Big changes to Pennsylvania’s energy system are brewing in Harrisburg – here’s your primer

This time next year, Pennsylvanians may be living in a very different electricity system than the one we’re plugged into today, given all of the momentous energy legislation circulating in Harrisburg right now. Or, knowing our General Assembly, we may still be debating them. Our leaders in the state capital have struggled in the past to pass budgets on time, so who knows?

But how to make sense of it all? How do these individual bills fit into a broader context? And how can you play a role to ensure solar is a big part of our energy future? Here’s your primer on the 2019 Harrisburg Energy Bonanza.

Where we currently get our energy

Currently, Pennsylvania is a major energy producer. We rank second in the nation in natural gas production, third in coal production, and second in overall electricity generation. In fact, we produce so much electricity that we are a net exporter, selling excess electricity to neighboring states. This means that efforts to make our electricity system cleaner and fairer are both much more challenging and much more impactful than efforts in less energy-intensive states.

Our electric generation mix is 39% nuclear, 34% natural gas, 22% coal (but a lot have been closing recently), and about 5% renewable. Of that 5%, around a quarter of a percent comes from solar. We have a state goal, called the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS), that requires 18% of the electricity consumed by customers of investor-owned utilities to come from alternative sources by 2021. This 18% is divided into 8% from “Tier 1” sources, which include renewables like solar and wind and 10% from “Tier 2” sources, which include things like large-scale hydroelectric power, waste coal, and wood pulp. 0.5% of Tier 1 is set aside for solar in particular, known as our “solar carve-out.” We are on-track to meet this target. But if we don’t update the AEPS with higher targets by 2021, it will cease to drive growth in alternative energy sources and our solar market could collapse, leading to job losses and lower SREC revenues for solar owners.

Nuclear, like coal, is struggling to stay competitive amidst a flood of natural gas-fired power plants. Three Mile Island in particular is floundering, and the nuclear industry is asking the state to bail out all nuclear plants or risk losing a major source of carbon-free electricity.

The proposed changes to our energy system

State Representative Thomas Mehaffie (R–Dauphin) has introduced a bill, HB 11, that would require investor-owned utilities to get their electricity from a new third tier of AEPS-eligible energy sources that would be made up of nuclear and renewables. Because nuclear plants are struggling to compete with other power sources, this would essentially force electric utilities, and by extension their customers, to buy nuclear energy even if it’s not the cheapest option. And it’s likely that nuclear would gobble up most or all of this tier’s allowance, given how much electricity nuclear plants already generate in the Commonwealth. So, the bill probably doesn’t provide any real additional support to renewables, bails out the nuclear industry, and doesn’t require nuclear plants to show financial distress in order to be eligible for Tier 3. In other words, we’d be bailing out the already-profitable nuclear plants along with the struggling ones.

Since HB 11’s introduction, a companion bill has been released by State Senator Ryan Aument (R–East Hempfield). The impacts are likely the same with this bill—higher costs for ratepayers, no substantial new support for renewables. Both bills have been met with significant opposition from environmentalists, the natural gas industry, and ratepayer advocates.

At the same time, State Senators Art Haywood (D–Philadelphia), Tom Killion (R–Middletown), and Steve Santarsiero (D–Bucks) have released Senate Bill 600, which would update our AEPS to require 30% of our electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. Of that, 7.5% would come from grid-scale solar projects and 2.5% from rooftop solar. This would ensure that our solar market does not collapse when the AEPS is set to plateau in 2021. This bill, not surprisingly, already faces considerable opposition in a legislature dominated by fossil fuel interests. We may see an AEPS update bill like this one merged with a nuclear bailout in order to make both policies more viable. The key issue to watch out for, in the case of such a merged bill, would be if the proposed support for renewables is substantial enough to justify a bailout of nuclear giants like Exelon.

Meanwhile, HB 531, the community solar bill, is quietly chugging along with bipartisan support and over 50 co-sponsors from across the state. This bill does not affect our AEPS targets, meaning that it stands to generate far less controversy than the other bills discussed above. But this also means that even if we pass HB 531, we may see few community solar projects implemented if we don’t also update our AEPS to ensure that demand for solar continues to grow beyond 2021.

What you can do

Much of this conversation so far has been dominated by big industry lobbyists, so it’s crucial that grassroots advocates like you weigh in. Call, email, write, or visit your legislators in person and demand that we pass SB 600 to ensure that, whatever happens, our AEPS is updated with robust, ambitious new targets for solar energy. You can also use our handy tool to send an email to your state representatives about SB 600. If you’d like some guidance on more substantial advocacy, like visiting legislator offices, check out our recorded webinar on effective grassroots solar advocacy. You can also get in touch with us at [email protected]. We’re always here to help you be a better solar advocate.

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