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Monday, April 20, 2015

Bottom line: New DEP report on methane emissions shows they are way UP

This week, the PA Department of Environmental Protection released its updated emission inventory for the unconventional natural gas industry (a.k.a. Marcellus Shale drillers). 

If you hear only one sound bite this week, it will be that emissions are going down. While that is good news, the part of the story that you might not hear is that emission are going down in "some" categories and going up in others. When we look at the data, it seems the big winner in terms of reductions is in well completions. That said, methane emissions on fugitives, pumps and dehydrators are way UP.

Comparison of Methane Emissions
(PA DEP data)
So, why are well completion emissions dropping? This is primarily a result of the phasing in of federal New Source Performance Standards that require what are known as "green completions." This means that instead of simply venting the methane as was often done in the past, the gas is directed to a flare where it is burnt. Starting this year, operators will need to go one better and capture the methane and sell it rather than burn it. The short story here is, if you want to reduce emissions, regulations work.

While the general trends we are seeing were expected, it's important to remember that this data is self-reported by the industry and we have to assume it isn't perfect. When we investigated the 2012 submissions we found quite a few inconsistencies in the methodology. What we can see so far in 2013 also raises a few questions. For example, when we look at the top ten emitters of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), only three of them appear in the top ten of methane emitters. Out of 103 companies reporting, Range Resources Appalacia LLC is the number one emitter of VOCs, releasing 1,100 tons, but only 26th on the list of top methane emitters at 595 tons. Nobel Energy Inc. has an even greater disparity, being the 7th largest VOC emitter producing 173 tons, but only reporting a single ton of methane emissions.

This one table doesn't tell the story for the whole industry, however. There are roughly 60,000 gas wells in Pennsylvania and only about 10,000 of them are the unconventional wells listed in this report. As a recent report from Laura Legere at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette showed us, it isn't only the Marcellus drillers that have problems. Regulating some methane from some sources is a start, but we need a comprehensive plan to regulate all of the methane emissions NOW.

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Recommendation for the Wolf administration: Solar zoning and permitting working group

Given the precipitous drop in solar energy equipment costs over the last five years, solar "soft costs" -- which include non-hardware costs like labor, permitting and inspection, and customer acquisition -- make up 60 percent of the overall cost of solar installations. With Pennsylvania's patchwork of well over 2,500 municipalities, many with different zoning and permitting fees and operations, the landscape is rocky for the deployment of residential and commercial solar.

As illustrated below, as solar continues its price decline, zoning and permitting fees become an increasing part of the cost puzzle.
Credit: Institute for Local Self Reliance

Spurred on by the Department of Energy's (DOE) SunShot grant initiative, two organizations have formulated well researched and expert-driven model zoning and permitting ordinance templates: PennFuture (yes, us) in 2012, and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which is currently executing training and model development in the region they serve.

One element that was/is missing from both of these efforts was the potential for a single zoning and permitting model endorsement from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This could give municipal officials more confidence in adoption of the recommended processes. To this end, PennFuture has called on Gov. Tom Wolf to convene a solar working group that includes the expertise that has been developed over the course of SunShot-funded efforts, and combines officials from Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Labor and Industry to endorse a single model permitting process.

A similar statewide solar working group was last convened in 2008, and it developed recommended models and operations on a number of solar-related topics. Now, seven years later, expertise, models, and lessons learned nationally and locally are abundant. It's time to reconvene.

Evan Endres is program manager for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. He tweets @ER_Endres.

Energy Efficiency is a win-win

Investing in energy efficiency reduces your electric bill AND our state's CO2 emissions. Energy efficiency involves using energy smarter with cool technological innovations that use far less energy than old appliances, light bulbs, HVAC systems, etc.

Energy efficiency is a terrific energy resource and that's why PennFuture recently recommended in its policy document, “A Fresh Start for Pennsylvania: 26 Steps that Governor Wolf can take to improve Pennsylvania’s environment and economy,” that Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) promote home investments in energy efficiency.

As discussed in previous posts, Pennsylvania requires utilities to implement energy efficiency measures through its Act 129 Energy Efficiency and Conservation Program. However, those measures don't go far enough and we need to up our game on energy efficiency. Energy efficiency will be a significant component of our compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Power Plan and Pennsylvania will not likely be able to reach its CO2 reduction goals without increasing energy efficiency across the state. Fortunately for us, energy efficiency is the most cost effective option for compliance. In fact, Pennsylvanians have seen about a $2-$3 return on every $1 invested in the Act 129 program. 

How You Can Make the Choice to Invest in Energy Efficiency

Last Monday, Rob Altenburg, director of the PennFuture Energy Center, was asked for an energy efficiency tip during his Smart Talk discussion on climate change and energy. Well, the easiest thing you can do today is to unscrew the incandescent light bulbs from the light fixtures you use the most and go out and buy LED bulbs to replace them. Some may say that will cost you a pretty penny. However, that's not really a true statement. I have recently purchased 40-60w (equivalent) LED bulbs for $2.99 on sale and around $7 at regular price. And I'll add that the light quality is amazing and not at all like fussy CFL lighting.

If you have a lot of light bulbs to replace and can’t find any sales or extra money right now, you can easily take the first step by replacing one bulb. Spending $7 (even lower in some utility regions) is manageable for most and you’ll get your money back in about five years through savings on your electric bill. Plus, the bulbs will last you roughly 20-25 years (it will say right on the package exactly how long the terms are, and they vary a little based on the bulb/brand). Just think of how often your incandescent bulbs burn out and what a relief it would be to not have to worry about replacing bulbs for a couple of decades. 

If you want to make an even more significant change toward making your home energy efficient and save even more on your electric bill, then check out your electric utility’s website for energy efficiency tips. HVAC systems tend to be responsible for most of your home’s electricity use, so you will see the most savings by switching to a more energy efficient system. Here are some tips on the PPL electric website and you can also go to the Energy Star website for more energy efficiency info. 

Bonus tip: Consider purchasing an energy saving heat pump dryer when looking for a replacement.

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

Just released: PennFuture's Fossil Fuel Subsidy Report

On April 14, PennFuture introduced its updated Fossil Fuel Subsidy Report.

In a time of tight budgets and hard decisions, Pennsylvanians are giving billions of dollars worth of subsidies that benefit profitable companies each year—an amount equal to $794 for each taxpayer in the state.

This is money that can’t be used for other budget priorities, or used to invest in our future. Such spending distorts our energy markets and makes it harder for alternatives like clean renewable energy and energy efficiency to compete.

We need to decide whether to continue with business as usual, or to take a new path. In making that decision, we believe that the citizens of Pennsylvania should have a voice.

As we speak, discussion and debate in Harrisburg is centered on our next state budget. The gap in our current funding could exceed $1.5 billion. That is a huge number, but it’s less than half of the amount Pennsylvania provides in fossil fuel subsidies each year.

Not every subsidy is bad for the Commonwealth, and we are not calling for an end to all subsidies. Some benefit our schools, our volunteer fire companies, charitable and religious organizations, or have other purposes that may provide sufficient benefits to justify the expense.

But, can we justify all $3.2 billion worth of subsidies to fossil fuel interests? Is this serving our interests and our priorities? That is a question the citizens of Pennsylvania should answer. In releasing our report, we want to empower citizens with the tools they need to be a part of the conversation. This information is too important to remain buried in state reports that few will ever see.

The dollars we are spending are only part of the issue. These subsidies have implications for our future as well. We hear that natural gas may be a bridge fuel, but the question is whether it is a bridge to a clean energy economy or a bridge to continued dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come. The investments we make today will answer that question.

We are hearing some say that we should not invest in alternatives. Energy efficiency is a prime example. Independent studies have repeatedly shown we are nowhere close to implementing all of the cost-effective energy efficiency measures available. These studies show that the little we spend on energy efficiency pays for itself two or three times over, and that isn’t even considering the public health and environmental benefits of improved efficiency.

Before we spend more on fossil fuel subsidies, we should be asking if there are better and more sensible long term investments such as this that we are neglecting.

These choices have consequences not only for the citizens of Pennsylvania today but for our children and grandchildren as well. The people should have a say before this choice is made for them, and we hope this report starts that conversation.

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

Seeing methane pollution with our own eyes

Last week, I had the opportunity to join the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ken Kimmell, on a local radio call-in program to discuss what we in Pennsylvania and the nation can do about climate change. We were expecting most of the questions to be about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan, but the first question we received when the host went to the phone lines was from a woman named Emily asking what we can do about methane leakage.

With more than 60,000 existing wells in Pennsylvania and more on the way, we are the second largest natural gas producer in the nation. Since natural gas is mostly methane and we have no comprehensive program to control leakage, we are likely a leader in methane emissions as well—one of the more significant forms of carbon pollution. When folks like Emily learn about the problem, it’s not surprising they demand action.

Even so, there are a lot of people in the state that don’t pay attention to environmental news stories. Fifty years ago, when we were making our first meaningful attempts at controlling air pollution, the smoke and soot coming from our industries was something you could see and smell. It became hard to ignore that something needed to be done—and done quickly. These days, most of the emissions are not so obvious. But that doesn’t mean invisible pollutants such as methane are any less a danger to human health and the environment.

Increasingly, we are making use of technology including FLIR cameras that let us see the methane leaks that would otherwise be invisible. Watching billowing clouds pour from leaking equipment makes quite an impression and you get a sense of how much pollution is going into our air.

Such images also make it clear how wasteful this is. It’s actually doubly wasteful. As a non-renewable resource, once our gas is gone, it's gone. Also, when we waste gas, it means all the risks we took with respect to damaging our health and the environment to extract that gas were for nothing.

While EPA is expected to issue regulations on new sources of leakage this summer, it’s unlikely they will issue rules on existing sources of methane leakage. If those sources are not addressed, they will continue leaking far into the future. We need a comprehensive solution that addresses all our sources of leakage, and the time to cut methane pollution is NOW.

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

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

NAR report reveals homebuyers want energy efficiency

This month, the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) released the 2015 Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends Reports. The report suggests a growing emphasis on green qualities in property preference among homebuyers. Eighty-six percent rated heating and cooling costs as an important consideration in their purchase, while 66 percent rated efficient lighting as important. Eleven percent placed importance on whether the property has solar installed, a preference that should be expected to grow over the years and as solar continues to mature in all markets.  

There were some interesting deviations in preference by age as noted in the chart below. Most notable is the fact that younger buyers placed a higher importance on commuting costs, while older buyers placed higher importance on landscaping for energy conservation and energy efficient lighting.

It's clear that energy efficient and green features continue to grow as an important consideration among homebuyers. Real estate markets in Pennsylvania and particularly the multiple listing services (MLS) that serve the various markets in the state need to evolve to keep up with this growing trend. Home energy and energy efficiency features need to find a permanent place in the various searchable fields so that the value that these features add can be appropriately identified for the purpose of home appraisals.  

Evan Endres is program manager for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. He tweets @ER_Endres.

Spreading the word on methane leakage

Last week, I traveled to Washington D.C. to let people at the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and on Capitol Hill know how important controlling the leakage of methane from our natural gas industry is to the citizens of Pennsylvania.

The people we talked to have heard many times how methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas that, over a 20-year period, has more than 84 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide. They are aware of the dangers -- both locally and globally -- that climate change brings. They also know that the existing patchwork approach to controlling methane leakage and waste simply isn’t getting the job done.

EPA is hard at work crafting a set of methane rules, but it is clear that they will be looking to the states for both ideas and leadership as they address this issue. As the second largest producer of natural gas, and the nation's largest electricity exporter, Pennsylvania is at the top of their list. Fortunately, Gov. Tom Wolf has stepped up to the plate and committed to regulations that will address harmful impacts to our air and water as a result of natural gas drilling operations.

While this is good news, the fight isn’t over. There are plenty of groups out there working to undermine and weaken any eventual regulation. While we certainly hope that EPA and our governor will resist the pressure, their job is much easier if the 70 percent of Pennsylvanians who support strong regulation of methane let their voices be heard.

The message they need to hear is simple:

  • We need to control methane emissions from both new sources and the thousands of existing wells across the state.
  • Relying on our weak existing programs and voluntary measures isn't going to work.
  • In Pennsylvania, it's especially important to get methane right. 

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Help your school, hospital, or local government save energy and money

On March 19, PennFuture, through its PennSave initiative, held a lunch and learn session to discuss the Pennsylvania Sustainable Energy Finance Program (PennSEF), a new and innovative approach to financing energy improvements for facilities. 

Keith Welks, Deputy State Treasurer for Fiscal Operations/Senior Advisor for Policy at the Pennsylvania Treasury Department, John Byrne, Member of the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Renewable Energy and the Environment (FREE)/Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP) and Distinguished Professor of Energy and Climate Policy at the University of Delaware, and Baird Brown, partner in Drinker Biddle’s Environment and Energy Practice Group, were all on hand to explain the program and answer attendees' questions. 

What is PennSave?

PennSave is a coalition effort between PennFuture, the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Energy Services Coalition, and the Pennsylvania Energy Partnership.  PennSave is a statewide education and outreach program on energy savings performance contracts that is developing easy-to-understand materials focusing on consumer education and protection in order to promote high-quality performance contracting in Pennsylvania.

Currently, PennSave is also helping to promote PennSEF. And yes we realize the acronyms are confusingly similar. But, the most important takeaway is that both programs exist to help municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals make their buildings more efficient while saving them money. 

What is an Energy Savings Performance Contract?

Energy savings performance contracts are financing agreements that enable building upgrades (lighting, HVAC systems, etc.) to be financed by long-term avoided energy costs (i.e. savings on your electric bill), rather than through large upfront capital expenditures.

What is PennSEF?

The Pennsylvania Treasury Department, in partnership with the Foundation for Renewable Energy and Environment (FREE) and with financial support from the West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund, developed PennSEF to provide technical and legal assistance, as well as low-cost capital, for energy improvement projects by municipalities, universities, schools, hospitals, counties and governmental agencies. PennSEF is a prudent, market-based investment vehicle that promotes energy and water efficiency, clean energy generation, economic development and environmental improvement.

Through PennSEF, participating organizations will receive free energy audits from energy service companies (“ESCOs”). Once potential projects have been identified and the participants have decided to proceed, bonds will be issued to finance the improvement work. By aggregating the projects in a single financing, PennSEF will provide participants with better financing terms than would be available individually. The energy and water cost savings from the projects will be used to support repayment of the bonds.

Principal features of PennSEF:

  • FREE will assist each participant with procurement of a guaranteed savings agreement (GSA) through a process that complies (for government entities) with the Pennsylvania Guaranteed Energy Savings Act and includes preparation of preliminary and investment grade audits. Water and energy savings will be considered.
  • Financing will be accomplished through the issuance of bonds supported by financing leases from each participant. Payments under each participant’s lease will be less than the guaranteed savings under that participant’s GSA.
  • PennSEF program reduces risk and provides cost clarity for schools by providing legal assistance, contractor pre-approval, and pre-audit guarantees.

For anyone interested in learning more about PennSEF, the recording of the March 19 presentation will soon be on FREE’s website:  The question and answer portion of the meeting is especially useful because it allowed participants to delve deeper into the program.
The presentation from our prior meeting in Pittsburgh is already on that page along with a webinar for interested ESCOs. Several informative documents are provided on the main PennSEF page

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

Time of Use Pricing, Pennsylvania Pilot and Missed Opportunities

Time of Use (TOU) pricing is an electricity pricing and billing mechanism that charges you more, or less, for electricity based on the real cost of the power at that time. The flat per kWh you see on your bill, and the  rate attached to it, is an average of the ebbs and flows of the actual price of electricity generation throughout the day and year. Because loads increase substantially as folks run air conditioners in the hot summer and add extra electric heaters during the coldest days of the winter, those are the times when the most expensive, extra electricity producing units are needed. The use of these "peaking units," in turn, makes the electricity produced at these times the most expensive. Likewise, the cost to produce electricity varies throughout the day, often "peaking" around the time folks are getting ready for work in the morning or after they get home, depending on the season.

A TOU billing mechanism, breaks the day into blocks of time where a consumer can predict when their electricity will cost them the most, informing use and conservation decisions (see TOU example for Southern California Edison, above).

Under a TOU rate, a consumer may choose to avoid running major appliances, like washers and dryers, until off-peak time periods. Or in the summer, they might decide to "pre-cool" their home by running the AC earlier in the day. In the future, time of use may also have implications for home battery technology, allowing a homeowner to capture energy by charging home batteries at the cheapest times and using that electricity during the expensive times.

Pennsylvania is fortunate in that residential and commercial PPL utility customers can participate in a pilot TOU program. The program was released December 2014 and uses third party electricity generation suppliers (EGSs) operating in Pennsylvania's competitive market as the brokers of the time of use rates. See offers here.  

But, there is one glaring missed opportunity for Pennsylvanians in this pilot. Time of Use rates offer greater potential for the value of distributed renewable generation to be better accounted for, especially for solar energy installations that you might find on a home or commercial building. The output of solar installations coincides with the most expensive electricity generation times, and under a TOU structure should compensate that customer for the production of electricity at a higher rate. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania competitive suppliers, such as those involved in this pilot TOU program, are not required to offer net metering of any type though they may choose to offer it. This leaves current and future solar owners out of the running to take advantage of the TOU pilot program and the incentive it may provide. At worst, it robs the rest of us ratepayers of another path toward reducing peak demand, and reducing rates because of peak demand, by adding a smart, rate-based incentive for small scale solar.  

A pilot TOU program is a good thing for energy conservation and consumer control but could be an even better thing if distributed generation had been part of the plan. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) should challenge competitive electricity suppliers and utilities to work through these issues.

Evan Endres is program manager for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. He tweets @ER_Endres.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Governor's budget and the solar saw-buck

Every year, the Solar Jobs census is released and every year, I write a blog about how Pennsylvania has fallen behind other states. Here we go... For the 2014 Solar Jobs Census, we are now 15th in the nation, with only about 2,800 employed in the solar industry in Pennsylvania. Since 2012, when we were fifth in the nation for solar jobs, ten other states have moved ahead of us. Yep, we've lost about 1,800 solar jobs since 2012 and our neighbors, New Jersey and New York, rank in the top five nationally. Okay, now the good news: This year, the jobs report was released at about the same time Gov. Tom Wolf issued his 2015/2016 budget proposal, where solar silver linings abound. 

Gov. Wolf’s proposal is to direct $50 million to the successful Pennsylvania Sunshine Rebate program. This should be welcome news to renewable energy boosters and Pennsylvania’s solar industry. From 2009 through the end of 2013, this program distributed over $103 million in solar rebates to Pennsylvania’s residential and commercial sector. The distribution of these funds resulted in over half a billion dollars in immediate economic activity for the state and continues to pay dividends in the form of energy savings for the over 7,000 homeowners and businesses who took advantage of the program.

Because costs for solar have declined overall, the allocation of $50 million in additional funds could result in the installation of 11,000-18,000 solar projects for the state.

Avoiding a boom and bust
: It is important to recognize that Pennsylvania's solar industry has endured several boom-bust cycles over the last several years. Due to the declining cost of solar and pent-up demand, $50 million may go fast, creating another such boom and bust. Steps should be taken to analyze and modify program parameters and rebate levels so that the program has the greatest potential to spur the development of the maximal volume of new installations. The last incentive level offered by the program was $.75 per watt with maximum rebates per project set at $7,500 for residential and $52,000 for commercial installations. Both the per-watt rebate amount and the overall project cap may deserve reconsideration. 

The need for financing: Although the risk of financing solar has proven to be low, consumer and commercial solar loan products are scarce, especially in Pennsylvania. States like New York and Connecticut  have hedged their own funds to back loan programs that offer competitive rates for solar energy to make up for the lack of private equity. Pennsylvania should follow suit. The Governor's budget proposes $100 million in "Alternative Energy" funding, the details of which have not yet been announced. Renewable energy advocates should hope that the development of financing is part of the plan.

Financing support for solar energy may be as important, or even more important, in the long term then the revitalization of the PA Sunshine program alone. And the concept is not new to Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Treasury has backed energy efficiency improvements for homeowners through the Keystone HELP program since 2009 and may be well positioned to offer a solar loan product if the right funding reserves are made available. 

The Governor's budget, if enacted, has the potential to turn the years of bad news that came with the release of the annual solar jobs census into something of which we can be proud once more. Renewable energy boosters should voice their support for the budget while challenging the office to make smart choices and do more to avoid the bust cycle of the past.

Evan Endres is program manager for the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Pittsburgh. He tweets @ER_Endres.

Waste Coal: Time to finish what we started.

Alternatives to Waste Coal Plants

Even if we keep our waste coal plants on line, there is still a significant amount of waste ash that must be disposed of. Some have suggested planting beach grass to stabilize the pile and prevent leaching into the ground water. Planting beach grass on waste coal piles is a much cheaper option than building more waste coal plants and has been shown to bring life back to long-dead waste coal piles for only 6-10 percent of the cost of conventional methods. Within a few years, beach grass can enable native plants to take over, allow organic matter to accumulate around plants, and form a plant layer that prevents erosion, holds water, cools the surface, and looks a lot better.  

While beach grass is a promising alternative that could be much cheaper than more traditional forms of reclamation, it would still be an expensive undertaking to plant on piles across the state. Waste coal plants are certainly not free either, but they have a perceived advantage in that their costs do not usually show up as line items in the state budget.  Even so, as you will see below, waste coal plants do receive a significant amount of benefits from the state.

Laws and Tax Credits for Waste Coal

Believe it or not, in Pennsylvania, waste coal is considered to be an alternative source of energy. Under the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act (AEPS), electricity derived from waste coal (16.5 percent) is considered a Tier II resource. Check out Achieving 100 percent Renewable Energy IS Possible and Smog and Mirrors in West Virginia for background on PA’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (AEPS)

Having waste coal as a Tier II source was meant to encourage the use of waste coal, but it has not had much of a benefit considering that Tier II credits traded at an average of only $0.13 per MWh in 2013/2014, even lower than the $0.22 per MWh for which it traded during the 2012/2013 auction. (Compare that to $9.78 for Tier I and $94.39 for solar PV in 2013/2014.)

Waste coal qualifies for the Alternative Energy Production Tax Credit (to date, no tax credits from this program have been earned, $0 was spent on these tax credits in 2012-2013, and $10 million was projected for 2013-2014), the Coal Waste Removal and Ultraclean Fuels Tax Credit (can be used against sales and use tax, corporate net income tax and capital stock/foreign franchise tax), and the Alternative Fuel Incentive Grants (in September, DEP awarded $1.8 million in AFIG funding to four innovative alternative fuel technology projects but it’s not clear how much, if any, went to waste coal).

The two U.S. Senators for Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey (R) and Bob Casey (D), introduced an amendment (which fell short by six votes and was rejected by the Senate on Jan. 21) to the Keystone XL pipeline legislation that would exempt waste coal power plants from complying with the smog and soot limits in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) and the acid gas and sulfur dioxide pollution limits in the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). The purpose of the amendment was, “To continue cleaning up fields and streams while protecting neighborhoods, generating affordable energy, and creating jobs.” (Notice how they don't mention cleaning up the air in the purpose statement and that the two rules apply to air pollution.)  It is also important to note that even though their amendment was rejected, they could still introduce it as a standalone bill.

Our senators are not alone in their requests. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has asked for exemptions for waste coal from the Clean Power Plan, Boiler MACT and, likely, other rules. Electric generators who burn waste coal are also asking regulators to weigh their environmental benefits against their environmental harms and count their carbon emissions as zero.


Deciding whether to accept more pollution in one area (air or water) in order to remove pollution elsewhere (water or air) will be difficult. Rather than continuing the practice of providing incentives to waste coal plants, we need to stop and evaluate the alternatives. While contemplating alternatives, as PennFuture recommended in our policy document “A Fresh Start for Pennsylvania: 26 Steps that Governor Wolf can take to improve Pennsylvania’s environment and economy” and as DEP Acting Secretary John Quigley has stated on numerous occasions, DEP needs to be transparent about its decision-making.  

If more waste coal plants are to be built, DEP should provide detailed analysis relating to the potential impacts to the air in the surrounding communities and request comments concerning its proposal. And if they decide to let the waste coal piles be, then they need to carefully monitor the nearby water supply and keep local citizens up to date on their findings. Or even if they decide it's best to use beach grass or other alternative measures to tackle the problem, we need to know what those measures are and if/how they are working.  

Whatever steps DEP takes to handle our waste coal problem, they need to be open and honest about it. It is of utmost importance that we are informed about decisions impacting our air and water. As stated in my previous blog post, we have a constitutional right to clean air and clean water in Pennsylvania.

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Efficiency = Investing in our future

This past week, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed his Education Reinvestment Act that includes a 5 percent severance tax on natural gas, which is projected to bring in an additional billion dollars in revenue. Compared to other major gas producing states like Texas with its 7.5 percent tax, this is a fairly modest proposal. Combined with the proposed budget, however, it could mark a significant change from business as usual.

One particularly exciting element in the budget is the allocation of $55 million from the severance tax to finance an economic growth plan that includes a package of $225 million dollars of investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. That package includes a number of very good ideas but one that stands out right away is dedicating $50 million to invest in energy efficiency in schools, municipalities, and other nonprofits.

What does that mean for these institutions? A statewide evaluator (SWE) contracted by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission recently released a study (1,737 page pdf) of the potential for energy efficiency in Pennsylvania. While the SWE didn’t model this particular scenario, it provided data for the commercial sector showing that nearly $50 million in spending could result in over $100 million being returned in benefits over a five year period.

That $100 million in benefits is also just talking about the direct monetary value of these programs. Energy efficiency has many more benefits that are just as real. Burning fewer fossil fuels could mean reducing carbon pollution by hundreds of thousands of tons as well as seeing fewer emissions of mercury, particulates, and smog-producing chemicals. That is, of course, good news for both the environment and our health, but that has economic value, too.

Unfortunately, just because energy efficiency more than pays for itself, doesn’t mean it happens on its own. Schools and municipalities in particular have many pressing needs that are competing for their limited resources. After years of shrinking budgets and belt tightening, few are in a position to make such investments. In situations like this, good government means both fixing the immediate problems and building a sustainable future. We’re glad to see the administration looking to energy efficiency to build that future.

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

Waste Coal: To burn or not to burn?

That question can also be phrased as "Do we want clean water or clean air?"

Well, of course, the proper response is we want BOTH clean water AND clean air. These are two things that we as humans cannot compromise on, and there are laws such as Article 1 Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution that protect our rights to both. 

Getting rid of our waste coal piles by burning them in fluidized bed combustion (FBC) plants may help prevent toxins from leaching into our water supply. However, when we burn the toxic waste, we don’t eliminate the problem. We simply create a new one by releasing toxins into the air.

How much waste coal is in Pa.?

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has estimated that 2 billion tons of waste coal covers 180,000 acres in Pa. Pennsylvania currently has 14 waste coal power plants (building more plants has been proposed) out of about 18 or 19 nationwide. Waste coal plants make up about 5 percent of Pennsylvania’s installed electric generating capacity. Most of the plants are small (100MW or less) and run fairly frequently (at 60–80 percent capacity).

Waste coal piles are full of low quality coal (25 percent to 60 percent the heat content of normal coal) so it takes about twice as much waste coal to produce the same amount of electricity. Therefore, plants are only built where there are piles with large volumes of waste coal. The smaller isolated piles are left untouched. 

Waste coal plants typically have higher air emissions (including greenhouse gases, mercury, and sulfur) per megawatt than regular coal plants. They also produce a lot of toxic coal ash per ton of fuel (the toxic chemicals, including mercury, “captured” out of the coal ends up in the ash), threatening the ground water where the ash is dumped.

Pros and cons

Advocates stress that waste coal plants result in the removal of waste coal piles that, unless otherwise addressed, will continue to pollute the land and water through acid runoff. Additionally, limestone injection systems are used during the burning process to reduce the sulfur emissions and result in an alkaline bottom ash that can be used to treat the acid drainage from other abandoned mine land. 

Some claims go much further by saying things like the plants may be carbon neutral because waste coal piles will likely catch on fire from lightning strikes or other sparks and end up releasing more pollution. While yes, they do tend to catch on fire, in no way, shape or form are the plants carbon neutral. CO2 is still being emitted into the air.  

On the other hand, opponents of the plants claim that the air emissions can create hot spots of air toxics. In other words, if you live near a waste coal plant, you will likely be inhaling more toxic air than someone who lives in a section of the state where there isn't waste coal.

To get a better idea of the problem, check out this video of a burning waste coal pile, and here’s a photo of a waste coal power plant. Now that you know about the problem, what should be done about it?  

Stay tuned for a future blog post where I discuss alternatives to waste coal plants and how waste coal is treated as an alternative source of energy in Pennsylvania.

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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The work on efficiency you (probably) won't hear about

Sometimes government actions, like President Obama’s recent veto of the Keystone XL pipeline legislation, will dominate the news cycle for a day or more. Most actions, however, happen with little fanfare and never register a blip on the evening news.

This isn’t surprising. The Pennsylvania Bulletin, our state’s journal of record for government actions, filled 8,078 pages last year. Reading that would be like reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace more than six and a half times. That is just for the state—the Federal Register hasn’t had that few pages per year since 1949 and now tends to be around 80,000 pages every year. Luckily, these documents are fairly well organized so those of us that need to read them can skip the parts in which we're not interested. And, it's a good thing for everyone else that our news media filters the rest to a manageable level.

With all that filtering, however, it’s inevitable that important things happen that people never hear about. This may happen again in a couple of weeks when the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) is scheduled to release its Tentative Phase III Implementation Order for the Act 129 Energy Efficiency and Conservation program. With a title like that, it won’t be surprising if it stays well under the radar for much of the media.

Even if the fourth estate doesn't notice it, the Act 129 energy efficiency programs benefit thousands of Pennsylvanians every year. If you bought a new high efficiency appliance, purchased LED lighting, had a home energy audit, improved your insulation and weatherstripping, or completed many other energy-related activities, you may have received a discount or rebate thanks to actions your electric company is taking to comply with Act 129. Suffice to say that this has been a very successful program: data from Phase I shows that the program returned nearly $3 to consumers for every dollar spent.

We here at PennFuture have been working with other organizations to make sure these programs continue to deliver on their promise. We’ve also submitted recommendations to the PUC on how they can improve the program in Phase III. These comments included asking them to consider rules that encourage more comprehensive programs that will provide improved efficiency for years to come. We have also asked them to consider cost savings due to heath and environmental impacts, not just the savings on our electric bills, when evaluating programs.

Once the Tentative Order is released, we'll once again work to develop comments and help organize a push for the best possible program. Even if no one notices, we'll be here working for you.

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

Solar jobs, Florida insults

Florida Gov. Rick Scott spent Monday in Philadelphia, meeting with Pennsylvania business leaders to try and convince them to move their companies to Florida.

Solar boosters and industry representatives from our state, and those from Florida, should both be insulted

His administration has done nothing to support the incredible job-creating potential that the Sunshine state possesses with respect to building a healthy and thriving solar industry. The state ranks third in the nation for most solar radiation but only ninth in the nation for overall number of solar jobs. Considering that it's the third most populous state in the union, this performance is even more dismal. 

There are any number of proactive changes that Gov. Scott could champion to stimulate solar industry growth. The current landscape is rocky, at best, for solar in Florida. The state has a prohibition on third party ownership, which makes solar leasing impossible. It has low caps (less than 2 MW) for interconnection, discouraging utility-scale projects, and has no portfolio standard to speak of. In 2014, Florida's Public Utility Commission (Florida Public Service) removed a once offered, but at the time unfunded, statewide solar rebate (and energy efficiency) program from the books altogether. Any number of these issues, if addressed, could promote solar industry growth in that state. 

Meanwhile, Florida utilities continue to write their own rules on solar. To their credit,  utilities such as Duke Energy are stepping out with some modest solar programs but they continue to resist statewide comprehensive approaches to modernize Florida's policy and market landscape. 

This parable doesn't stop at Florida, however. Despite the fact that Pennsylvania is less sunny than Florida, we still get plenty of sunshine and due to smart policies and incentives, we outranked Florida in solar jobs and solar deployment for many years. Now, because of the unwillingness of elected officials to improve our own state's solar market and provide competitive market signals, we continue to see declines in the number of solar jobs and rate of solar deployment in Pennsylvania year after year. Meanwhile our neighbors New York and New Jersey continue to see it as the job boom it is, both ranking in the top five among states for solar jobs. 

It's clear that Governor Scott should stop trying to convince Pennsylvania companies to join the ranks of the snow birds and, instead, focus on the sun birds that need his help in Florida. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania leaders should set their sights on capturing more solar jobs here at home.

Evan Endres is program manager for the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Pittsburgh. He tweets @ER_Endres.