Pennsylvania needs a renewable energy future, despite COVID-19 challenges

Kelly Flanigan

Though the public health crisis brought on by COVID-19 has required the full attention of many of our state and national leaders for the past several months, the environmental crises we face persist. 

Our energy system continues to pollute our air and water and impact our health while contributing to the global warming pollution that threatens our present and future. Pennsylvania has played an outsized role in the problem — the commonwealth is responsible for about .65 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But, that also means that we can make a substantial impact on reducing emissions by tackling pollution here at home. 

Ensuring a cleaner, healthier world for the long-haul requires that we transition swiftly to using renewable energy sources like the sun and wind to power every aspect of our lives. That transition remains just as critical, if not more so, as we work to reorganize our lives in light of the many impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. 

While Pennsylvania has seen significant progress in the growth of clean energy technologies including solar, wind and battery storage over the past decade, we still have a lot of work to do. Our largest cities lag behind other major U.S. cities in terms of installed solar capacity, and renewable sources supply less than three percent of our total energy statewide. Our communities continue to suffer from unhealthy air, due in large part to our continued reliance on dirty fossil fuel energy. We know that our progress toward a cleaner, healthier future powered by renewable energy must continue and accelerate in the months and years to come. 

Despite all of the challenges of the moment, some renewable energy projects are continuing to move forward in the commonwealth. For example, Penn State is working with Lighthouse bp to develop 70 megawatts of offsite solar panels — enough to meet 25% of Penn State’s electricity needs state-wide. The project will be one of the largest in the state, and construction is expected to be completed this summer. The University of Pennsylvania also announced a new solar energy partnership in April, which will lead to two new offsite solar projects that, together, will provide enough power to meet about 75% of demand from the school’s academic campus and the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Projects like these not only help universities meet their climate emissions reductions targets, but also help move the commonwealth toward the future we need. 

But not every renewable project has been so lucky. The fallout of COVID-19 threatens the ability of many installers and developers to keep up the pace, as the renewable energy sector has been impacted by supply chain disruptions, lockdowns and other delays. Making sure that the renewable energy industry can get back to the crucial work of building a cleaner, healthier future should be a priority in our recovery efforts. There are steps our leaders at the state and national level can take now to help ensure that progress continues:

  1. Pennsylvania should join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) – RGGI is a bipartisan multi-state program started in 2008 that works by capping and putting a price on pollution from power plants, then reducing those caps each year so that air keeps getting cleaner and cleaner. Participating states can also invest the money raised through the program in efficiency programs and renewable energy projects, helping to spur the deployment of more solar, wind and efficiency in the years to come. In 2017 alone, RGGI raised over 315 million dollars in the participating states, the majority of which funded energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Pennsylvania should join the program so that the commonwealth can reap the combined benefits of cleaner air and additional funding for clean energy projects.  

  2. Pennsylvania should commit to 100 percent renewable energy – A statewide commitment to transition to clean, renewable energy to meet all of our needs will drive the build-out of wind, solar and storage that we need in order to get off dirty fossil fuels. PennEnvironment has been working with Rep. Chris Rabb and Senator Tom Killion to build broad, bipartisan support for a bill that would commit to 50 percent renewable energy statewide by 2030, 80 percent by 2040 and 100 percent by 2050. HB1425 has 81 bipartisan cosponsors, and SB630 has 23 cosponsors—representing about 40 percent of the members in each chamber. Over 250 environmental & civic organizations, businesses, faith leaders, local elected officials and other leaders throughout the state have rallied behind the bill, as well. State legislators should join the seven other states that have passed legislative 100 percent clean or renewable targets and pass a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy into law.

  3. The federal government should prioritize clean energy in stimulus efforts – Providing critical support for the clean clean energy sector through the pandemic and incentivizing the broad deployment of clean energy technologies at the federal level will ensure that the industry is poised to continue advancing toward a cleaner future. Federal clean energy tax incentives are one of our best tools toward that end, and extending and expanding those programs while allowing for direct payment of existing incentives will be a key tool for continuing and reinvigorating progress across the country. 

While this is far from an exhaustive list of all that state and federal leaders could do to spur continued renewable energy adoption, these three steps would lay the foundation needed right now to get back to building a cleaner, healthier future in Pennsylvania and beyond. As we address the impacts of the novel coronavirus, let’s make sure that more and more of our state can be powered by clean energy from the sun and wind. 


Kelly Flanigan