Downtown conference envisions deep carbon cuts

Pennsylvania is the nation’s second-largest producer of electricity, with a generation mix heavy in fossil fuels and nuclear power.

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council will convene a two-day conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, on what it will take to get most of the carbon out of Pennsylvania’s electric sector without sacrificing the state’s leadership role as an energy generator.

“We believe in a lot of ways Pennsylvania is really the bellwether,” said John Walliser, the organization’s senior vice president for legal and government affairs. “How do you approach reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the electric sector when you have a state that is a net exporter of electricity?”

The conference is designed to address the fact that current trends and policies fall far short of achieving the 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 that climate researchers believe is necessary to have a chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

Instead of eliminating divisive energy sources from the discussion, the conference puts all of them on the table for debate: On Wednesday, panels will focus on renewable energy, nuclear power, energy efficiency, and carbon capture and storage for coal and natural gas power plants. On Thursday, attendees will participate in smaller discussions about strategies for Pennsylvania to achieve a secure, affordable, low-carbon energy mix.

M. Granger Morgan, a co-director of the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making at Carnegie Mellon University, who will give a Wednesday keynote address, said it makes sense to consider a broad combination of strategies to sharply reduce carbon emissions.

“Doing that will take a portfolio of absolutely everything we’ve got,” he said, “and even then it’s going to be really tough to make a serious impact.” The conference aims to take advantage of the dramatic shifts that are already rearranging Pennsylvania’s energy mix.

In 2005, more than half of the state’s net electric generation came from coal and less than 5 percent came from natural gas, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Now, coal provides less than a third of Pennsylvania’s net generation while natural gas provides more than a quarter. A growing share of electricity is generated by renewable sources, such as wind, solar and hydropower, while energy efficiency is reducing demand.

In the midst of such disruption, the moment seemed right to try to develop a deliberate path forward.

“In some ways, the decisions are already being made for us,” Mr. Walliser said. Low natural gas prices are spurring a boom in gas-powered generation, which emits roughly half the carbon dioxide of coal. But low-cost gas is making it difficult for both high-carbon emitters, such as coal plants, and zero-carbon sources, such as nuclear, to compete.

Investments and policy decisions made today will influence how carbon-intensive the state’s energy portfolio will be for decades, Mr. Walliser said. “You don’t want to get trapped into a long-term strategy that may, in the long run, not have the best result.”

The moment also seemed right for the conversation because researchers say the window for effective climate action is narrow.

Mr. Morgan described a recent survey of Allegheny County residents that found people generally do not understand the difference between conventional air pollutants — the kinds that create soot and smog and dissipate relatively quickly once they stop being emitted — and carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere for centuries.

“The problem with climate change is that if and when it gets bad enough, you can’t fix it by simply stopping emissions,” he said.

“If we put this off and then things do get serious as [the] result of climate change, it is almost impossible at that stage to do much about it.”

Laura Legere:

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