Let’s Do This Right

As lawmakers wrestle with the future of nuclear energy in Pennsylvania, many issues remain unresolved. But within both parties there is increasingly widespread agreement on one principle: we can and should address greenhouse gas emissions in Pennsylvania, and that allowing the Commonwealth’s nuclear fleet to fail would constitute a considerable setback in those efforts.

Most immediately, it would mean the loss of at least part of our state’s largest source of zero-carbon energy — a loss we simply can’t afford if we hope to reduce emissions within the timeframe that both U.N. and U.S. government panels have warned will be necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Losing nuclear would also be a serious blow to the decarbonization goals set forth in Governor Tom Wolf’s recent executive order, which calls for an 80-percent reduction in net emissions by 2050. Despite significant growth in Pennsylvania renewables – growth we must continue to promote – the combined output of solar, wind, and hydropower today amounts to just a fraction of the carbon-free energy generated by nuclear power.

“In fact,” former governor Ed Rendell notes in his April 10 op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer, “losing the Beaver Valley and Three Mile Island plants alone will negate five times the emission benefits of all the solar and wind power projects installed in Pennsylvania to date.”

Those emission benefits are an important part of Rendell’s legacy: as Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor from 2003 to 2011 he presided over the adoption of Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (AEPS) meant to promote investment in alternative energy sources, and to boost its attendant economic benefits. But in retrospect, Rendell says, AEPS didn’t go far enough: “If I knew in 2004 what I know now about global warming and climate change, I would have certainly included nuclear power as a qualifying energy resource under AEPS.”

Adopting a robust Clean Energy Standard (CES) is only one of several steps the Commonwealth can – and must – take.

Rendell’s predecessor, Tom Ridge, reaches a similar conclusion – albeit for slightly different reasons – in an April 3rd column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In addition to environmental and economic concerns, the Republican former governor points to national security and grid resiliency as reasons to revisit AEPS. “Despite the abundance of natural gas from shale deposits that has done so much for the commonwealth’s economy,” Ridge writes, “we still must maintain diverse energy supplies to prevent us from becoming overly dependent on any one source.”

In making their case, both former governors cite PEC’s ongoing research and policy work on decarbonization of power generation in Pennsylvania, which remains the nation’s leading exporter of electricity and third-largest emitter of CO2. While PEC supports the push to diversify Pennsylvania’s energy portfolio, PEC believes transitioning to a Clean Energy Standard (CES) that would reward meaningful emission-reduction efforts across the sector is only one of several “technologically agnostic“ steps the Commonwealth can – and must – take within the next two years.

Another is joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) – a cap-and-trade marketplace that generates billions in revenues for clean-energy projects and programs in nine participating states – which would provide a price signal and the beginnings of a true market-based solution. Building on this foundation, Pennsylvania can move more aggressively toward a vibrant, zero-carbon economy through investment in energy-efficiency upgrades, renewables, and green economic development – while creating jobs and protecting consumers from rate increases and other negative financial impacts.

While preserving nuclear is key, it still only maintains the status quo. Pennsylvania can and should do better.

Most importantly, these two initiatives would move Pennsylvania beyond a “business as usual” approach to carbon reductions, in ways that allow multiple generation sources to compete in a zero-carbon future. While preserving nuclear is key, it still only maintains the status quo. Pennsylvania can and should do better.

Moving beyond the electricity sector, Pennsylvania also needs to realize substantial reductions in fugitive methane emissions from the natural gas supply chain. We are encouraged by the Department of Environmental Protection’s pursuit of new regulations for the oil and gas industry, and we applaud the many forward-looking members of that industry who are already acting voluntarily to curtail their emissions.

At the same time, PEC reaffirms that no single intervention will get Pennsylvania to where we need to be – we need a strategic, ecumenical approach, and a laserlike focus on the end goal of shrinking our carbon footprint to zero by mid-century. In addition to electricity and natural gas production, this will mean tackling emissions from the transportation sector, supporting community solar projects and other ground-level innovations, exploring the potential of carbon sequestration technologies and possible commercial uses for captured CO2, and staking out a firm commitment to carbon pricing across the board.

As we undertake this inevitable transition, the last thing Pennsylvania needs is to lose ground in the short term by replacing carbon-free nuclear power with fossil fuels. The reality is that any approach the General Assembly might take toward ensuring nuclear’s continued viability is likely to be costly and disruptive – so let’s do it right.