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Thursday, May 21, 2015

PA builders' influence proves code adoption system needs a reboot

Pennsylvania’s building code adoption process is tainted by unprecedented access and control from the Pennsylvania Builders Association, subject to lack of impartiality from Advisory Council leadership, and generally beyond repair. Legislation establishing a new and workable system is the only path forward.   

As of midday on May 20, the Building Codes Review and Advisory Council (RAC) adopted a random selection of provisions amounting to less than ten out of 1,900 code updates, some of which serve to weaken safety and energy efficiency in our state.

Unprecedented access by the Pennsylvania Builders Association (PBA)

Through a series of correspondence obtained via a Right to Know Law (RTKL) request submitted by PennFuture, it was discovered that the Pennsylvania Builders Association (PBA) continues to receive unprecedented access, and impose inside influence, on Pennsylvania's (broken) building codes adoption process. Actions include inviting members of the RAC to a series of special Uniform Construction Code review meetings held by a PBA subcommittee. 

Lack of Impartiality from RAC Leadership

The porous codes adoption process is also tainted by the revelation that leaders of the RAC provided advice to the PBA on how to frame their argument against the energy efficiency code updates before the Council. This lack of impartiality further undermines confidence that the current system can adopt codes that are in the best interests of Pennsylvania. 

A system beyond repair

The wolves are guarding the sheep as the PBA fends off common sense code changes that may mean lower profits for them but safer and more efficient homes for us. How did this happen? The PBA has stacked the deck against Pennsylvanians through its unprecedented influence on the codes adoption process and via legislation that puts veto power in the hands of home builders and their allies, who make up one-third of the RAC. All this while proposing additional legislative action to stretch out consideration of new codes to once every six years, further guaranteeing complete control over the process.

Pennsylvania needs legislation to reinstate a predictable, transparent, uniform process to guarantee that all of our structures are built in accordance with the newest and best building codes. We must return to a process in which modern codes are adopted with adequate review.

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

FYI: PPL electricity bill increase

PPL Electric recently asked the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) for a fixed rate increase. If you are a PPL customer, you likely already know that the monthly fixed distribution rate is $14.13. What you may not know is that the fixed rate is the highest in the state. If PPL's fixed rate increase is approved as requested, you will see your monthly fixed rate payment go up to around $20 a month, a 42 percent increase. This means PPL's more than 1.4 million customers will each be paying $60 more a year for electricity.

How you can make your voice heard

The PUC is currently investigating PPL's proposal, meaning the rate increase is suspended for up to seven months. At this point in the process, the Office of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) will be holding public hearings, and a final decision must be made by January 1, 2016. More information on the ratemaking process is available on the Commission’s website.

In order to encourage public participation, the PUC announced the launch of its online “Smart Hearing” pilot project. The Smart Hearings will consist of live-streamed online hearings. As recently-appointed PUC Chair Gladys M. Brown emphasized, "It is vital to gather as much public input as possible to help the Commission determine what, if any, of each requested increase is justified.” 

During each hearing, anyone can call in and provide comments to the PUC. You'll be able to hear everyone else's comments live via the Internet stream; you can also go to Harrisburg if you wish and testify in person at the Keystone Building. 

If you are a PPL customer, this is a very important issue for you to be a part of and the PUC is obliged to consider your comments. Make sure to mark the hearing dates down on your calendar and call in. Don't assume other people will be calling in so that you don't need to. YOUR individual opinion matters because YOU will be paying for this fixed rate whether you have the most efficient home or building in the world or not. 

According to the PUC, the last time PPL asked for a fixed rate increase, only 13 people showed up during the five public hearings held across PPL territory. I am sure more than 13 people cared about the issue. Maybe you were not aware that this was happening, or maybe you figured a lot of other people would show up. Now you know that if you are concerned about having to pay over $5 more a month for your electricity, you need to speak up. And now the PUC is making it as simple as picking up the phone.

There will be two online hearings on Tuesday, June 2:  1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Both will be held in Hearing Room 1 on the 2nd floor of the Commonwealth Keystone Building at 400 North St., Harrisburg, Pa., 17120.  

If you want to call in, you need to contact the Office of Consumer Advocate (OCA) at 717-783-5048 or 1-800-684-6560 no later than Tuesday, May 26 (yes that is the day after Memorial Day) in order to register and receive additional information. Those who register to testify will be provided in advance with a 15 minute window of time when they can expect to be called in order to provide their testimony. Or you can go to Harrisburg and simply sign in when you arrive. Detailed information about the hearings is available on the PUC website.

The third hearing will be held on Thursday, June 4 at  6 p.m. in Allentown (home of PPL) at  Muhlenburg College Seegers Union, Rooms 108-110, 2400 Chew Street, Allentown, Pa., 18104. Only in-person testimony at this one so you do not have to contact anyone in advance. All you have to do is show up and state your concerns.

Please spread the word to all the PPL customers you know! And there is no need to feel intimidated that an Administrative Law Judge will be presiding over the hearing and the attorneys present may be asking you questions. This is a public participation process. As a PPL customer, you have every right to be heard.

From the PUC:

Offering Comment at a Hearing
Members of the public are welcome to attend the hearings and provide comments. Their testimony will become part of the record on which the PUC will issue its final decision.
The PUC and Office of Consumer Advocate offer tips on how to participate, including:
  • Prepare what you are going to say beforehand. Even though it is not required, you may want to write out your statement, which can be read.
  • Bring copies, if you are attending an in-person hearing. If you have a written statement you would like to give to the judge as evidence, please bring two copies for the court reporter and several copies for the other participants.
  • Plan to be questioned. Parties in the case may want to ask you a question to clarify something you said. 
  1. You may testify formally under oath or affirmation and be subject to cross-examination.
  1. You may make an unsworn or unaffirmed statement. It will be “off the record” and not subject to cross-examination. The court reporter will not transcribe your statement and your statement will not be considered.
  1. You may provide information to the Commission’s Bureau of Investigation & Enforcement, the Consumer Advocate, or the Small Business Advocate for their possible use at the formal evidentiary hearings in Harrisburg at their discretion.
You are encouraged to testify under oath so that your testimony can be used to the extent it meets the rules of evidence. If you do not want your testimony to be live streamed, you may testify after the live streaming equipment is turned off. Please tell OCA of your preference when you call to sign up as a witness. 

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Tesla Powerwall and Pennsylvania

Tesla shook things up recently with the announcement of a small, reasonably priced, large capacity battery system. The Tesla Powerwall comes in a 7 kilowatt-hour capacity for about $3,000 and is modular so additional battery packs can be added to work together. 

Courtesy Tesla Motors

Why is this such a breakthrough? First, low price -- other battery systems haven't been able to provide that level of capacity and compact size for such a low price. Battery systems that have were not considered to be high quality products. Second is the notion that battery systems, whether home scale or utility scale, are one of the key ingredients to developing an electric grid with "dispatchable" renewable energy. We're able to call on wind and solar energy when needed via battery systems, not just when the sun shines and the wind is blowing. Finally, this technology would allow for "grid defection," or the idea that you can manage all of your home's electricity needs, on site, without being connected to the grid at all. This is achieved through a combination of home renewable energy such as solar (or small wind, if you have the right conditions), batteries, and some sort of backup generator.

It may not prove to be an attractive option at first, but the Powerwall certainly completes the puzzle for those who want to explore the feasibility -- and legality -- of total grid defection.

Stepping back, the most immediate benefit to home battery systems would be found for those who have a Time of Use (TOU) electricity rate. TOU rates charge you more when electricity costs more, such as during times of peak demand on the grid, as opposed to a flat rate all day. When you combine batteries with solar energy under a TOU rate, you can "bank" the electricity your solar system produces at times when your daily rate is cheaper and pour it into the grid when the rate is higher, giving you more value for the energy you produce. Another scenario, absent solar, would be a homeowner on a TOU rate banking electricity when it's cheaper and then using the batteries when electricity is higher priced, saving money in the process. As I blogged recently, in Pennsylvania we have a TOU pilot in PPL utility territory, but net metering for home renewable energy systems, like solar, is not guaranteed. A big flaw. 

Demand response programs that take advantage of new behind-the-meter technologies like the Powerwall are also a prime target for our state. Currently, commercial customers can be paid to turn on emergency generators on days when the electric grid is strained. This often involves diesel generators running on the hottest days of the year, which is not a great thing for air quality. Developing a demand response system that allows Powerwall owners to participate in demand response programs, especially if using solar energy in conjunction with the Powerwall, would be a clean way to address grid strain while returning dollars to the pockets of residential ratepayers.  

Bottom line: If we hope to be a brick in the Tesla Powerwall, Pennsylvania will need to encourage a new wave of demand response programs and go beyond pilot Time of Use rates. 

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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The State of the Air Report says pollute less

On April 29, the American Lung Association released its 2015 State of the Air Report. While it showed some improvement, the Pittsburgh metro area was one of three locales found to be one of the “Worst 25” areas in three different categories: daily particulates, annual particulates, and ground level ozone (better known as smog.)

We know what the problems are, and we’ve known the solutions for years: pollute less.

While we receive a failing grade based on current air pollution standards, we face an additional health problem because the current National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone is too lax to protect public health. In 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), a seven-member panel of experts on air pollution issues, consulted with professors, medical doctors, and other technical experts known as the Ozone Review Panel. As a result, they sent three separate letters to the EPA administrator between 2006 and 2008 wherein each unanimously recommended the standard be set between 0.060 and 0.070 parts per million (ppm). In 2008, the Bush-era EPA ignored their own expert’s unanimous advice and set the standard at 0.075ppm.

Just last year, EPA finally proposed a new standard in the recommended range, but the opposition is out in force. Eleven state governors sent a letter to EPA filled with the usual claims that it will cost too much and be bad for business. They were joined by the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee that advanced a similar resolution earlier this month. The same sort of folks peddle their doom and gloom scenarios every time we try to improve environmental protection. They are always telling us environmental regulation isn’t needed and doesn’t work.

They could look back and consider that thick black clouds of pollutants chugging out of smoke stacks was a common sight before the EPA started its work. But, they don’t have to look that far. As we discussed last week, the areas where we regulate the gas industry are reporting decreases in methane emissions whereas the areas we ignore don’t. When it comes to controlling pollution, the simple fact is that regulations work.

While this is true, it’s not just an academic policy discussion as we continue to experience the impacts of pollution on our families and society. For example, we know that ozone and particulate pollution are linked to respiratory diseases such as asthma. This is a major problem in Pennsylvania where, according to the PA Department of Health, about 274,000 children and 877,000 adults currently suffer from asthma. In 2012, there were over 20,000 hospitalizations costing nearly $518 million dollars. That's just hospital charges—it does not include physician charges, lost work, and ancillary impacts. More importantly, it does not address the tragic 145 deaths asthma caused by fouled air.

It’s a good thing that groups like the American Lung Association are there to remind us that the fight isn’t over.

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

PUC proposal to water down net metering re-emerges

Last February, in the midst of multiple attempts by utilities and utility commissions across the county to water down net metering rights or add fees to net metered customers, our own Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) introduced a slate of proposed changes to our net metering rules. See blog post from February 2014. Among the changes was a proposal to limit the capacity of new net metered systems to "110% of historic usage;" a change to the definition of "customer generator" and "utility" that creates more confusion than it solves problems; and "clarifications" on virtual net metering.

PennFuture, along with a coalition of nonprofits, submitted a barrage of comments, encouraging citizens and energy industry representatives to push back. 

Now, the PUC has updated this proposal to address concerns, and protests that were echoed by stakeholders and citizens. Unfortunately, the amendments to proposed changes remain unnecessary, overly burdensome, and amount to an overstepping of authority by the Commission to reinterpret the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard Act of 2004.

Among these revisions is a proposal to limit new net metered systems to 200% of historic annual usage; they've again added descriptors to the definition of utility in yet another attempt to reduce confusion initially caused by the first proposed definition change; and clamped down on virtual net metering proposals that "do not comport with the intent of the virtual net metering rule."

The 200% of historic annual usage rule is an improvement over the originally proposed 110% limitation, but remains unnecessary as net metered systems already have a limitation of 50 kW for residential systems and 3 MW for commercial systems. How much paperwork, time, and money, will be added to customers who are then forced to make a case to utilities that their system proposal does or does not comply with this usage cap is a major concern. Moreover, there is no incentive to install a renewable energy system that offsets more than 100% of your annual usage, but some customers choose to because of  future plans or an understanding that their energy use may change. Why limit the choices of these consumers?

PennFuture will be following this issue as it develops.

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Energy infrastructure for the future (and the present)

With the 45th anniversary of Earth Day upon us, there is no better time than the present to remind us that we need to protect our earth and adapt to the changing climate. Adaptation requires major repairs to our energy infrastructure that has been in place since long before the first Earth Day in 1970.

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of hearing Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz discuss the recently released Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) and the changes we should be making to our grid, at an event in Philadelphia. The Department of Energy’s QER focuses on our aging energy infrastructure and what we can do to upgrade the system.  

During the introductions, Mayor Michael Nutter brought up making Philadelphia a “city of the future” and helping the city adapt to the hotter and wetter conditions it will continue to see. Additionally, U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah emphasized that we need to do more to keep the U.S. number one in the world in energy production. He noted that PECO, the host of the event, is helping the cause with a $200 million smart meter initiative, the better buildings challenge, and energy efficient traffic lights. The comprehensive technological upgrades will help protect Philadelphia from future storms and prevent customer outages. 

Sec. Moniz stressed that President Obama is advocating for an all-of-the-above approach to our energy policy that will consist of a cross government effort. He also said states have a huge role to play in changing our energy system. 

The highlight of the event was Vice President Biden’s passionate and optimistic speech about energy infrastructure, middle class jobs, and the economy. As far as infrastructure is concerned, our country's millions of miles of pipelines and transmission lines have gone unchanged since the 1950s and 1960s. The Vice President emphasized that the energy landscape needs to continue to change to become more reliable, resilient, and safe. 

The Vice President also referenced key terms used in the environmental and energy worlds on a regular basis that a lot of politicians don’t understand and/or refuse to mention. Those terms include climate change, reliability, smart meters, energy efficiency, and renewable solar and wind energy.

In particular, the Vice President discussed how the cost of wind and solar energy have decreased dramatically since 2009 and suggested that renewable energy sources should be provided permanent tax credits to compete with historic energy sources. We will also need new transmission lines to get wind and solar energy to our cities.  

As far as jobs in the changing energy sector are concerned, there are going to be a lot of openings and we need to train a new workforce to handle these clean, high-paying jobs. 

Vice President Biden understands that protecting the environment, the economy, and national security are inextricably linked. In fact, our economy is built on our energy infrastructure. Like it or not and no matter what energy sources you are for or against, we are dependent on energy. We need our infrastructure to work for us and we cannot afford to wait to make changes. A 21st century economy requires 21st century infrastructure, as does our 21st century health care system. Lastly, we are on the cusp of a “once in a generation energy transformation.”  

During Earth Week, let's help remind our senators and representatives that our new energy infrastructure needs to be "smarter" and requires serious investments in energy efficiency and clean renewable sources of energy. Let's help ensure we make the right changes so we'll have the energy infrastructure needed to decrease the effects of climate change and protect our planet and ourselves.

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

Community solar bill passes muster in Maryland, Pennsylvania should take note

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, only one quarter of residential and commercial rooftops in America are suitable for solar. 

The solution is to evolve traditional net metering into "meter aggregation" options for solar energy. This would allow someone with a shaded roof, or an apartment renter, to subscribe to, or purchase, a share of an off-site solar installation and have a portion of the energy output produced by that solar installation credited to their monthly electricity bill, as if the solar project was on their own roof. The fact that many folks join forces to install a single, large solar installation means the costs are reduced significantly versus having a smaller private installation on your own roof.

This concept is known as community solar. Although Pennsylvania doesn't have the policy in place to support this kind of project development, other states are moving ahead.       

The Maryland General Assembly and Senate passed complementary community solar bills this month that are now headed to Gov. Larry Hogan's desk for a signature. 

The bills create a three-year pilot program that will allow for the construction of community solar projects and will examine the impact of community solar in the state as well as best practices throughout the U.S. They will also lead to recommendations to the General Assembly on the merits of a permanent program.

Colorado has had "Community Solar Gardens" enabling legislation since 2010 and is regarded as being at the forefront of this type of project development, with multiple community solar project developers operating in the state. Minnesota passed its community solar legislation in 2013.

The PennFuture Energy Center has issued a set of community solar policy recommendations for Pennsylvania. Although the focus is on repelling threats to the net metering policies we do have, we are hopeful that as neighboring states such as Maryland work to unlock new markets and new opportunities for citizens to invest in solar energy, our decision makers will take note.

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

How fossil fuel industries get to pollute for free, while we pay

This guest blog post is from Tom Schuster, the Sierra Club's senior campaign representative for Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It incorporates comments delivered by Tom on the recently-released PennFuture Fossil Fuel Subsidy Report at a press conference on April 14.

Good morning, and thank you for your interest in this very important topic.  We hear a lot from the fossil fuel industry and the politicians it bankrolls that “we shouldn’t pick winners and losers.” This is ironic because, as this report from PennFuture shows, we are propping up the fossil fuel industry in the
Commonwealth and we have been doing so for decades

But the report only paints part of the picture, which are the direct subsidies that we, as taxpayers, give away to the fossil fuel industry. The industry enjoys other subsidies as well, which do not show up on the government’s balance sheet but which have an even more severe impact on the lives of our families.  I’m talking about the pollution these industries are allowed to generate rather than prevent.

Coal fired electricity is not cheap when you look at the big picture. Every year in Pennsylvania, 863 people die early due to exposure from pollution from power plants, according to the Clean Air Task Force. That’s the highest of any state in the country and third highest per capita. Thousands more are hospitalized from heart attacks, asthma attacks, and other respiratory diseases. Two-thirds of the population, over 8 million Pennsylvanians, live in counties that violate health-based air quality standards.

When power plants are allowed to pollute excessively, we pay for it, with our
health and on our doctor bills. But generators get off cheap. Here’s a local example -- the Cheswick power plant, right upriver on the Allegheny in Springdale, birthplace of Rachel Carson. That plant has equipment installed that would allow it to cut its smog-causing NOx pollution by as much as 90 percent. But it rarely operates it, even though Allegheny County and Westmoreland and Armstrong Counties downwind violate smog standards. Why? Because its permit doesn’t require it to, and it saves a few dollars per megawatt-hour by not operating the controls. They profit more, we breathe bad air that makes us sick. That’s a subsidy.

Now, thankfully, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is proposing new rules that would require plants with controls for smog-causing pollution to run them. Finally. But it would completely exempt the only large coal-fired power plant with minimal controls for smog-causing NOx, the Brunner Island plant upwind of Lancaster and Philadelphia. Why? Simply because the plant’s owners have dragged their feet on installing controls and now argue that it's too expensive. Meanwhile, people in Philadelphia and the nine surrounding counties are forced to breathe air that violates federal health standards. That’s a subsidy.

We keep hearing that electricity from coal is cheap, but a 2011 study by researchers at Harvard Medical School found that the costs of air and water pollution from coal mining and burning are between $250 and $500 Billion (with a B) dollars per year. We, the taxpayers and patients, pay for that, but not on our electric bills. If that subsidy were eliminated, meaning the industry had to fully prevent or clean up this pollution, the cost of electricity from coal would double or triple.

When we account for these hidden subsidies, suddenly fossil fuels aren’t so cheap, and solar, wind, and energy efficiency, which cause no pollution, look like a really smart investment. We can avoid dangerous pollution, keep our rivers and soil clean, stay out of the hospital, stay alive, prevent climate disruption, and have affordable and reliable electricity with these rapidly developing clean energy technologies.

Investment in clean, pollution-free energy simply levels the playing field against fossil fuels, which get to pollute FOR free, while we pay. That is good public policy. But the billions in tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry identified in this report are just backward.

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.