Originally published by The Morning Call. Opinion of TERRY FITZPATRICK | Energy Association of Pennsylvania
It’s popular to talk about the need to transition to “clean energy” to combat climate change. But what is clean energy? It should mean any type or use of energy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and keeps energy reliable and affordable. But to some activists, clean energy means only renewable energy, and that approach poses a threat to our energy future.
Earlier this year, PJM Interconnection — the nonprofit entity that oversees our regional electric grid for Pennsylvania, along with 12 other states and the District of Columbia — released a troubling report stating that there may not be sufficient electric generation in the region to meet our needs in just five years.
Coal and natural gas-fired power plants are closing prematurely because of state and federal environmental policies. Electricity usage is projected to increase due to construction of data centers and the rise in electric vehicles. At the same time, almost all the generation projects being planned are for renewable energy.
Renewable projects cannot make up for what is being lost due to delays in bringing them online, caused by supply chain and siting obstacles. In addition, renewable energy sources are intermittent — available only when the wind blows and sun shines — and they cannot truly replace the reliability benefits of power plants that can generate electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
How do we solve this problem? The adequacy of generation supplies in the country was addressed in a hearing in the U.S. Senate chaired by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., this summer. PJM testified along with the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the agency responsible for ensuring reliable electric supplies in the U.S. and Canada. A couple of themes emerged at this hearing.
First, PJM and NERC grid experts testified that environmental policies are being developed without sufficient consideration of their impact on the reliability and affordability of energy supplies, and that has to change.
Second, they advocated permitting reforms that would allow additional energy infrastructure to be built — both electric transmission and natural gas pipelines. With respect to natural gas, they noted its critical role as “the fuel that keeps the lights on.” They recognized the need to reduce emissions and that more renewable energy will play a part in that, but given current technology we simply cannot rely exclusively on renewable energy to meet the daily needs of our communities.
PJM is trying to address the problem. It has asked federal regulators for permission to tweak its market rules to better compensate conventional power plants for the reliability benefits they provide to the grid, and it’s taking steps to speed its approval process for generation projects seeking to connect to the grid. These steps may help, but PJM does not have authority to change the state and federal environmental policies that are causing the problem.
As a “purple state” in which Democrats and Republicans have shared power for many years, Pennsylvania’s energy and environmental policies are a mix that does not fully satisfy either party. But the end result of that political tension has been a moderate, centrist course.
Unlike some surrounding states, we have regulated — but not banned — hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Our policies have also made it possible to build energy infrastructure. As a result, Pennsylvania is the second-leading natural gas producer in the nation and the leading exporter of electricity.
While Pennsylvania has adopted policies intended to reduce emissions — for example, mandates and subsidies for renewable energy and energy efficiency — it has not taken the misguided approach of some other states in mandating the premature closure of power plants.
If Pennsylvania builds on this record and provides opportunities for all types of energy to prosper, including renewable energy, natural gas and others, we can continue to produce the energy that society needs and reduce emissions at the same time. This balanced approach to developing “clean energy” is a model that should be promoted in the PJM region and throughout America to assure we have a bright energy future.
Terry Fitzpatrick is the president and CEO of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, and a former chair of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.