Clean energy bill spurs interest from all sides

October 25, 2009


HARRISBURG - A bill to foster greater use of clean energy in Pennsylvania has become a moving target for environmentalists and industry groups.

The legislation means different things to different people and, therefore, it has engendered considerable debate as interests in Harrisburg attempt to stretch and pull the bill to meet their conception of what an economy run on clean energy should look like.

The bill's overall purpose is to require utility companies to purchase 15 percent of their power from clean and renewable energy sources by 2024. The current requirement, established in 2004, sets a goal of having 8 percent of purchases from alternate energy sources by 2020.

Gov. Ed Rendell recently described the benefits from reducing reliance on oil and drawing more on wind power, solar power, geothermal and clean coal technology.


"This stronger standard would reduce emissions by another 16 million tons, or the equivalent of taking 3 million cars off the road," he said. "It will also reduce volatility in energy prices, cut the dollars that Pennsylvanians send out-of-state for energy purchases, and attract billions of dollars of new investment."


The sponsor of the House clean energy bill, Rep. Greg Vitali, D-166, Havertown, said having the state diversify the sources of energy is similar to diversifying a stock portfolio. The state's consumers will be better protected from sharp price fluctuations in any one of the energy sources as a result, he added.


But finding agreement on how to get to that 15 percent goal has been elusive.


"This bill has been a Rubik's cube," Vitali added.


The latest flap is over whether nuclear power should be recognized as a clean energy source. The pro-nuclear Pa. Energy Alliance has run media ads urging that nuclear power be part of HB80.


This effort has drawn a sarcastic response from Three Mile Island Alert, which is running counter ads about nuclear waste having an "nasty aftertaste" on its Web site.


"It (nuclear power) is not clean," said TMIA coordinator Eric Epstein. "It is an extremely dirty process to enrich the fuel. Nuclear wastes remain toxic for years."


The issue revolves around whether nuclear power companies should get tax credits for the periodic equipment upgrades they make to boost electric output, Vitali said.


The legislation would authorize development of a carbon sequestration network to store carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired electric plants, considered a key step in clean coal technology. These emissions would be injected into underground salt aquifers or old oil and gas wells, thus reducing pollution to the atmosphere.


Environmental groups have voiced concerns that stored carbon dioxide emissions could seep out of the storage areas and spread pollution. Vitali said those concerns are being addressed in new drafts of the bill.


Solar power would get a boost from a provision requiring that utilities obtain 3 percent of their power from that source by 2024. This would be a boon for a new solar plant planned in Nesquehoning.


Having a secure buyer for solar power should bring down the price for installing solar panels on homes and businesses, Vitali said.


"What we are trying to do is bring the solar industry to where it can compete with other sources of energy," he added.


(Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for the Times-Shamrock)