Pennsylvania needs to act now to build our future clean energy economy

The aerial scenic view of the elevated highway on the high bridge over the Lehigh River at the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Lehigh Valley, Poconos region, Pennsylvania, USA. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Pennsylvania has a long history of energy production, stretching as far back as the late 1700s. A central role in fossil fuels, however, is rooted in Pennsylvania’s past, not its future.

The state is poised to become a leader in our nation’s transition to a clean, resilient zero-pollution economy. Pennsylvania will take an important step by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multistate program under which power companies are obliged to pay for the pollution they create and must reduce pollution over time.

RGGI will provide hundreds of millions of dollars annually from auctions which can be used to fund projects that reduce air pollution and energy costs, like energy efficiency, and for the deployment of renewable energy. RGGI, coupled with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), now celebrating its one-year anniversary, create a golden opportunity for Pennsylvania to become a trailblazer in the new energy economy and turn the page on its fossil fuel past. Indeed, states with strong climate policies will see greater uptake of these once-in-a-generation economic growth opportunities.

Pennsylvania is only beginning to see the funding flowing from these unprecedented federal investments. Here are three examples highlighting how the Biden administration’s clean energy plan is having an impact:

1. Addressing pollution from abandoned wells and mines

Before Pennsylvania can arrive in the future, it must confront its pollutive past. Thankfully, the President’s plan provides funding for Pennsylvania to address its pollution problem. Scientific American reported that Pennsylvania is home to at least 300,000 abandoned oil and gas wells and a significant number are leaking methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, contaminating groundwater and surface water, releasing air toxics, and lowering property values.

Pollution from industrial sources disproportionately affects communities of color. About 26% of Black Americans and 29% of Hispanic Americans live within three miles of significant pollution, increasing rates of heart disease and asthma.

Fortunately, the Biden administration’s clean energy plan has programs to address orphan wells, abandoned mines and other legacy pollution sites. The state could receive up to $400 million to help clean up abandoned oil and gas wells and $245 million to remediate abandoned coal mines, with an estimated total of $645 million to clean these pollutive sources.

There’s bipartisan support in Pennsylvania to tackle this problem and addressing pollution from abandoned mines and wells will go a long way toward cleaning the Commonwealth’s air and help advance environmental justice.

2. Improve and clean up the transportation sector

Transportation is a leading source of air pollution that threatens the health of Pennsylvanians. The clean energy plan provides incentives for the manufacture and purchase of zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs), with the IRA specifically including $1 billion for zero-emission heavy-duty vehicles, including garbage trucks, school buses, and fire trucks. The clean energy plan includes more than $171 million to accelerate electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure in the state.

Building these heavy-duty ZEVs and the EV charging infrastructure will create thousands of good-paying union jobs like at the Mack Trucks plant in Lehigh Valley, which employs about 2,500 people and builds electric garbage trucks that produce no tailpipe emissions.

The American Lung Association has projected that Pennsylvania’s transition to zero-emission transportation could have enormous benefits including saving $86.8 billion in public health benefits, avoiding 7,940 deaths, and avoiding 148,000 asthma attacks.

3. Strengthen Pennsylvania’s power grid against storms

Pennsylvania’s clean energy future will require system-wide changes to its electric grid. Extreme weather events like Winter Storm Elliott last year can wreak havoc on our power grids, cause large-scale fossil fuel plant failures and lead to gas shortages that leave us vulnerable to outages.

Pennsylvania ranked fifth in the country in weather-related outages, with 82 over the last 22 years. Thankfully, Pennsylvania is working to prepare its power grid for these severe weather events and leverage federal funds. While much work is needed, Pennsylvania is set to receive up to $40 million in funds from the clean energy plan to harden its grid from these devastating events, helping ensure vulnerable and underserved communities will have heat, air conditioning, lights, and other necessities during future extreme storms.

Pennsylvania’s energy future

The clean energy plan is already having an impact on Pennsylvania’s economy but its potential has barely been tapped as there are still millions of dollars and numerous programs on the table. Pennsylvania’s leadership will dictate whether and how we take advantage of policies that have already benefited the citizens of the Commonwealth. Capitalizing on this moment means good jobs, a clean energy economy, and improved health for historically impacted communities.

It’s time for Pennsylvania to reckon with its past and embrace its future. Leaders in the Commonwealth need to ensure uptake of these generational investments and see to it that federal funds are accessible and the applications to access them easy, especially for businesses, counties, towns, schools, and other community organizations. Simply put, Pennsylvania’s clean energy future depends on it.

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