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YAW:  What Critics Get Wrong About Energy Choice

Last month, seven environmental groups wrote a misguided letter to Philadelphia officials bashing legislation that I sponsored as counterintuitive to the city’s decarbonization goals.

In October, six Democrats, including two from the southeast corner of the state, joined all 28 Republicans and our chamber’s lone independent to approve Senate Bill 275. That’s a veto-proof majority, for those counting.

Why? Because the bill’s purpose is simple. It prevents Pennsylvania’s 2,500-plus municipalities from banning access to certain utilities, like natural gas or heating oil. That will preserve consumer access to affordable electricity, no matter where they live, and prevent a chaotic patchwork of regulations that ultimately undermine statewide environmental and energy policies.

It also reaffirms what many local and statewide officials, including the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, already understand to be true: municipalities do not have the authority to restrict energy sources.

What the bill does not do is prevent the Philadelphia City Council from pursuing its goal to retrofit all publicly owned buildings to reduce emissions 50 percent over the next decade. It’s not just about ripping out gas lines and oil tanks and installing heat pumps instead. Reducing electricity usage – through upgraded windows, roofs, and insulation – is also a crucial piece of the puzzle.

The aforementioned environmental groups said SB 275 will eliminate any hope of Philadelphia reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. Which begs the question, if the only way to achieve decarbonization is by indiscriminatingly banning utilities deemed “dirty” and “bad,” is that even a good plan? Isn’t there an old adage forewarning the danger of putting all your eggs in one basket?

Banning specific fuel sources in pursuit of “clean energy” makes zero sense in Philadelphia and beyond. First, clean energy is a misnomer. There’s simply no such thing. Even if we shuttered every coal and gas plant across the world tomorrow and began a frantic campaign to install wind and solar farms in their place, we’d need to cover about 1.8 million square kilometers of land and coastline to replace the lost capacity.

And we would need fossil fuels to produce all of those solar panels and wind turbines. Just like we need oil and gas to create and distribute nearly every product we use every single day, from the medications we take to the clothes we wear to the packaging we use to preserve our food. To assume that banning fossil fuels will only impact emissions and electricity prices is to ignore the intricate web that is our economy.

Besides, the city doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s connected to a vast, 13-state power grid called PJM, that manages the safe and reliable flow of electricity for 65 million people from Chicago to Washington D.C. and many places in between.

PJM’s operators ensure that its network of transmission lines and generation facilities work in tandem every minute of the day, preventing system overloads that could trigger massive utility failures and inflict untold suffering on millions in its territory. So, if electricity demand spikes in Philadelphia, but environmental policies have forced fossil-fuel plants into nonexistence, there are fewer reliable energy sources to shoulder the burden.

A similar story unfolded in Texas in February when an unprecedented winter storm froze generators and rendered solar and wind farms useless, leaving as many as 4 million Texans without power or water. More than 200 people died amid the chaos. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator, promised to winterize its system to harden it against future storms, but the damage was done. The rest of the nation should take note: a diversified and robust grid is key to preventing systemwide catastrophes.

Which brings me back to the idea of banning access to fossil fuels. If we are willing to sacrifice our food, clothing, shelter, and transportation, doing so might eliminate some carbon emissions in the United States. Globally, U.S. emissions equal about half of what China produces on an annual basis, according to 2018 figures. The annual combined emissions from the other three top polluting nations – India, Russia, and Japan – would likewise take our place.

Then there are the emissions from sources we can’t always control: Volcanic eruptions, livestock, forest fires. Or the damage caused by human activity like deforestation and degenerative agriculture. Even if the United States found a solution to every single unsustainable practice that critics say contributes to climate change, the rest of the world’s leading nations aren’t following suit.

So, what do these groups really want from the city? They want officials to take a sledgehammer to our carefully planned and managed power grid, collapse our economy, and leave Pennsylvanians with higher electric bills, fewer jobs, and unreliable utilities. All for the sake of reducing carbon emissions that will be offset by the rest of the world in perpetuity.

Protecting energy choices for consumers means that residents can pursue “cleaner” electricity sources if they want to or can afford to, while not punishing those who don’t have the option. SB 275 isn’t about protecting special interests – what does a senator from Williamsport owe to Philadelphia’s gas utility?

What I do care about is promoting a sound energy policy that doesn’t leave others behind for the constant pursuit of ideological purity, no matter how impractical or impossible or harmful it is for the very people such policies purport to help.

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PA Power Grid Up to Cold Weather Challenges, Experts Say

Nearly a year ago, Texas’ electrical grid buckled under a historic freeze. More than 200 people died, and millions were left without power for days in subfreezing temperatures.

Industry experts in Pennsylvania said they have learned harsh lessons from the Texas tragedy as they take steps to guard against a similar catastrophe in the Keystone State.  That is good news since a colder than average winter is predicted for 2022.

And Pennsylvania already has built-in advantages over Texas, which has operated for decades on its own deregulated power grid that industry watchdogs blamed in part for last year’s crisis.

The northeast region is accustomed to frigid temperatures and stark weather shifts. So, some measures that Texas grid operators and utility companies took after last year’s cold snap, such as wrapping electric cables with rubber insulation and enclosing infrastructure, are already standard techniques here, said Paul McGlynn, executive director of system operations at PJM Interconnection, one of the country’s largest grid operators.

On top of that, Pennsylvania is part of the Eastern Interconnection, a network of more than a dozen smaller operating authorities that includes PJM Interconnection, whose footprint includes 13 states and the District of Columbia. That gives grid operators more flexibility to divert energy to parts of the country experiencing upticks in demand due to extreme weather.

The state also has a large natural gas supply it can rely on in a pinch, McGlynn said, whereas many Texas power plants were forced to operate at a fraction of their capacity because of a gas shortage that forced some companies to pay more than one billion dollars on the spot market to secure what little gas was available.

“In this part of the county, we’re used to the cold weather,” McGlynn said. “A lot of our facilities are already designed with much colder temperatures in mind. We plan for the peak seasons of the year all year long…We have the ability to rely on importing power from neighbors, and we also export to our neighbors during stressed conditions.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s office did not respond to a request for comment about initiatives that could help shore up any potential problems with Pennsylvania’s power grid. However, McGlynn says he feels the overall power grid here is stable and secure, even if the state experienced a historic cold snap, propelled by a polar vortex– an event that has challenged Pennsylvania’s grid in the past.

And he is not alone in that assessment, as the nation’s grid monitor, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, outlined in an annual winter assessment that PJM Interconnection “expects no resource problems” this winter because “installed capacity is almost three times the reserve requirement.”

The Eastern Interconnection Planning Collaborative echoed those findings in its own state-of-the-grid report, issued last month.

“The Eastern Interconnection remains strong, and that the transmission planning activities have yielded a system that is reliable and well-coordinated on a regional and interconnection-wide basis,” the report said. “Going forward, continued vigilance and effective use of planning evaluations both today and in the future are essential to ensure that individual regional transmission plans and the impact of generator retirements and additions complement, rather than conflict with, the regional plans of neighboring Planning Coordinators.”

The Texas tragedy is instructive for grid operators across the county on how to avoid paralyzing blackouts, McGlynn said. And previously, PJM told DVJournal that the grid that serves Pennsylvania is becoming more decentralized, which also helps to prevent widespread outages.

“We do a lot from a lessons-learned perspective. We take reliability very seriously,” he said. “We do a lot to look at not only internally on our own lessons learned, but we look to the industry to see what happened in other parts of the country, and then we line up our processes and procedures and things we use to see how we can improve and what we should improve. We’re more reliable today because of it. It’s good to keep your eyes open.”


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