October 31, 2014
The two candidates for Pennsylvania governor have different views on how much to encourage the market for renewable energy.
Like many states, Pennsylvania already requires utility companies to buy some power from solar and wind producers. Republican Governor Tom Corbett says the state is doing enough to encourage these markets, but Democrat Tom Wolf plans to increase renewable mandates.
Mike Carnahan is standing under an array of solar panels in southwest Pennsylvania, where Chatham University is building a School of Sustainability.
“It’s enough to supply the power for this campus all year long,” he says.
Carnahan was working in the electrical industry. Ten years ago Pennsylvania started mandating how much solar, wind, and other alternative energies utility companies had to buy. And each year the law required them to buy a little bit more than the year before.
It inspired Carnahan to change his career. He took classes. Then he became a general manager at Burns and Scalo, one of the country’s one of the biggest roofing contractors.They’d started installing rooftop solar panels.
“There’s very little you can do that you can say ‘I really helped somebody, I really helped the environment.'”
Looking at it now, the state’s solar mandates might not sound impressive: slightly more than .10 percent of all power purchased by utilities in Pennsylvania had to come from solar energy. But a trade group says that created a market to support 440 companies, employing nearly 3,000 people.
But Carnahan says the industry has grown faster than expected, and it’s time for the state to mandate that utilities buy more solar energy. The Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania agrees. Businessman Tom Wolf plans to expand the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards, but not everyone thinks this is a good idea.
Earlier this year, neighboring Ohio froze its renewable energy mandates. That means the amount of solar and wind power utility companies are required to buy won’t increase for the next two years.
Doug Collafella is a spokesperson for FirstEnergy. It provides power to millions of customers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and elsewhere. Most of that energy comes from coal.
FirstEnergy led the political fight to freeze Ohio’s renewable energy mandates.
“At the end of the day, we have an obligation to keep the lights on for our customers, and we are concerned with any policy that favors one type of generation over the other,” Collafella says.
In Michigan, lawmakers are considering going further than Ohio, and repealing their renewable energy mandates. Collafella says slowing the process makes sense. He says solar and wind power aren’t as reliable or available as coal, and they can cost more.
“The additional costs of renewable energy are paid for by our customers. We buy the power, we pass the costs directly on to our customers,” he says.
But Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf says expanding the alternative energy portfolio standards is one way Pennsylvania can reduce its climate impacts. He supports a bill in the legislature that would triple how much solar energy utilities are required to buy.
“If we want to move to a sustainable energy future, if we want to move to something that has more than just carbon fuels as its source, we have to actually nudge that market.”
In Ohio, a manufacturers trade association opposed the freeze in the renewable mandates. They called for consistency. And that’s what Republican Governor Tom Corbett wants Pennsylvania to provide.
Corbett declined to be interviewed for this story. Patrick Henderson is his energy executive. He hears the same call for predictability from companies in Pennsylvania as in Ohio. Henderson says companies tell the administration, “We can’t make an investment that may be millions of dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars, into a project to provide, let’s say solar or wind power, or low impact hydro-power, for example, and then find out after we make that investment and we have that market that you all in Pennsylvania changed the rules, that that market is shrunk because you’ve amended your statute. We’ve tried to be proactive in sending the message that we’re staying the course here.”
By staying the course, Pennsylvania’s renewable mandates are slightly higher than Ohio’s under that state’s two-year freeze. But solar installer Mike Carnahan, whose company does business in both states, says it’s not enough.
“We were expecting to hire new people and do more jobs. It doesn’t knock anybody out of business, except maybe some of the small residential people. But in the corporate world it really just slows everybody down and it slows growth.”
Carnahan says he’ll be watching the election November 4 to see how quickly Pennsylvania might grow its market for renewables.