Amid layoffs in fossil fuels, state Democrats strategize for clean energy jobs



Clean energy and labor advocates told state Democratic lawmakers on Monday that policies encouraging the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency technology could support significant job growth in Pennsylvania. 

As layoffs continue to hurt the fossil fuel industry, the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee convened a two-hour public hearing to take notes on how to promote employment in clean energy professions. One newly released report suggested suggested that the state’s solar and building efficiency industries — with the right state support — can bring as many as 11,600 new jobs a year through 2030.

The committee took testimony from seven panelists who all expressed a certain degree of frustration with Pennsylvania’s sluggish embrace of green technologies. John Quigley, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told the committee, “It is clear that other states have leapfrogged us” in clean energy infrastructure and “we’ve got to catch up.” 

For one, the state’s alternative energy standards — a law passed in 2004 that requires Pennsylvania utilities to sell increasing amounts of electricity from clean sources — is woefully behind the times, Mr. Quigley and other panelists said. The law also allows utilities to comply by investing in renewable projects in surrounding states, depressing incentives for Pennsylvania developers.

In fact, there’s now enough solar energy capacity registered in Pennsylvania to meet the law’s requirements for 2021, though 70 percent of that capacity is located in other states.

Keeping the eligible projects would provide an immediate boost, Mr. Quigley said. But political clashes have prevented any progress on updating the alternative energy law in recent years.

In his first budget request last spring, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a $225 million energy package that would have promoted energy efficiency and restored a statewide solar incentive program. It was blocked by Republicans opposed to a natural gas severance tax, which would have funded the package.

Some changes don’t have to be political lightning rods. Energy efficiency, which employs workers across the building trades, is becoming entrenched in all manners of construction and planning, said Eric Miller, policy counsel for the Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance. Panelists suggested updating the state’s building codes, which were frozen under former governor Tom Corbett, and allowing property owners to pay for efficiency projects with a loan repaid by property tax bills. 

The latter idea, called P.A.C.E. financing, is available in 32 other states and the District of Columbia and “has proven effective in solving upfront cost barriers” around energy efficiency, said Ken MacDougal, director of business development for the National Electrical Contractors Association.

A wave of research this year has found that employment in clean energy technologies stands to grow. Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy, in a survey of energy jobs across the country, found that energy efficiency employed nearly 1.9 million people, compared with about 2.6 million working in traditional fuels generation, transmission and distribution. 

A separate report issued last week by the Pennsylvania Jobs Project, a research initiative that partnered with Carnegie Mellon University, put forth 14 policy suggestions that could lead to 11,600 jobs a year by 2030. 

Still, layoffs in the coal industry have hit southwestern Pennsylvania hard, and legislators seemed no closer to have a comprehensive solution. 

Closing the hearing, Rep. Stephen McCarter, D-Montgomery, said the Democrats would keep pushing on clean energy initiatives with the knowledge that significant re-training and workforce development could be part of it.

“When we talk about Greene County and Fayette [County] — the coal regions of Pennsylvania — all of that has to be taken into consideration,” Mr. McCarter said. “That’s what this hearing is all about.”

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

This story was updated to clarify how much solar capacity is registered in Pennsylvania.

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