Clean energy progress

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We've come a long way since the Donora smog disaster south of Pittsburgh killed 20 people and sickened 7,000 in 1948. The Susquehanna is a little cleaner these days than it was back in 2005, when it was named America's most endangered river.

But when it comes to addressing the biggest environmental issue of our time -- climate change -- we've got a lot of work left to do.

Fortunately, President Barack Obama's climate plan sets a path forward for Pennsylvania and the rest of the country to finally start doing something about it in a clear, common-sense and mutually beneficial way.

The president's plan relies on the private sector's proven ability to innovate and to lead. It calls upon our nation to retrofit old power plants, utilize natural gas as a transition fuel and invest in clean energy technologies like solar and wind. Along the way, that can mean good things not just for Pennsylvania's environment but also for Pennsylvania's economy.

The climate plan's centerpiece addresses a startling fact -- that there are no federal limits on carbon pollution from our nation's power plants, which are responsible for 40 percent of our country's carbon emissions.

Our nation sets limits on arsenic, mercury and lead emitted from our power plants.

It's time to do the same for carbon.

We know that acutely well here in the Keystone State.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Pennsylvania emitted 125 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2011 -- second only to Texas.

We know now what to expect if we don't address climate change and carbon pollution.

In 2012 in Pennsylvania, there were 24 broken heat records and 40 broken precipitation records, mostly in the western half of the state. By the end of this century, increasing temperatures could cause more than 1,000 additional heat-related deaths in Pittsburgh alone.

If we continue to pump unlimited carbon into the air, Pennsylvania will continue to suffer from health problems like pollution-induced asthma, which can lead to lost economic productivity. In 2008, our nation lost an estimated 14.2 million work days because of asthma.

Climate-driven disasters also cost U.S. taxpayers billions. Last summer wasn't just scorching in Pittsburgh; it was the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States. In 2012, weather disasters like crop-killing droughts, historic hurricanes and floods that wiped out entire towns cost the federal government nearly $100 billion in cleanup costs. That's about $1,100 for every American taxpayer.

Yes, Pennsylvania has a history in coal. Yes, the industry has helped drive our economy. But we can't ignore the fact that it also has subjected the state to vicious boom-and-bust cycles, polluted the streams and rivers we fish and led to mine accidents that took the lives of our relatives and neighbors.

Just like we can't clean up our air or our waters overnight, we can't transition to a renewable energy economy overnight either.

But we're already seeing examples of what we can do.

In Cambria County, for instance, OwnEnergy recently developed the Patton Wind Farm, alongside members of the local community. EverPower now owns the project, which created 100 jobs during construction and generates enough electricity to power about 9,000 homes.

Since we both serve as directors of OwnEnergy, we witnessed firsthand how it benefited people in the community.

The 30-megawatt wind farm was built on land owned by Marty and Rick Yahner, sixth-generation farmers who raise 500 angus steers on 2,000 acres. Because wind turbines have small footprints, the Yahners continue to maximize their land's agricultural value, while also collecting income from the turbines.

In Lancaster County, meanwhile, the massive Keystone Solar Project not only created badly needed local construction jobs; it is now generating enough clean, renewable energy to power more than 5,400 homes.

The North Penn School District shows us another way to save energy, clear our air and create jobs. Through efficiency improvements, the district slashed its energy usage by 25 percent -- saving $1.1 million in annual energy costs. It also created business for local companies, and along the way earned distinction from the Environmental Protection Agency as a 2013 EnergyStar Partner of the Year.

Clean energy is already working for Pennsylvania.

Under President Obama's climate plan, it will continue working -- working to help our environment, help our economy and help us leave a better place for our children and grandchildren.

opinion_commentary

Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2011, serves on the board of directors of OwnEnergy, a company that develops community-scale wind energy projects nationwide. Jacob Susman, founder and CEO of OwnEnergy, serves on the American Wind Energy Association board of directors.


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