions will include reducing vehicle miles traveled through improved public transit, car sharing, and bicycle and pedestrian initiatives; switching to less polluting fuels, including vehicle electrification; and improving fuel efficiency across the fleet. Freight transportation by train, truck, and barges – all of which currently utilize diesel fuel – will also need to be addressed. Finding solutions for some sectors of transportation, such as air travel, may prove especially complicated. While air travel currently accounts for just 2% of global GHG emissions, it represents one of the sectors most likely to grow and most difficult to address. Our friends at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy covered this topic recently on their podcast, Energy Policy Now.
  • Industrial processes– Twenty-one percent of GHG emissions in Pennsylvania result from industrial processes and the combustion of fossil fuels by the industrial sector (excluding electricity generation). Industries in this sector include cement manufacturing, lime production, limestone and dolomite use, and iron and steel production.
  • Direct combustion of fuels for space heating– Combustion of fuels for space heating and hot water account for 9% of Pennsylvania’s GHG emissions, with about two-thirds of this number resulting from the residential sector, with the remainder coming from commercial buildings. Fuels included in this figure are natural gas, heating oil, propane, coal, wood, gasoline, residual oil, and kerosene.
  • Natural gas production and coal mining– In addition to the gases emitted during burning of these fuels, natural gas and coal release GHGs in their extraction and processing. In fact, about 7% of GHG emissions in the state result from these industries’ current activities and from their legacies (for example, abandoned coal mines releasing gases). These emissions are largely comprised of methane, a very powerful heat-trapping gas. (Learn more about PEC’s work on methane management ) 
  • Agriculture- While farming is responsible for only 3% of GHG emissions in Pennsylvania, efforts to reduce the impact of agriculture on climate change can potentially lead to many co-benefits, such as improved water quality, increased biodiversity, and growth in carbon sequestration through more sustainable soil and forest management practices. The USDA’s Building Blocks for Smart Agriculture and Forestry outline many of these.
  • Waste Management– We all love to recycle, I know. Unlike so many aspects of climate protection, it’s satisfying to actually see the results of your efforts. (It’s hard to visualize the difference turning down your thermostat makes!) Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, the impact of waste management is not as significant as other sustainability initiatives. In Pennsylvania, solid waste and wastewater management account for just 1% of GHG emissions. Some potential solutions are easy, though—capturing methane for electricity production and utilizing biodigesters for electricity and/or biogas production, for instance. However, relatively low electricity prices can make these seemingly no-brainer projects challenging to implement.

We look forward to continuing discussions with partners from all sectors about what a deep decarbonization strategy might include and how it can be structured to bring the most benefit to all Pennsylvanians. The electricity sector is just the beginning!


* All GHG totals cited are from the 2015 Climate Change Action Plan Update, produced by the Department of Environmental Protection in August 2016, using 2012 data.


As a Program Manager of Energy & Climate, Lindsay Baxter is a certified QEP (qualified environmental professional) and works with Pennsylvania communities to implement sustainability projects, particularly those related to energy efficiency and renewable energy, including low-impact hydropower.

Prior to joining PEC in 2011, she was the Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Pittsburgh. In this role, she initiated projects to reduce the environmental footprint of City operations and provided education and outreach to the Pittsburgh community.

Baxter holds a B.A. from Allegheny College, an MS in Environmental Science and Management from Duquesne University, and earned a Certificate in Renewable Energy from St. Francis University.