Corbett quietly turning off the lights on renewable energy
Share with others:
The Corbett administration is de-emphasizing renewable energy and energy conservation, eliminating programs created by previous Democratic and Republican administrations as it focuses on natural gas energy from booming Marcellus Shale.
Quietly but systematically, the administration has all but shut down the state Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Energy and Technology Deployment -- the state's primary energy office -- and removed directors and reassigned staff in the Office of Energy Management in the Department of General Services and the Governor's Green Government Council.
It has also forbidden state executive agencies from signing contracts that support clean energy supply.
The administration says merely that any changes are part of a new approach of Gov. Tom Corbett's energy executive, Patrick Henderson, who has been overseeing development of the administration's Marcellus Shale gas policy. But environmental organizations and former DEP officials and staffers say the dismantling of successful programs promoting renewable and sustainable energy will hurt the state's "green energy" economy.
The changes will put more than 100,000 "green jobs" in the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries at risk, according to Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future -- PennFuture -- a statewide environmental organization that last week launched a campaign to protect and restore programs and jobs it says are under attack.
"In the past 12 years, Pennsylvania has gone from having virtually no clean energy jobs to employing more than 106,000 Pennsylvanians in the clean energy industry, despite the national recession," said Jan Jarrett, president and chief executive officer of Penn Future. "These program cuts and legislative attacks threaten to kill those good, family-sustaining jobs."
According to PennFuture and DEP sources, the DEP's Office of Energy and Technology Deployment -- which had oversight of the state Energy Savings Law and the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, administered several clean energy grant programs, provided technical assistance to renewable energy companies and housed the state's climate change office -- has been downsized and is without a director at the Deputy Secretary level. The climate program has had its staff reduced from four to one.
One former DEP employee, who asked that he not be named because he continues to work on energy issues in Harrisburg, said of the Energy Office, "it's being taken apart piece-by-piece and the pieces are being thrown away."
The Green Government Council, created under Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, was established to help state agencies adopt environmentally sustainable operations. Its staff and program responsibilities have been "gutted," the employee said, and it continues to exist primarily to provide federally mandated tracking and performance reports for a number of federal energy programs.
The administration's prohibition against sustainable and alternative energy purchases reverses a policy that by the beginning of this year, had the state buying 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, according to PennFuture, and made it "a national leader in the development of the clean energy economy."
The Office of Energy Management has seen its director fired, its staff reassigned and, according to PennFuture, has been moved from the Department of General Services to the Bureau of Public Works. It administered the Guaranteed Energy Savings Act, which helps school districts and local governments invest in energy conservation and efficiency programs and conservation.
State Rep. William Adolph, a Delaware County Republican who authored the Energy Savings Act, is in discussions with the governor's office about how the program will be administered, said Mike Stoll, a spokesman for Mr. Adolph.
"We're still working with the administration to understand its position on the program," Mr. Stoll said. "It's saying this is part of a consolidation of programs but that doesn't change the requirements of the act."
The governor's office referred all questions about energy program and policy changes to Katy Gresh, a DEP spokeswoman, but she didn't directly respond to questions requesting specific information about program, policy and staffing changes. She did issue a general statement saying the department "continues to be the primary commonwealth agency for energy programs, energy emergency response and assurance, as well as alternative transportation fuel programs, and climate change," and that it is working closely with Mr. Henderson.
Ms. Gresh said eliminating the sustainable energy purchase program will save the state nearly $1 million. She cited two programs -- a $1 million grant program for small business energy efficiency and a still-in-development energy efficiency program that would use $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy -- as examples of the state's continued commitment to energy conservation.
Christina Simeone, director of PennFuture's Energy Center and formerly the special assistant for energy and climate at DEP, said the policy changes and staffing reductions are crippling the department.
"I have concerns about whether the remaining staff of every office can handle the required workloads," Ms. Simeone said. "The programs and staff have been marginalized so much."
John Hanger, DEP secretary under former Gov. Ed Rendell, said it would be a mistake for the state to focus exclusively on natural gas.
"The changes we've seen are viewed as downgrading alternative energy programs, and I can understand how people can come to that conclusion," Mr. Hanger said. "I hope that's not the case, but the [administration's] actions could be interpreted as backing away for placing less emphasis on alternative energy."
It's very important that the state welcome all types of energy development, including wind, solar and biofuels and not become exclusively focused on Marcellus Shale gas, Mr. Hanger said Friday, while attending the dedication of 32 wind turbines in Cambria County. The 75-megawatt facility, built by Everpower, a New York City-based company with an office in Pittsburgh, will produce enough power to supply 32,000 homes and increases the amount of wind electricity produced in the state by 10 percent.
"It's important to have government programs that can help move forward alternative energy and it's important that state government be a model for the private sector, especially when doing so can save taxpayers money," Mr. Hanger said, referring to a DEP program promoting energy efficiency in government buildings.
Pennsylvania is not the only state reassessing or reducing sustainable energy, energy conservation and renewables portfolio standards policy. Governors and legislators have voiced similar concerns in Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, according to the Pew Research Center.
Ms. Simeone said changes in policy priorities could be expected because the 2010 election resulted in widespread state government leadership changes, but it doesn't make sense to pull support from renewable and sustainable energy sources when the rest of the world is turning toward them.
"Around the world countries are realizing there needs to be a mix of fossil and sustainable energy and unless we continue to diversify we will be left in the dust," Ms. Simeone said. "We should be doing everything we can to create jobs in those areas and embrace those opportunities. But what we're doing just doesn't make sense."
First Published August 14, 2011 12:00 am