Increasing Clean Energy Targets

By Tom Schuster, Director, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter

In 2004, then-Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell signed the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) Act into law, which required the state’s utilities and electricity suppliers to purchase a minimum amount of electricity from renewable or alternative sources. That law was imperfect because it included dirty energy sources such as waste coal, biomass, and trash incineration, but at the time, it also helped spur a boom in wind and solar investment that made Pennsylvania one of the top states for new clean energy production in the early 2000s.

But what was once seen as a forward-looking law is now woefully outdated. Unfortunately, the requirements for clean energy leveled off at only 8 percent of the state’s electricity in 2021, while other states continued to make major strides. Pennsylvania has now fallen to 50th in the nation for growth in wind, solar, and geothermal generation since 2013 -- behind every state and the District of Columbia except Alaska.

To get us back on track, Governor Josh Shapiro recently announced a long-awaited update to AEPS called the Pennsylvania Reliable Energy Sustainability Standard (PRESS). PRESS is an important step that will update the current standard to require utilities to acquire at least 35 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2035 and help Pennsylvania meet our climate and clean energy goals.

While 35 percent may not sound ambitious compared to some neighboring states -- New Jersey and New York are setting targets of 50-100 percent in a similar timeline -- this would be a huge change for Pennsylvania. Consider this: only 3 percent of electricity consumed in Pennsylvania comes from in-state wind and solar. (This is lower than the AEPS-required 8 percent, because we export 35-40 percent of the power we produce, and out-of-state clean energy resources also qualify to meet our targets). It also took 10 years to get from 2 percent to 3 percent. In contrast, our clean energy targets will have to increase by about 2.7 percent each year for the next ten years under PRESS, which would be a major accomplishment compared to our track record.

While PRESS is not the perfect solution to meet our state’s growing and evolving energy needs and does include some dirtier and unnecessary energy sources, it would be the largest increase of renewable energy targets in our Commonwealth’s history - by a factor of more than four. We also know that as long as we have a divided government in Harrisburg, compromises will be necessary to move forward and get out of the clean energy cellar.

PRESS is also a critical complement to a robust cap and invest program for climate pollution from the power sector. The latter will be provided by our participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Pennsylvania’s participation in RGGI, however, will only move forward if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sides with the Shapiro Administration and environmental groups including the Sierra Club to rule that the PA Department of Environmental Protection has the authority under the Air Pollution Control Act to implement it. While PRESS would significantly increase investment in renewable energy projects, RGGI would ensure that carbon pollution from the power sector as a whole declines over time.

Both PRESS and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) are necessary to meet the challenge of the climate crisis.

Despite this fact, fossil fuel interests and their allies in the legislature have done everything possible to block RGGI. In response, Governor Shapiro recently also proposed the Pennsylvania Climate Emissions Reduction Act (PACER), which would create a Pennsylvania-specific cap and invest program. This proposal addresses some of the conclusions of the Governor’s RGGI Working Group that convened environmental, labor, and energy sector interests to look for common ground on the policy. The Sierra Club prefers RGGI, but we believe that PACER is also a workable solution and recognize that policies enacted legislatively tend to be more durable.

Ultimately, we look forward to working with Governor Shapiro’s Administration and the General Assembly to secure the cleanest, most equitable, and most cost-effective energy policy possible so that Pennsylvania can once again lead the way in clean energy production.

This blog was included as part of the April 2024 Sylvanian newsletter. Please click here to check out more articles from this edition!