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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Will the state Senate vote to raise your electric bill?

Alexander Pope's 1709 Essay on Criticism is one of those works that nearly everyone has quoted but almost nobody has actually read. It gave us famous quotes like "a little learning is a dangerous thing," and perhaps the most popular "fools rush in where angles fear to tread."

If it were not for that work, folks who write about happenings in our legislature would have fewer clichés at their disposal. Those clichés are used often because of the amount of bills that seem simple and harmless at first glance, but in reality are very risky and deserve careful consideration.

Next week, we may see our state Senate vote on a bill that falls into this category—Senator Boscola's Senate Bill (SB) 805, the large commercial and industrial opt-out of Act 129.

SB 805 is based on the idea that large electricity consumers have enough incentive to cut electricity costs without requiring them to do so under the Act 129 program. That is a nice concept, but the data seems to indicate that is not the case.

If there weren't any cost effective measures available, we would expect the utilities (that are charged under Act 129 with proving large consumers achieved reductions) would have trouble meeting their targets. However, not only are they consistently reaching their targets, they have been coming in under budget. That suggests we should do more under Act 129, not less.

Additionally, SB 805 isn't limited to large industrial consumers claiming they have increased efficiency as much as possible. It would also exempt all of their subsidiaries. Thus, if a large factory opts out, then they can opt out all of their offices as well. The fact of the matter is, we don't even know how many sites this will impact.

Why should we care if they opt out? 
Once a company opts out, the overall energy efficiency targets for Act 129 will decrease along with the amount of money available to invest in energy efficiency. In other words, the utilities will not be able to take the investments they would have made at large consumer facilities and use them for other consumers (like us residential customers). Therefore, once the opt outs start occurring, we will no longer achieve the amount of energy savings we have historically seen under Act 129. This will end up raising everyone else's electric bills.

Historically, about 10 percent of the efficiency improvements from Act 129 have come from large industrial customers. In fact, they have accounted for roughly $100 million in net benefits during each phase of Act 129 from savings like avoided cost of generation and avoided operation and maintenance expenses. $100 million is a lot of money to lose, but the actual net benefits are even higher if you account for fuel and water savings, the value of public health and environmental benefits, avoided compliance costs from other regulations, and the wholesale price suppression effect that lowers all of our electric bills.

What does SB 805 really mean for our electric bills? 
That is exactly what the senators poised to vote on the bill should be asking themselves. There are other options besides rushing the bill through the Senate. For starters, the Senate could require the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to study the impacts, or at the very least they could hold hearings.  We should expect our Senate to give far more consideration to a bill aimed at providing a handout to large companies at the expense of homeowners and smaller businesses.

Alexander Pope's essay also contained the quote "To err is human, to forgive, divine." A noble sentiment, but us voters are only human and probably won't be as forgiving of a senator responsible for raising our electric bills.

Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

EPA affirms there is no Oz behind the curtain

On Tuesday, October 6, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the current results of its 2014 Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP). It’s an important window on data that is often obscured, under-reported, or not reported at all.

The current glut in natural gas has caused prices to fall and driven older and less efficient coal-fired power plants into retirement. Not surprisingly, EPA reports that this has resulted in a 0.1 percent drop in carbon emissions from that sector, or just over 3 million tons nationwide. Reporting a drop in this sector is good news, but with total emissions from all sources on the rise, we are heading in the wrong direction.

Emissions from the petroleum and natural gas industries threaten to compound the problem. Not only have such emissions risen by 3.5 percent over the past year and 6.2 percent over 2011, these emissions tend to contain more methane and will exacerbate our problems in the short term.

Industry continues to claim that leaving them alone to pursue voluntary methane standards is the answer, but as this report confirms, there is no Oz behind the curtain. These emissions continue to be unregulated and continue to rise unabated.

Emissions are Up
The report shows 3.2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution were emitted last year. This is an increase over the 3.18 billion metric tons reported in 2013.

And just like last year, roughly 7 percent of these emissions are methane. This is especially concerning because the current science shows that, over a twenty-year period, methane is 84 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. The report, however, understates the problem. EPA bases its global warming potential of various pollutants on the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) instead of the more current AR5 from 2014. It further underestimates the problem by using a 100-year time scale where methane is assumed to be "only" 25 times as bad as CO2.

The result: When we hear bad news about methane, the reality is worse.

A bridge to nowhere?
There are still folks out there claiming that natural gas is a "bridge fuel" to a clean energy future but that future is far from certain.

EPA has suggested that switching from coal-fired power plants to gas plants can be an element of our state climate plans. However, if we spend money on natural gas development and infrastructure, those sources of emissions may be with us for decades.

This makes it ever more critical to have strong, comprehensive regulations to keep methane emissions at a bare minimum. The EPA's current plan, which exempts over seven thousand existing wells in Pennsylvania from additional controls, isn't enough. If EPA doesn't step up to the plate, it's Gov. Tom Wolf's responsibility to protect our citizens and make Pennsylvania a leader in methane controls.

Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Save the Date: 5th Annual Pittsburgh Solar Tour on Saturday, October 17

PennFuture is thrilled to announce that we will once again be hosting our annual solar tour in Pittsburgh. During our solar tours, hundreds of people have discovered the power of the sun.  

From noon to 4:00 P.M. on October 17, participants will be able to tour several solar powered homes and businesses. Solar owners will open up their solar installations to the public, tell their stories, and detail why they decided to go solar. 
The tour is completely free! 

image source: Land Art Generator Initiative
The tour consists of featured solar installations and open houses. The featured locations will be highlighted in our guidebook and additional activities will be offered during the tour. 

One of the featured stops on this year's tour is "Renaissance Gate," an art sculpture integrating solar panels designed by students participating in the 2015 Art+Energy Camp. The piece is located outside the Homewood Renaissance Association at 7240 Frankstown Ave.  Be sure to check it out as you drive by! 

A guidebook and map are provided upon registration so participants can visit as many of the featured locations and open houses as they want.

New this year:  PennFuture is also hosting a Solar Soiree after the tour for all solar owners and participants at the Kingsley Association. At the after party, guests will be able to meet and mingle with like-minded folks in the Pittsburgh area over free drinks and food. As an added bonus, guests will be able to see and hear all about the Kingsley Association’s new solar installation.

Register for the tour, the Solar Soiree, or - better yet - both!  

The tour — sponsored by PennFuture, the Solar Unified Network of Western PA (SUNWPA), Solarize Allegheny, and Pittsburgh Green Innovators — is conducted in conjunction with the American Solar Energy Society's (ASES) 2015 National Solar TourOctober is National Solar Tour month at ASES so tours and open houses will be held across the country throughout the month.

This event is free and open to the public thanks to underwriting support by Levin Furniture, the first furniture retailer in the nation to install solar panels.

Be sure to register at!

Jennie Demjanick is energy policy analyst for the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. She tweets @JennieDemjanick.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Climate change impacts in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's latest climate change impact assessment is frightening. The report finds that Pennsylvania has already seen a human-induced, long-term warming of more than 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 110 years. This trend is expected to accelerate so that, by mid-century (2041 to 2070), scientists predict a 5.4 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit warming across the state. The report equates that to having average temperatures in the Philadelphia area becoming similar to those of Richmond, Virginia.

What does that mean for PA?

From an energy perspective, that means more demand for power. There will be somewhat less demand for heating in the winter, but the extra summertime demand as air conditioners get used more heavily will more than eat up any savings. The increased demand means higher electricity bills unless we get serious about improving energy efficiency.

Higher temperatures can also create electricity supply issues. Nuclear and fossil fuel plants often rely on cooling water that is in a certain temperature range. If it's too warm, they may need to lower their generation or shut down completely. We have already seen this happen at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station on Cape Cod, which reduced operation in 2011, and at the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Connecticut that shut down for 12 days in 2012. The Braidwood plant in Illinois also narrowly avoided a shutdown in 2012 after getting special permission to keep operating when it's cooling water hit 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

When a plant like one of these can't produce the capacity the grid is relying on, other more expensive (and often dirtier) generation must fill the gap. In some cases this means firing up huge diesel generators at rates more than ten times higher than what we normally pay.

It's not just energy either. 
There is also an issue with agriculture. Some may naively hope that a longer growing season means more productivity, but that isn't the way it works. The dairy industry is Pennsylvania's largest agricultural sector and heat stress lowers both milk production and reproduction rates of cows. This is a serious enough problem that dairy farms in hotter climates have to spend a lot of money to provide fans and sprinklers for their cows.

Crops are impacted too. Unlike California with its persistent drought, much of Pennsylvania may end up with wetter conditions than normal. But too much water can be as bad as too little. Floods are an obvious source of crop damage that can sometimes cost billions. Weeds, insects, and fungi that prefer warm and wet conditions will also expand their range, and this can be just as damaging. The result will be higher food prices for everyone.

It's not too late to act. 
We may not be able to avoid all of the damage from climate change, but if we act now and act together, we can make a difference. This means Pennsylvania has to do its part. Since a third of our carbon pollution comes from power plants, we need the Clean Power Plan, but that won't be enough. We need to do our best to minimize carbon pollution economy-wide.

Polluters and their friends will try and scare us with inflated claims of the costs while ignoring the benefits. The reality is different. A report from Citi found the cost of inaction was much higher.

Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The EPA needs to hear from you!

Can you be in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, September 29 for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) public hearing on its recently proposed rule to curb harmful methane pollution from oil and gas drilling?

***Update: You can also join us at the rally at 10:30 a.m. on September 29 at the Westin Pittsburgh third floor ballroom located at 1000 Penn Avenue. Attending? Please email us if you will be joining us on Sept. 29.***

Simply showing up at a public hearing, even if you don't speak, sends a powerful message. A standing-room-only crowd will tell the EPA that Pennsylvanians care about methane leakage and its impacts on both public health and the environment. Being there to provide support is a great start, but if you can provide comments, that’s even better.

 There is a lot that EPA needs to hear: 

  • We have a moral and ethical responsibility to make fighting climate change a top priority.
  • Methane leakage from natural gas drilling is not only wasteful, it’s a climate killer. Methane gas is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after their release into the atmosphere. Unless we stop the leaks, we will not reach our goals of cleaner air and a reduction in global warming.
  • We need to do more. The EPA's proposal is a good start, but it won't do anything about the leakage at thousands of existing wells in Pennsylvania that aren’t covered by the rule. 

graphic source: Environmental Defense Fund

 How do you comment?

Q: What should I say?
A: There are some key points listed above to get you started, but the important thing is to speak in your own voice. The most memorable comments are often the most personal ones. If you are a parent or grandparent worried about the health of your family, the EPA needs to hear that. If you see this as a moral or ethical responsibility, tell them why. Whatever reason makes speaking out important to you, it’s probably worth saying.

Q: Does my voice matter?
A: Absolutely. The EPA will get a lot of technical comments from all sorts of experts on this rule. It's tempting to think that an average person doesn't have anything important to add, but that is not the case. Just being there and speaking shows that stopping methane leakage is important to you. It shows that this is something worth fighting for.

Q: Can I send in written comments, or should I speak at a public hearing?
A: You can do both! Speakers at public hearings don't get much time—often only three to five minutes. That means you only have time to highlight your key points, but even a few words can be worth it. Often a very short message will be the best and most memorable. It's always a good idea to give them a written copy of your remarks as well. And, if you have more detailed information to add, you should include that with your written comments. Especially if what you have to say is a technical or legal point that is hard to summarize.

Q: What is the next step?
A: Contact EPA and sign up to be in Pittsburgh on September 29 to tell them why stopping methane leakage is important to you. As well, consider joining us for a rally at the Westin in downtown Pittsburgh (and just around the corner from the EPA hearing) at 10:30 a.m. More details on the rally coming soon!

Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

CEO Notes: When it comes to energy policy, “all of the above” just doesn’t work

As President Obama embarked on an 11-day climate change tour across the country. As his trip takes him on what would be the most comprehensive tour of Alaska by a sitting president, it makes sense to consider the good, bad, and often conflicting nature of Obama’s energy policies.

One of the lessons that should come out of the Obama administration's "all of the above" energy policy is that it is completely schizophrenic and ill-suited for our future. Consider the following conflicting actions:

  • President Obama's Clean Power Plan places the president on the map as the first to take significant action to address climate change. While much of the action will need to occur at the state level, this is an important first step.
  • Ironically, the vehicle rules that the Obama administration adopted are proving that the best place to drill for oil is under the hoods of our cars. Efficiency is a significant factor in driving down oil demand.

There are many more examples of how the "all-of-the-above" energy policies are deeply flawed and must be abandoned. As the president sees firsthand the enormous risks of climate change visited first upon the Arctic region, may he understand that by looking north he is seeing our common future and revise his energy policies to match his rhetoric. Let's follow the president as he travels north.

Larry J. Schweiger is president and CEO of PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. He tweets @LJSchweiger.

President Obama begins clean energy push

On Monday, August 24, President Obama gave a speech on the importance of clean energy at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, Nevada. You can check out his full speech online, but here is a rundown of the significant issues he mentioned: 

As one of his first points, President Obama said: “No challenge poses a greater threat to our future than climate change.”  We could not agree more. 

One of the many ways to overcome that challenge is to put more "energy" into clean energy. It is up to us to push the private and public sector to ramp up investments in clean energy. We cannot afford to sit idly by while politicians, corporations, special interests, and others determine our future.

We have already begun to make progress in areas like wind power, but as the president stated a few times during his speech, we must do more. He emphasized that, “If we keep investing in wind, rather than making shortsighted cuts or chasing mindless austerity, wind could provide as much as 35 percent of America’s electricity and supply renewable power in all 50 states by the year 2050.” 

We have also vastly increased the development of the solar industry. “Every three minutes, another home or business in America goes solar,” the president added. In fact, there are now twice as many solar industry workers than coal miners. 

Yet in order to get to the president’s goal of achieving 20 percent renewable energy by 2030 - excluding hydroelectric power - we need to triple our current output. Solar only makes up 1 percent of our energy mix and wind accounts for 5 percent. This is why the Department of Energy (DOE) has been deploying more micro-grid and battery storage opportunities and will offer loan guarantees to folks who are interested. 

The president also announced the expansion of the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program to help homeowners pay for their solar panels through savings on their electric bills. The program allows homeowners to finance energy improvements for up to 20 years through assessments attached to property taxes, allowing owners to benefit from the improvements immediately while paying the loan back over time. Under the new federal initiative, lenders will be able to evaluate loan applications for properties with existing PACE assessments using FHA-insured financing.

The president also acknowledged that the trend is going toward clean energy. Consumers want it, and we keep making advancements in technology. Those advancements include things like smart meters and appliances.  

President Obama dismissed the obstructionism by the opposition: 
“When you start seeing massive lobbying efforts backed by fossil fuel interests, or conservative think tanks, or the Koch brothers pushing for new laws to roll back renewable energy standards or prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding -- that's a problem. That's not the American way. That's not progress. That's not innovation. That’s rent seeking and trying to protect old ways of doing business and standing in the way of the future.”  
He stressed: 
“This is not, and should not be, a Republican-versus-Democratic issue. This should be an issue that can bring everybody together. If you're a progressive, you should care about this. If you're a libertarian, you should care about this. If you just want to save some money, you should care about it. And if you care about the future of our children and grandchildren, you should care about it.” 
“Folks whose interests or ideologies run counter to where we need to go, we've got to be able to politely, but firmly say, sorry, we're moving forward.” 
We are already beginning to see the president’s plan take hold here in Pennsylvania. Penn State just won a federal grant of $2.9 million to develop new solar panels to capture sunlight more efficiently. Now it is time to for all states to move collectively toward a clean energy future. 

Jennie Demjanick is energy policy analyst for the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. She tweets @JennieDemjanick.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How much solar potential does your rooftop have?

Google has put its mapping technology to good environmental use by developing a program to encourage homeowners to purchase rooftop solar. The program is called "Project Sunroof" and it can tell you whether or not the roof of your home has solar generation potential.  

All you have to do is enter your address to see if your roof has more solar potential (shown in bright yellow) or less solar potential (shown in purple). In order to determine the “color” of your roof, the tool considers the roof orientation, shade from trees and other buildings, and local weather patterns. A dialogue box will pop up to tell you the square footage and hours of usable sunlight per year. It will also calculate the most efficient system size for your home then subtract any state and federal incentives to tell you about how much a 20-year solar system would cost you to lease, loan, or purchase. 

As an additional benefit to you as a utility customer, the program will give you an estimate on how much you could save on your electric bills if you leased or purchased a 20-year solar system. Selecting your typical utility bill amount will provide you with a more accurate estimate. Additionally, the map links to solar installation companies in your area.

Google developed the program in response to the increase in searches for information related to rooftop solar such as system size, cost, and installers. According to google, “Project Sunroof is intended as ‘kind of a treasure map of solar energy.’”

Currently, you are only able to use the program if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fresno, California, and Boston, Massachusetts. Fortunately, Google intends on mapping the entire U.S. and possibly other countries. In the meantime, check out how the program works and look for updates on when you can use it to discover the solar potential of your home.

If you live in western Pennsylvania and are interested in discovering if your home has solar potential, check out Solarize Allegheny's website. Through Solarize Allegheny, residents and businesses have the opportunity to learn more about the benefits of solar energy through a robust on-the-ground outreach campaign that connects people directly to local, pre-screened, qualified solar installers who will offer competitive bids, guidance and assistance to go solar – making the process simple and affordable. Even though outreach is focused on these communities, anyone can attend the events or request a solar quote through the program by going to the website – – and clicking “Find Out if Your Home is Good for Solar.”

Jennie Demjanick is energy policy analyst for the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. She tweets @JennieDemjanick.

Methane reductions: lessons from a crash test dummy

The recently proposed New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to curb volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from the natural gas sector are a good start. The EPA predicts the standards will reduce leaks of methane by 20 – 30 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. They also show that the rule will be highly cost-effective with benefits exceeding costs by as much as $150 million by 2025.

Like many EPA rules, this is a modest step. For sources covered by the existing (2012) NSPS, no additional controls would be required. The major advance here is extending some basic requirements like leak detection and repair (LDAR) to some categories of sources not covered in 2012.

Because this is a modest step, there is plenty of room for improvement. For example, readers may notice that the 20 – 30 percent reduction predicted from this rule is much less than the 40 – 45 percent reduction President Obama set as a target in his Climate Action Plan. Why so much less? It's because this rule leaves control of existing sources up to the industry who, we are left hoping, will make up the difference with voluntary measures.

Will that work?

No, it won't, and we have a lot of experience with this sort of thing. Back in 1966, Henry Ford II claimed in Senate testimony that requiring "unreasonable, arbitrary, and technically unfeasible" safety features such as front seat belts and safety glass in windshields would shut down the industry. In 1973, General Motors vice president Earnest S. Starkman claimed in an EPA hearing that "it is conceivable that complete stoppage of the entire production could occur" if catalytic converters were required. Ford went even further and claimed the catalyst rule would reduce the American gross national product by $17 billion and cause the loss of 800,000 jobs. (Spoiler alert: it didn't.)

To be sure, there were auto manufacturers who undertook voluntary measures. Nash and Ford offered seat belts as options in the mid 1950's and by the late 50's Volvo and Saab had them as standard equipment. Cars even started to appear with mounting points so that owners could buy their own seat belts. But, it's not surprising that the vast majority of cars had none, despite a clear and growing record that they saved lives.

While it's not an excuse for delaying installation of life-saving features, we know that asking a business to take voluntary measures creates a conflict of interest. Even if they want to do the right thing, they have to worry that their competition will opt-out or cut corners to get an advantage in the market.

So, the result was predictable. We didn't get the safety equipment most of us take for granted today until regulations required it.

Is the gas industry different?

Again, No. Not from the evidence we have seen.

Like the auto makers from decades ago, the CEO of the American Petroleum Institute was quoted as saying, "The last thing we need is more duplicative and costly regulation." Instead, they want to go with "voluntary efforts for existing sources." As we saw with auto makers, there are companies that are taking voluntary measures either by adopting federal rules earlier than required or by adopting additional measures of their own. But, for the most part, the outcome is the same: industry-wide, few companies are willing to take meaningful additional steps and voluntary measures don't get the job done.

Lets look at the data

In the 2013 emissions data, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) showed a 13 percent reduction in methane emissions. While a reduction is positive news, those reductions come almost entirely from operators phasing in federal requirements for "green completions," which no longer permit uncontrolled release of pollutants as wells are completed. When we look even more closely, we see that those reductions come, for the most part, from a single company (Cabot) reporting lower completion emissions.

If it were not for Cabot's reporting, the remaining natural gas companies would be reporting a 10 percent increase in emissions year-over-year. If we look at the source types that are relying on voluntary measures for reductions (those other than completions), we see a 14 percent increase in emissions. It's no surprise, voluntary measures are not working.

What Now?

This current EPA action is a proposed rule. Once it's published in the Federal Register, there will be a 60-day comment period where the public and other interested parties can have their say. It's important for EPA and the administration to hear that the public supports the added environmental protections this proposal offers, but it's also fair to add constructive criticism about what the EPA can do better.

While EPA action is one avenue, Pennsylvania doesn't need to rely on the federal government. As the second largest producer of natural gas, it's vitally important that we be a leader in protecting our citizens. The gas industry in Pennsylvania—including the existing sources—can and should be the cleanest and safest in the nation. To make this happen, our leaders in Harrisburg need to hear voices of support.

Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.