Climate Change & Renewable Energy Projects in Pennsylvania

Posted on May 21, 2013 by Aaron DiDonato

While there are major solar energy and wind energy projects in Pennsylvania and one school district in the state has won an award for cutting their energy usage by one-third, a new report from the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium says more radical changes to Pennsylvania’s energy system are needed to prevent catastrophic consequences of climate change.

Unlike the establishment media in Pennsylvania which either does not cover climate change, severely undercovers climate change, or reports on the controversy over whether climate change is real at all, I want to be very straightforward about this on Keystone Politics. A statement from the G8+5 Academies which represents the national academies of science or its equivalent of Brazil, India, South Africa, Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, China, Japan, the United States, France, Mexico, Germany, and Russia says quote, “Climate change and sustainable energy supply are crucial challenges for the future of humanity. … large reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases, principally CO2, are needed soon to slow the increase of atmospheric concentrations, and avoid reaching unacceptable level. However, climate change is happening even faster than previously estimated; global CO2 emissions since 2000 have been higher than even the highest predictions. Arctic sea ice has been melting at rates much faster than predicted, and the rise in the sea level has become more rapid. Feedbacks in the climate system might lead to much more rapid climate changes. The need for urgent action to address climate change is now indisputable.”

So that’s the factual context as established by the world’s science academies. This year, on April 24th, the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium put out a report entitled On The Need of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Take Certain Actions to Reduce The Threat of Climate Change. It cites a climate change action plan put together by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in 2009 that compiled fifty-two recommendations to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions including carbon dioxide from a baseline set in the year 2000 by thirty percent by the year 2020, and laments that the vast majority of the recommendations have not yet been implemented. At the time, the PA Department of Environmental Protection also found that Pennsylvania is responsible for one percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, obviously much greater than the state’s share of the world’s population.

The PA Environmental Resource Consortium now insists that Pennsylvania must establish a legally binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction target that matches Pennsylvania’s share of the world’s emissions. Their report says quote, “Climate change, perhaps more than any other environmental problem facing the world, raises questions of basic fairness because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere. In other words, all CO2 emissions are contributing to elevated CO2 atmospheric concentrations without regard to where in the world the emissions come from. Because the level of atmospheric concentrations of GHG will determine the amount of warming that the world will experience and the amount of warming will differentially affect millions of the world’s poorest people most harshly, all emitters of GHG emissions, without regard to where they are located in the world, are threatening people around the world. Thus, a state like Pennsylvania cannot avoid questions of basic justice when establishing a GHG missions target because any GHG emissions target is implicitly a position on Pennsylvania’s fair share of global emissions.”

They also cite a 2008 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists that listed impacts of climate change specifically on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I was going to edit it down for time’s sake, they’re all so serious that I want you to hear them all. “Many Pennsylvanian cities can expect dramatic increases in the numbers of summer days over 90°F, putting vulnerable populations at greater risk of heat-related health effects and curtailing outdoor activity for many individuals. Heat could cause urban air quality to deteriorate substantially, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory diseases. Heat stress on dairy cattle may cause declines in milk production. Yields of native Concord grapes, sweet corn, and favorite apple varieties may decrease considerably as temperatures rise and pest pressures grow more severe. Snowmobiling is expected to disappear from the state in the next few decades as winter snow cover shrinks. Ski resorts could persist by greatly increasing their snowmaking, although this may not be an option past mid-century as winters become too warm for snow – natural or human-made. Substantial changes in bird life are expected to include loss of preferred habitat for many resident and migratory species. Climate conditions suitable for prized hardwood tree species such as black cherry, sugar maple, and American beech are projected to decline or even vanish from the state.” The PA Environmental Resource Consortium adds that because that report is from 2008, quote “it is therefore plausible that climate impacts on Pennsylvania will be less than or greater than those described above … because recent global GHG emissions have recently been exceeding worst case levels predicted just a few years ago, it is more plausible that climate impacts on Pennsylvania could be significantly worse than those described above.”

So it is for our own sake as a Commonwealth as much as for global responsibility and justice that Pennsylvania must address climate change in a much more serious way than it has thus far. One important way to do that is with renewable energy projects. While the new report from the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium calls for a drastic new plan to reduce our carbon emissions, there are already some major renewable energy projects in the state that could serve as models for such a plan. Solar energy and wind energy are small parts of Pennsylvania’s energy sector, but they are part of it.

One of the largest solar energy projects in Pennsylvania is the Keystone Solar Project in Lancaster County, a joint project of Community Energy Solar, Bright Plain Renewable Energy, groSolar, and Advanced Energy Industries. It provides six megawatts of power. One megawatt is enough to power about nine-hundred homes in the northeastern United States, so this plant is able to power five-thousand-four-hundred homes. A press release from Community Energy Solar says the Keystone Solar Project will quote, “supply the highest-quality green electricity – local solar power – to customers who sign up for a share of the generation. Several early high-profile customers have already signed up for a share of the output, including Franklin & Marshall College, Eastern University, Clean Air Council, the Philadelphia Phillies, Millersville University, and most recently, Marywood University and Juniata College. ‘This is the greenest of the green — local jobs building fuel-free power that will last for decades,’ said Brent Beerley, Executive Vice President of Community Energy.” In March of this year, the Keystone Solar Project was picked by the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Solar Electric Power Association as a “Project of Distinction” at the 2013 PV America East solar conference. If Pennsylvania got serious about climate change, this is just the kind of project that could be replicated across the state to make solar energy an option for more and more Pennsylvanians.

Wind energy is also slowly making its way into our state’s energy system. The Associated Press recently reported that in 2012 the number of wind installations in Pennsylvania nearly doubled, now providing about one percent of the state’s electricity. That’s far behind Iowa and South Dakota, both of which get over twenty percent of their state’s electricity from wind power, and Minnesota and Colorado that get over ten percent from wind, but out of all 50 states, Pennsylvania is ranked pretty high up as having the sixteenth highest wind energy output in the nation. PA now produces one-thousand-four-hundred-thirty megawatts from wind energy. Again, one megawatt can power about 900 homes in PA, which means we currently produce enough wind energy to power one-million-two-hundred-eighty-seven-thousand homes in our state. The spokesman for a company that has four wind farms in PA says quote, “‘Long-term, we remain enthusiastic about the future of wind’ in Pennsylvania … adding that while no further winds projects have reached the permitting stage here, various others are in the ‘early planning process.’” Enough to power over a million homes is a huge deal, and that’s how it stands right now. Again, if PA got more serious about climate change, this is the existing framework that could be replicated to make wind power more widely available.

In addition to renewable energy projects like solar and wind, it’s also possible to cut back on our state’s greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide by using energy more efficiently, which would cut back energy usage overall. A school district in Pennsylvania recently won a national award for its successful energy efficiency efforts. North Penn School District in Montgomery County and a small part of Bucks County received an Energy Star Partner of the Year award from the federal Environmental Protection Agency in March of this year. The Alliance to Save Energy, which runs the PowerSave Schools program that North Penn School District participated in, says that North Penn students led a variety of projects including awareness campaigns, websites, performing energy audits, interpreting data, and making recommendations for better energy practices. They quote North Penn District Energy Manager Tom Schneider saying, “Over the past year we were able to save more than $1.1 million in utility costs, an amount equal to the combined salaries of 21 first-year teachers. This was achieved through operational and behavioral changes and with no capital expenditure.” Accomplishments of the district that led to the award include slashing energy use by 20% in 2012 and 35% in 2013, preventing 5,600 tons of carbon dioxide from being released, and conducting 200 student-run classroom energy audits to increase natural light, improve ventilation, and reduce appliance energy use.

Now, student-led awareness campaigns and energy audits may not seem like a huge deal at first, but let me repeat that this year North Penn School District reduced its energy usage by over one-third. That shows a tremendous amount of potential. Imagine if under a new climate change plan for Pennsylvania every school district in the state was required to take the same steps to reduce their energy usage that North Penn took. If one school district could reduce its energy usage by a third, why not try to reduce the energy usage of every school district by a third? That alone would drastically reduce the energy needs of our state, and therefore drastically reduce the new renewable energy projects like solar and wind that our state would need to replace older and dirtier forms of energy production that contribute to climate change. These are all methods we must use to reduce our state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Hanging in the balance are our wildlife, our crops and plant life, our air, our health, and even our capacity for winters where it snows, but also the lives of impoverished people in developing nations who will suffer for our actions. Every year that goes by without Pennsylvania getting serious about climate change puts us that much closer to a time when it will be too late to stop its worst impacts.