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Gov. Shapiro promised 30% renewable electricity by 2030. Will that happen?

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Audrey CarletonCapital & Main

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) waffled on hot-button climate issues on the campaign trail — walking a fine line on fracking and neglecting to take a stance on a state cap-and-trade program for the power sector. But on one issue, he was resolute: By 2030, 30% of the energy sold in Pennsylvania would come from renewable sources, up from 8% now, he pledged.

”Pennsylvania’s steps forward must ensure that we remain an energy hub while protecting vital pieces of our economy and leaving no Pennsylvanian behind,” his campaign website said, adding that the governor-elect planned to “work with stakeholders, including those across the aisle,” to do so.

But in the year since Shapiro was sworn into office, his office has provided no updates on what the administration is doing to reach the 30% goal.

That includes its position on a bill in the Legislature — HB 1467 — that would update the state’s energy standards to require that 30% percent of it’s energy sales come from renewable sources. Some members of the administration have signaled support — at a Dec. 11 hearing of the House Environmental Resources & Energy Committee, David Althoff, Director of the Department of Environmental Protection’s Energy Programs Office said he believed Shapiro’s administration supported the bill.

That support would be crucial to getting the proposed legislation over the line in a divided Legislature, observers told Capital & Main. But for the last year, Shapiro himself has stayed mum.

“Governor Shapiro remains focused on addressing climate change, reducing emissions, and safeguarding public health while creating jobs and protecting consumers,” Shapiro spokesperson Manuel Bonder said in a statement to Capital & Main. “The Shapiro Administration is taking action every day to preserve and protect our environment and defend Pennsylvanians’ Constitutional right to clean air and pure water.”

Advocates of the “30 by 30” promise in the second-largest natural gas producing state remain firm that updating clean energy standards is a step lawmakers need to take to meet the urgency of the climate crisis, to compete with other states and to meet growing market demand for renewables.

The Keystone State ranked 50th among the states in percent growth in total solar, wind and geothermal generation since 2013, the nonprofit PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center reported in October. The U.S. saw its solar industry grow 12-fold in the last decade, but Pennsylvania’s solar industry grew just threefold, the group said. In 2021, solar accounted for less than 1% of the electricity generated in Pennsylvania, while natural gas accounted for more than half.

Other states have seen their renewable energy economies boom in the same time frame; Virginia’s renewable sector grew by more than 300 times, for instance, PennEnvironment’s analysis found. In the last year, this growth has been bolstered across the country by the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping federal bill that introduced an estimated $370 billion to build out the green energy economy. That included incentives to build renewable energy sources, to upgrade energy efficiency in buildings, to manufacture electric vehicles and more. States are lining up to collect this money through grant programs or by passing their own incentives that can stack atop federal ones.

It’s a key moment for states to ride the coattails of the Inflation Reduction Act or risk being left behind, argued Sharon Pillar, founder and executive director of the Pennsylvania Solar Center, a nonprofit solar energy advocacy group. “Investors are going to the places that have sweetener on top of” federal incentives, Pillar said. “They’ll go to New Jersey or Maryland or Virginia or New York because they have state incentives that are better than ours.”

In June, Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, a Democrat from Chester County northwest of Philadelphia, introduced HB 1467, which would do exactly that.

The legislation would update the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (AEPS), the set of targets that guide sales of renewable energy in the commonwealth. Nearly half of her caucus signed onto the bill; a companion piece of legislation is under consideration in the Senate, where more than half of Democrats have signed on.

Pennsylvania’s AEPS are the targets that have guided the state’s green energy buildout for the last two decades. The targets represent the percentage of electricity that must come from alternative sources in the generation that utilities sell to their customers each year at levels that have increased year over year from 2007 through 2021. These levels were split between two tiers of energy sources. Tier 1 includes wind, hydropower with minimal impact to aquatic systems, geothermal and solar. Tier 2 includes more polluting sources, such as waste coal and large-scale hydropower.

By 2021, the AEPS mandates that 18% of the power utilities sell to customers must come from alternative or renewable sources — 8% from Tier 1, of which 0.5% was required to be from in-state solar power, and 10% from Tier 2. (Otten’s bill would mandate that all 30% of renewables sold by 2030 come from Tier 1 sources. It does not mention Tier 2 sources at all.)

This does not reflect the size of the state’s renewable energy sector or the energy generated in the state; those numbers are lower. Rather, the target reflects a percentage of energy sales to consumers. Under the AEPS, utilities buy credits from renewable energy suppliers — with capacities ranging in size from grid-scale to single-home rooftop arrays — that reflect a percentage of their overall electricity sales mandated by the AEPS. This energy can come from outside the state — and in fact, in 2022, 54.1% of it did, according to grid operator PJM.

Even so, Pillar said, the AEPS offer renewable developers a financing stream: Sure payments from utilities that have a legal mandate to buy renewable energy provides the security they need to decide to locate in Pennsylvania, she argued.

Nick Cohen, president, CEO and co-founder of Philadelphia-based Doral Renewables, a solar energy developer, agreed. “You want to go to a state that is renewable friendly; an AEPS is one way of waving the flag and saying, ‘We’re renewable friendly,’” he said. “The AEPS is a good idea, because it’s proven effective in the past.” But even if the AEPS weren’t in place, market forces are enough that he knows he’ll always have a customer in Pennsylvania no matter what.

“My likely buyers probably won’t even be utilities — they’ll be corporations,” he said, noting that consumer concern around carbon footprint and an upcoming federal climate disclosure rule are driving demand from big companies to power their operations with renewables.

When they were crafted in 2004, the AEPS were seen as radical, recalled Rob Altenburg, senior director for energy and climate at the nonprofit environmental advocacy group PennFuture. At the time, Altenburg was working for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “Back then, getting to half a percent solar seemed like a major challenge,” he said.

Over the years, renewables have plunged in price and surged in efficiency, and Altenburg and other environmentalists have watched as the states surrounding Pennsylvania have updated their renewable energy goals to be more ambitious — and more in line with what the climate crisis calls for. Maryland, to the south, is working toward a 50% renewable goal by 2030; New York, to the north, toward 70% by 2030.

But Pennsylvania has flatlined, and the value of renewable energy credits via the AEPS have dropped as enough renewable energy producers come online to meet the needs of utilities under the state’s meager requirements, Solar Center’s Pillar said. Legislators — including Sen. Steve Santarsiero, a Democrat from Bucks County north of Philadelphia — have attempted to update the guidelines in the past only for those bills to die in committee.

Until last year, both chambers’ Environmental Resources and Energy Committees were led by Republican chairmen with loyalty to the fossil fuel industry, but the House’s slim Democratic majority after the 2022 election changed that math. In the past, trade groups such as the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents fracking companies, and the Industrial Energy Consumers of Pennsylvania, which represents manufacturers, have opposed the standards.

At a Dec. 11 hearing of the House energy committee, David N. Taylor, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, called the program “a danger to American national security” and “a disgrace on labor and human rights.”

Otten told Capital & Main such critiques consisted of “misinformation and hyperbole.” An analysis of the bill shared with Capital & Main also listed a handful of groups that support the legislation, including the nonprofit environmental group Clean Water Action; PennEnvironment, author of the study that found the state lagging behind in renewable energy development; and the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association.

But the fate of the AEPS remains to be seen even if Otten’s bill advances beyond the House — where her party holds the majority — and into the Republican-led Senate, where the energy committee is led by fossil-fuel-friendly Sen. Gene Yaw, a Republican from Lycoming County in north central Pennsylvania.

Otten believes Shapiro’s endorsement of a “30 by 30” emissions standard on the campaign trail has given the bill the first push it needs. And Altenburg predicted that the governor’s support could prove essential to negotiating for votes in the Senate.

“I think that’s the big thing that we’re looking at this year,” Altenburg said. “Does the governor use his political capital to move this?”

“And what does a deal look like that would move it?”

Audrey Carleton is a reporter for Capital & Main, where this story first appeared.

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