FutureStructure

Pennsylvania Is Increasingly Powered by Clean Energy

A central question is the role that clean energy plays in helping transition workers who have been laid off in the coal industry.

by Daniel Moore, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / July 21, 2016

(TNS) -- Among businesses involved in the advancement of clean energy in Pennsylvania — defined as everything from making buildings more energy efficient to manufacturing wind mill turbine blades and large-scale energy storage — the assessment of the state’s policies has been mixed.

On one hand, more people than ever are finding jobs in the industry. In 2015, nearly 6,000 clean energy establishments employed roughly 66,000 people in the state, up 15 percent from 2014, according to a jobs census published last week. Four out of five of those workers were employed in energy efficiency trades: building materials and insulation, LED lighting and advanced HVAC systems.

At the same time, green advocates see policy hurdles that they've been pressing the state to remove for years, like a wrinkle in the state alternative energy standards that allows electric utilities to invest in projects constructed outside of Pennsylvania.

Dozens of business leaders and advocates met in a ballroom on Wednesday at a daylong forum hosted at Duquesne University's Power Center in Uptown to share their successes and to discuss challenges.

It was the first such gathering of clean energy groups, said Sharon Pillar, a consultant with E2, a branch of the Natural Resources Defense Council that advances a business case for supporting clean energy. The forum was sponsored by E2 and Duquesne University’s Center for Green Industries and Sustainable Business Growth.

Industry officials described government policies as crucial to the survival of a clean energy operation.

For example, the federal wind production tax credit, which Congress in December extended for another five years, grants wind farm developers about $23 a megawatt-hour in tax credits when the projects begin producing electricity. That's about a third of EverPower Wind Holdings Inc.'s capital costs of building wind farms, said Jim Spencer, president and CEO of the Strip District developer.

Without the subsidies, EverPower’s projects in Pennsylvania — where construction costs are higher and wind speed is lower than in the Midwest — would not be able to compete, he said.

“We're suffering from low power prices from low natural gas, but in terms of our actual business environment, it's almost never been better in the 17 years I've been in the industry,” said Mr. Spencer, whose company has grown to own about a third of the wind generation now installed in Pennsylvania and pulls in $150 million a year in annual revenue.

A central question surrounding employment is the role that clean energy plays in helping transition workers who have been laid off in the coal industry.

The young boilermaker or welder whose work is drying up as coal-fired power plants shut down is making $75,000 to $90,000 a year — salaries that aren't being matched by jobs in clean energy, said Khari Mosley, regional programs manager for the BlueGreen Alliance, a national group advocating for both blue-collar workers and environmental issues.

“The mismatch that we see is that jobs in the fossil fuel industry are high wage jobs, and jobs in clean energy generally aren't,” Mr. Mosley said. “One of the things we’re trying to figure out is how to bridge that gap.”

While Mr. Mosley and several other participants dismissed the so-called “war on coal” — the notion that the coal industry is under direct attack by clean energy and government regulations — he said the perception pervades Washington and Greene counties, and officials should approach those areas sensitively.

“You're not just going to come in with flowers and sunshine,” Mr. Mosley said. Generally speaking, coal miners “feel like they're under attack, culturally and economically.”

Overall, officials presented an industry in a various stages of development that has advanced both with and without government help.

Large-scale battery developers receive virtually no help from government regulations or subsidies, mostly because the technology flies under the radar, said Matt Maroon, vice president of product management for Aquion Energy, a Lawrenceville company that makes the batteries.

Lawmakers in Harrisburg show no signs of approving the changes sought. Energy proposals that were included at one time in the state budget were dropped, including a proposal to require utilities to meet the renewable energy goals by investing in projects built in Pennsylvania.

©2016 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.