Diversify Pa. energy sources – House Bill 2405 would spur new developments in renewables

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

By Michael Jones

Pennsylvania faces an important choice this week as the state House of Representatives takes up alternative-energy legislation. We can remain stuck in the past by letting the bill die or move faster into the future by diversifying Pennsylvania’s energy mix.

As someone who grew up in Pittsburgh and whose family co-founded the Jones & Laughlin Steel Co., I look back fondly on the role my family played in creating a pillar of our state and national economy. But there comes a time when all of us must look ahead and see how things must be done differently to assure our economic future. Cleaner sources of energy, including solar and wind, must be a part of that picture.

Consider the company I work for — Standard Solar Inc. — as one example of the economic and job-creating engine that solar energy is becoming. Since Pennsylvania in 2007 updated a law requiring electricity suppliers to sell a certain percentage of power generated by “alternative” fuels, a fledgling industry has sprouted throughout much of the state. Today, more than 500 companies like Standard Solar are certified to install solar electric and hot water systems in Pennsylvania. Back in 2008, Standard Solar had seven employees. With the growth in Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic region, we now have more than 75.

That growth, however, may soon slow to a crawl — and certainly would fall behind that of other states — if the Pennsylvania General Assembly does not pass legislation expanding the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard.

House Bill 2405 would enhance the development of “advanced coal combustion” technologies, with the goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and increase the percentage of the state’s electrical generation that comes from renewable sources of energy. It would set a goal of producing 15 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2025, with financial incentives for suppliers to meet their share of that goal.

We hear claims and counterclaims about how this legislation might affect the number of coal jobs vs. renewable-energy jobs. We can argue well into the night whose numbers are more accurate. But we need to ask ourselves: Do we want Pennsylvania to remain tethered to, and subsidizing, a heavily polluting fuel source while the rest of the world is moving in the opposite direction? Or do we want to devote a small portion of the types of incentives that got coal and nuclear power started to continue growing cleaner, healthier and, in the long run, more cost-effective ways to generate electricity?

We’re not talking about replacing coal. In fact, the legislation we support would help the coal industry remain competitive by helping it to become cleaner. I’m simply urging us to further diversify our sources of energy by increasing the percentage of those that are naturally clean and safe.

President Barack Obama visited Carnegie Mellon University earlier this month to outline a national plan that could put Pennsylvania in the front seat — maybe the driver’s seat — of the clean economy that’s beginning to emerge in the eastern United States. This legislation would help speed that process.

Pennsylvania was deeply involved in the startup of the nuclear and oil industries. Now we are poised to breathe new life into natural gas with Marcellus Shale projects in much of the state. Let’s do something similar for solar and renewables by passing HB 2405 and then getting it approved in the Senate and signed into law.

Michael Jones is the lead sales representative in Western Pennsylvania for Standard Solar Inc., which is based in Rockville, Md. (www.standardsolar.com).