Carbon emissions from the power sector in a 10-county region of Southwestern Pennsylvania would be almost eliminated by 2050 under a program that increases generation with renewables, boosts storage, improves energy efficiency and uses existing nuclear capacity to meet growing demand for electricity, according to a study published this week.

A “decarbonization pathway” proposed by the study’s authors, Strategen, a clean energy consultant, and the Ohio River Valley Institute, a research group, would retire all the region’s coal-fired power plants by 2035 and most of those that burn natural gas by 2050. 

More cuts in emissions would be achieved by the “deep electrification” of transportation and buildings,  resulting in a 95% reduction from those sectors by 2050, and a cut in their natural gas consumption of more than 90% in each case. In the power sector, emissions would fall by 97% by 2050, leading to environmental benefits of $2.7 billion annually, the study said.

“A Clean Energy Pathway for Southwestern Pennsylvania” focuses on the region because of its rich reserves of coal and natural gas that have driven a long history of energy production, resulting in disproportionate impacts on human health and the natural environment. Among the 10 counties, 72% of energy produced comes from fossil fuels, while 26% is from nuclear power and only 2% is from renewables.

The study argues that adoption of a clean-energy strategy in the heavily mined and fracked region could become a model for other areas.

“A clean-energy transition is both possible and imperative for Southwestern Pennsylvania, and Appalachia more broadly,” the 37-page paper said. “As part of a larger coordinated effort, the region can pursue a path to advance the development of renewable resources, accelerated electrification, and heavy investments in energy efficiency, while shifting away from continued reliance on fossil fuels.”

A natural gas pipeline under construction in rural Greene County. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)
A natural gas pipeline under construction in rural Greene County. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Those measures would be “more consistent” with efforts to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord than those recommended by three studies last year that relied on continued use of natural gas, along with investment in carbon capture and sequestration [CCS] technology to cut emissions in the region, the paper said.

One of the earlier studies, by the Allegheny Conference Energy Task Force, assumes the retirement of coal plants by 2035 but also plans for the expansion of the natural gas industry, and investment in CCS, a strategy that would be consistent with limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the new paper said. 

The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit warming to 1.5 degrees by 2050. Another plan by the Roosevelt Project, a team that included Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that a broader area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, including the 10-county area, has attributes that will be in demand during a transition to clean energy but it anticipates costly investment in CCS as well as continued reliance on fossil fuels.

The new study said a report by the Labor Energy Partnership proposes the adoption of technologies including direct air carbon capture but also includes continued investment in fossil fuels “which runs the risk of becoming stranded assets and does not achieve a net-zero pathway.”

Sean O’Leary, senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, said the report outlines a decarbonization strategy at a time when the question is no longer whether to do so, but when and how.

Solar panels photographed at a rooftop installation in Squirrel Hill (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)
Solar panels photographed at a rooftop installation in Squirrel Hill (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

“The question is what route or pathway will decarbonization take?” he said during a webinar to launch the study. “There has frankly been a rush to judgment in the region. We’ve seen a variety of reports coming out that propose to do decarbonization on the back of fossil-fuel industries, primarily on the back of carbon capture and sequestration. It reminds us that we may have arrived at an answer before we actually researched the question.” 

By contrast, the proposed decarbonization pathway would be 13% less costly than any combination of natural gas and carbon capture technology, which is expensive and largely unproven, and would limit the region’s exposure to fuel-price volatility while reducing the risk of acquiring “stranded” fossil fuel assets such as natural gas wells that would no longer be economic, the paper said.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group for Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry, predicted that any cut in gas demand would raise energy costs and antagonize voters.

“While we haven’t fully reviewed this document, we do know this: Eliminating the use of clean, abundant and affordable Pennsylvania natural gas will hammer consumers, families and manufacturers with higher energy costs,” said coalition President David Callahan, in a statement. “Similar policies have been enacted in other parts of the world, which are reeling with economic pain right now as a result of natural gas supplies being interrupted. The good news is that Pennsylvania voters understand and prioritize the importance of natural gas, particularly its role in growing and sustaining our economy around the clock, improving our environment and ensuring America is energy secure.”

The study said decarbonizing the power sector would also reduce its emissions of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, which are linked to respiratory illness, cancer and premature mortality. It noted that Allegheny County, home to  Pittsburgh, has the highest cancer risk from stationary sources such as power plants of any U.S. county.

Adoption of the clean-energy pathway would also create jobs in the energy-efficiency industry, while creating jobs indirectly by helping families cut energy bills and spend on other items, it said. The combination would result in creation of an average 12,416 jobs a year by 2035 and 15,353 by 2050, it estimated, using multipliers from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Electricity created from renewable sources creates more jobs per unit of power than that from fossil fuels, the paper said, citing earlier studies by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the World Resources Institute.

“For Southwestern Pennsylvania, energy efficiency offers a compelling opportunity for significant job creation as the region transitions away from generating all of its electricity locally,” the study said. 

By retiring coal and natural gas plants, the region would free up significant transmission capacity in the PJM grid that has been used to export an energy surplus, the study said. It estimated that the capacity could then be used to import an estimated 4.4 gigawatts  of solar and 3.7 gigawatts  of wind generated elsewhere.

The selection of Southwestern Pennsylvania for a study of how to achieve a clean-energy transition is essential because it would show that even an area with a long history of resource extraction and consumption can make the switch, said Rob Altenburg, senior director for energy and climate at PennFuture, an environmental nonprofit based in Harrisburg. 

Still, several mechanisms such as an expansion of the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, which requires that a percentage of  electric power sold to retail customers be derived from alternative sources such as solar or wind,  would require legislation, and that is not assured in a state where Republicans kept their Senate majority in the midterm elections, Altenburg said.

Even though the state House switched to Democratic control for the first time in 12 years, and Democrat Josh Shapiro will become governor in January, the prospects remain uncertain for legislation that would enable some climate goals, he added. 

“It’s always a challenge to move innovative legislation in Pennsylvania, but a divided legislature may create some opportunities we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Altenburg said.

But even without legislative approval, the new governor could help cut carbon emissions through executive order by completing Pennsylvania’s entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a project in which 11 northeastern states issue carbon permits to power generators, based on a regional cap on allowances that declines over time. The state’s membership of RGGI, begun under outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf, is on hold pending court challenges.

Shell's new ethane cracker plant sits along the southern shore of the Ohio River in Potter Township on Oct. 25. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)
Shell’s new ethane cracker plant sits along the southern shore of the Ohio River in Potter Township on Oct. 25. It converts ethane from natural gas to plastics. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Other possible ways of implementing the strategy include adoption of a natural gas severance tax — which was repeatedly proposed by Wolf and repeatedly blocked by the legislature over the last eight years; the adoption of a federal clean energy standard, and the use of an estimated $200 million a year in RGGI revenues to pay for local measures to aid the energy transition.

Since 2019, Pennsylvania has cut carbon emissions by 18% from their 2005 level, and has until 2025 to hit a target of 26%, set by Wolf in 2019. By 2050, Wolf’s executive order aims to reduce emissions by 80%.

Matt Mehalik, executive director of Breathe Project, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that campaigns for improved air quality in a region that has been heavily polluted by the coal, natural gas and steel industries for decades, said the new report is the first to provide a decarbonization blueprint for the area, based on existing technologies.

He said it appears likely to result in cleaner air and fewer respiratory illnesses.

“A shale-gas strategy has resulted in a net negative overall because of health impacts, and anything that gets us off that pathway will reclaim a healthier air-shed, resulting in fewer diseases, fewer family disruptions, and ultimately a better quality of life in Southwest Pennsylvania,” he said.

To become a reality, the framework will require “leadership” from the new governor or the new legislature, but parts of it could be implemented without legislation by executive agencies such as the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Mehalik said.

“It will require an extensive policy response, but what the Ohio River Valley Institute has done is provided a platform for meaningful policy discussion based off their quality analysis,” he said.

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.

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