Op-Ed: Energy Matters


In the Main Rotunda of our beautiful Capitol Building, there are several large murals by Philadelphia artist Edwin Austin Abbey, which were painted as a tribute to Pennsylvania and its history.

Four of the canvases are circular and 14 feet in circumference, and four are crescent-shaped and measure 38 feet by 22 feet.

The circular canvases represent art, law, religion and science.  Four larger Abbey murals, representing Pennsylvania’s primary industries at the time the Capitol was built – coal, oil and steel, as well as William Penn’s ships coming to the New World – can be seen in the semi-circular lunettes.

Of particular significance is the “Spirit of Light,” which features women carrying flames against a backdrop of oil derricks, suggesting that Pennsylvania brings light to the world in two ways –   through the production of oil, and through the message of religious freedom espoused by our state’s founder, William Penn.

Today, these are wonderful reminders of both our heritage and future.

Since its founding, our Commonwealth has been an energy beacon, literally lighting the path of economic progress for ourselves and our nation. 

Unlike so many states, Pennsylvania is blessed to have an abundance of diverse energy resources, including coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric and other renewable sources.

We are the fourth-largest coal producing state, the second-largest natural gas producer and home to more nuclear energy sources than every other state except Illinois.  Because of this, we are the second-largest generator of electricity in the United States and the top net exporter of electricity.

All of this means that energy, and energy policies, matter greatly to Pennsylvania’s economy and environment.

As most people are well aware, how we manage our resources can significantly influence whether we succeed or fail at meeting our energy and environmental goals.

For example, during the past 10 years, strict federal regulations negatively impacted the coal industry, which resulted in the closure of many coal-fired power plants and the loss of many good coal-mining jobs.

Additionally, state laws that created ratepayer-financed preferences for renewable energy – such as wind and solar power – promoted an uneven playing field that resulted in the growth of these resources at the expense of other more economic sources and helped create a “boom or bust” cycle of prosperity for renewables sources.

In 2008, Pennsylvania joined many other states in adopting a law that prioritized the reduction of energy use, particularly during peak use periods.  That statute, again financed by a tax on ratepayers, has greatly expanded the non-use of electricity through demand response and energy efficiency programs and has effectively suppressed energy consumption.

And, of course, many will recall that in the late 1990s Pennsylvania “deregulated” its electric generation industry, requiring power plants to directly compete with each other on the basis of their marginal costs in a “competitive” wholesale electric market.

These developments, among others driven by federal and state rules and policies, are shaping results which are significantly changing the face of Pennsylvania’s energy sector.  This has produced both challenges for our state, and opportunities.

Perhaps one of the largest changes has been the accelerated retirement of many power plants that have years of useful life remaining.  These resources, due to subsidies provided to competitors, regulations, and the abundance of historically low-cost natural gas, have been leaving our system due to uneconomic conditions.

Today, that is the reality facing some of our nuclear stations, which is why I have agreed to co-chair a newly created informal Nuclear Energy Caucus in the General Assembly.

Nuclear energy, like every other source of energy in Pennsylvania, is important and we must understand what is challenging our nuclear plants and what the impact could be if a station decommissions.

For example, Pennsylvania nuclear stations contribute approximately $2 billion to Pennsylvania’s gross domestic product ($3.1 billion in gross output).  They account for 16,000 in-state full-time jobs, pay $69 million in net state tax each year and produce significant secondary economic benefits.

Environmentally, nuclear power plants help us manage some of our Commonwealth’s most stubborn air quality issues, including criteria pollutants (ground level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide). 

Just as importantly – because they produce no carbon dioxide emissions – nuclear stations are a key compliance component to help meet our clean energy goals.  Without the nuclear plants, it is estimated that Pennsylvania would see an increase in CO2 emissions by 37 million tons over the next 10 years.

I, along with many members of the House of Representatives and Senate, believe that given the importance of nuclear energy production, it would be irresponsible not to consider what is happening around us.

Far too often lawmakers and policy makers focus only on the short-term, both in diagnosing problems and in offering solutions.  This was never traditionally the model used in energy policy development; however it is what is driving the results we are wrestling with today.

I believe that we need a broader, inclusive, long-range strategy so that we can responsibly maximize all of the energy resources we have to the benefit of our economy and people.  Government and its leaders can and should be promoting policies that look forward and consider what our needs will be and then appropriately help manage to get those results.

In the end, Lancaster County – like all of Pennsylvania – should care about energy. 

While we do not have coal fields or gas wells, we produce an energy source just as valuable – agriculture.  However, we also depend on a reliable, affordable supply of electricity to live and work; and we join many people in seeing the benefits of being good environmental stewards.

Because of this, our economy, our environment, and Pennsylvania’s electric customers are depending on us to get our energy policies right.