Exploring Pennsylvania's Energy Economy

Pennsylvania is third in the nation for energy production. It’s also in third place for carbon dioxide emissions.

Drivers traveling the Pennsylvania Turnpike can see nearly every major form of energy from their car window. As the federal government pushes states to cut emissions that are leading to climate change, StateImpact Pennsylvania took a road trip. We profiled five major energy sources along the way: coal, wind, nuclear, solar and oil.

We chose these sources because they are the most visible from the toll road – we know Pennsylvania’s 17 hydroelectric power plants also supply about one percent of our electricity. And what about the natural gas boom? We cover that full-time at our website and show how it’s influencing these other energy sources in our five-part series.


by Marie Cusick

Alpha Natural Resources Cumberland Mine

Looking out the car window on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you can see a massive pile of waste coal near mile marker 117 in Somerset County. It’s refuse from an active deep mine nearby. It’s also an example of how important coal mining is to many communities across the state. Although the coal industry has gotten cleaner, it’s still dirty. Coal-fired power plants are the largest contributors of the nation’s greenhouse gases.

The industry that powered an industrial revolution remains haunted by its messy legacy—piles of waste coal, streams running orange with acid mine drainage, and air filled with pollution.

But even now, well into the 21st century, Pennsylvanian’s rely heavily on coal. It supplies 40 percent of the state’s electricity.


“We need coal”

I’m 1,000 feet underground; it’s dark and noisy at Alpha Natural Resources Cumberland mine.  It’s in Greene County, close to the West Virginia border. Dan Rose is the longwall superintendent. He points to the face of the mine where workers are monitoring equipment that shaves off massive chunks of coal from the Pittsburgh seam.

“This is the main seam of coal here,” he says.

I ask him how he describes his job to people unfamiliar with the industry.

“I just tell them, give it a few years and see what your electric bill does,” he laughs. “Go a little bit of time without coal and see what your electric bill does.”

Coal is also embedded in the culture of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Randy Patton has spent much of the past 30 years underground. He describes it like working in a basement with no windows.

“It’s a tough life. I’ve been here since I basically got out of high school and it’s catching up,” he says. “But it’s a good living. We need coal.”

But environmental advocates, like Christina Simeone, who heads PennFuture’s Energy Center, say it’s time for a change. She describes our reliance on coal like a stock portfolio.

“Maybe your financial adviser would tell you, maybe if 50 percent of your money is in one investment you might not be diversified enough.”

The world’s scientists have been issuing dire warnings for years, urging people to shift away from fossil fuels, or face the consequences of abrupt climate change. Governor Corbett doesn’t believe the science around the issue is settled yet. Earlier this month, he and 14 other Republican governors from around the country sent a letter to the President, questioning the legality of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules to limit emissions from existing power plants.

At a rally in Pittsburgh over the summer, Corbett called the federal rules a “war on coal.”

“ We’re talking about the production of coal, but it’s much more than that,” he told the crowd. “What is it? It’s jobs. It’s electricity. It’s power.”

“The dirtiest resource”

Under newly proposed EPA rules, Pennsylvania will have to cut its carbon emissions by about 32 percent over the next 15 years. But the commonwealth gets to choose how to meet that target—through pushing more efficiency, or cleaner forms of energy. The EPA plans to finalize the rules by next year.

Simeone says it won’t mean the end of coal, just less of it.

“It’s no secret that coal is the dirtiest resource that we utilize,” she says. “So it becomes a less competitive resource because of what science tells us. We value dirty resources less than we value cleaner resources.”

But beyond the fight over climate change, the coal industry is facing other market-driven challenges.

For one thing, demand for electricity never recovered from pre-Recession levels. The other big issue is competition from natural gas. The boom in Marcellus Shale drilling is leading to a shift away from coal to cleaner-burning gas in electric power generation.

The changes facing the coal industry are well understood at Alpha Natural Resource’s Cumberland mine

It opened up in 1974 and employs 650 people, and all of them know it will close someday. Mine superintendent Jeff Everett has been here since he was 19, and now has son who works underground.

“When you know you have a limited resource, and you know you’re extracting coal, you also know you’re working towards and end.”

The end is coming soon for Alpha’s nearby Emerald Mine, which employs 500 workers.

Citing its reserves and poor market conditions, the company plans to close it sometime next year.



pennelectricCredit: Rachel Feierman for NewsWorks/WHYY



by Katie Colaneri

Twin Ridges Wind Farm

Heading eastbound, just as you approach the Somerset service plaza, a striking sight appears in the distance: six huge, white metallic blooms rising above a forested ridge.

That’s how you know you’re in wind country. Somerset County is home to eight of Pennsylvania’s 25 commercial wind farms.

“It all starts up there.”

John Bennett is site manager at Twin Ridges wind farm about 20 miles south of the turnpike, near the Maryland border. He points to one of the farm’s 68 turbines, towering overhead at a height of more than 260 feet.

“It all starts up there,” he says. “The wind is turning the rotor and the rotor is turning a gear box that turns the generator and that’s how we make the power.”

However, the morning I visit Twin Ridges, the wind isn’t blowing.

Bennett explains when you’re driving by a wind farm and don’t see the massive blades spinning, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing happening inside the turbines.

“It’s thinking right now,” he says, “It’s watching and as soon as it sees the winds are enough that we can produce power, it’ll come out of standby mode by itself, pitch up and start running.”

Modern turbines run on a system of computerized controls and sensors that are constantly monitoring wind speed and direction.

The blades are programmed to turn into or out of the wind, and the oval body – called the “nacelle” – can turn 360 degrees to catch as much as possible. Bennett can even control them from home on his tablet.

A boom-or-bust business

Enormous and high-tech as these things are, Pennsylvania’s 720 wind turbines only provide a tiny amount of the state’s electricity – about 1.5 percent. There is room to grow. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates wind can supply as much as three times that amount of power.

However, after a decade of growth, development has recently slowed down in Pennsylvania.

“What the data’s been showing is that it’s cheaper to install wind power in places in the middle of the country,” says Constantine Samaras, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Wind projects can be difficult to finance in Pennsylvania’s “deregulated” or competitive electricity market, which favors short-term contracts, and the cost of building new transmission lines to connect wind farms to the grid can be prohibitively expensive.

At the end of 2013, Congress allowed a key federal tax credit to expire and has shown no signs of renewing it yet. The production tax credit (PTC), which gave wind developers 2.3 cents for every kilowatt hour of electricity produced, has come and gone several times since it was first introduced in 1992.

Michael Speerschneider is Chief Permitting and Public Policy Officer at EverPower Wind Holdings, the Pittsburgh-based company behind the Twin Ridges wind farm. He says the uncertainty of the PTC has made wind a boom-or-bust business, with developers rushing to get projects started before the credit expires.

The Spanish wind turbine manufacturer, Gamesa cited that as one reason for closing down a plant in western Pennsylvania earlier this year.

But developers like EverPower expect wind to gain strength again – even without the PTC.

Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, passed in 2004, requires utilities to purchase increasing amounts of power each year from renewable sources. The ultimate goal is to reach 18 percent in six years.

Some environmental groups are pushing to increase the standard to 30 percent by 2030.

“By really shifting heavily towards wind and solar and other renewable energies and energy efficiency, we can cut global warming pollution and grow a stronger clean energy economy,” says Adam Garber with PennEnvironment.

“When are you going to take your hands off the bike?”

Upping Pennsylvania’s renewable energy capacity is one option the state will have for cutting carbon dioxide emissions under a new proposal from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

However, the Corbett administration is skeptical that more government incentives are the right way to accomplish that goal.

“There’s a difference between a little shove at the beginning to get you started,” says Patrick Henderson, the governor’s Energy Executive. “And then the question is when are you going to take your hands off the bike?”

The state’s Republican-controlled House recently ordered a study on the impact of wind as compared to other energy sources like natural gas, coal and nuclear.

State Representative Kathy Rapp of Warren County says she sponsored the resolution because of its impact on wildlife.

According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, each wind turbine kills 26 bats and four birds on average each year. With 720 turbines currently installed, that amounts to 21,600 mortalities. The commission has been studying the issue since 2007 when it brokered a voluntary cooperative agreement with wind developers to mitigate these impacts.

“The fatality of wildlife is one issue,” Rapp says. “The other issues are… what are the amount of subsidies for these turbines and what’s the imprint of actual acreage… and what are the impacts to the electric grid?”

The Joint State Government Commission will complete the study by next year when the EPA expects to finalize its Clean Power Plan.

Speerschneider acknowledges that wind, like every source of energy, has its down sides. But he argues there are good reasons to make sure it can compete in a fossil fuel-dominated industry.

“In today’s markets, there’s no real way to value what wind brings to the energy mix,” he says. “What the Clean Power Plan does is start to provide that value and recognize the societal and the economic value of zero emission generation sources.”

However, with some lawmakers and other sectors of the energy industry lining up to oppose EPA’s proposal, it’s hard to tell which way the wind will blow.

How do renewable energy sources impact the electrical grid? And just what is “the grid” anyway?

Listen to Professor Gregory Reed, Director of the Electric Power Initiative at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, as he explains.

Background photo: Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission


by Marie Cusick

Exelon Corporation Three Mile Island

The Three Mile Island power plant has a conspicuous place near the Pennsylvania Turnpike and in the history of the world’s nuclear power industry.

Drive east over the Susquehanna River in Dauphin County and you’ll see steam emanating from only two of TMI’s four cooling towers. That’s because one of its reactors partially melted down in 1979. It was the worst nuclear accident in United States history.

Unit 1 is still operational. It’s run by Exelon Corporation.

Before we can go inside, company spokesman Ralph DeSantis takes us to a security checkpoint where we meet heavily armed guards. They check our names, social security numbers, and birthdates. We pass through a metal turnstile and reach more security. It looks a bit like an airport, with a metal detector, x-ray machine, and an explosive detector.

Once we make it through, DeSantis takes us to TMI’s Unit 1 reactor.

“This is the reactor building,” he says, pointing to a wall of concrete that’s four feet thick. “Right on the other side of this wall is where the reactor is. That’s where the chain reaction is occurring.”

At full capacity, the plant generates enough electricity for 800,000 homes.

It’s one of five nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania — together they account for about 35 percent of the state’s electric generation. Only Illinois has more nuclear capacity.

Supporting nuclear energy?

Under new rules proposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Pennsylvania will have to cut its carbon emissions by 32 percent over the next 15 years.

As EPA Region Three Air Director Diana Escher explains, the state can choose its own way to meet that target.

“I would not describe us as supporting nuclear energy in this plan at all,” she says. “It’s very flexible for the states.”

But in its proposed rules, the EPA cautions states against prematurely retiring their nuclear fleets. The agency also suggests expanding nuclear power as a way to meet emissions targets.

All but one of Pennsylvania’s nuclear plants recently received a license renewal to operate for another 20 years. Only the Limerick plant in Montgomery County is still going through the process.

Environmental advocates remain deeply divided about nuclear power. On the one hand, it’s praised as the ultimate, reliable low carbon power source. On the other hand, when things go wrong, it can be disastrous.

In the United States, safety is overseen by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Spokesman Neil Sheehan says plants now need to have more redundant safety equipment to prepare for catastrophic events that happen off-site – like the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s Fukushima plant in 2011.

“We are still in the early stages of seeing these implemented,” he says. “But we think, already, with some of the changes made, that these plants are even better protected than they were before.”

Susan Stranahan won a Pulitzer Prize as a member of the Philadelphia Inquirer staff for her coverage of the Three Mile Island accident and recently co-authored a book on the Fukushima disaster.

“I think that the nuclear industry has not learned its lessons,” she says.

She believes nuclear power can help curb climate change, but she doesn’t want to see it expanded.

Stranahan says the current 10-mile evacuation zones around plants are inadequate and external threats, like floods, still pose significant risks.

“I think the fact that we have not had a nuclear accident in this country since 1979 has lulled people into a sense of complacency.”

The waste issue

One of the lessons from the accident was the need for more training. Ralph DeSantis shows us inside TMI’s control room simulator. It’s an exact replica of the real thing.

“Essentially, the technology, much of it is the original equipment that we maintain,” DeStantis says.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem to have changed much since the plant came online in the 1970s. The control panels have big buttons and dials, with a few digital displays. The color scheme is 70’s sea-foam green.

Despite the décor, the plant still attracts young workers, like 23-year-old Heidi Nafis. A self-described environmentalist who grew up outside Chicago, she says she feels good about working to make energy so efficiently. Although it’s always a conversation-starter when she tells people she works at Three Mile Island.

“There’s a set of standard responses varying from Simpsons jokes to, ‘Oh you glow at night,’ to, ‘is it still running?”

But longtime Harrisburg activist Eric Epstein says he seen many promises made and broken over the years when it comes to cleaning up the site. He chairs the local watchdog group, Three Mile Island Alert.

One of his main concerns is the United States still has no policy on where to take its nuclear waste. So plants around the country are storing it on site.

“There is no economic incentive to clean TMI 2 up, there’s nowhere to take the waste, and that creates a crisis,” Epstein says. “I believe that crisis will be kicked down the road to future generations, which in my mind is unfair.”

In 2009 Three Mile Island was re-licensed to operate until 2034. At that point, both reactors will be dismantled together, over a 10-year period. Plans call for a full restoration of the site by 2054, 75 years after the accident.


A sign marks the 1979 accident when Three Mile Island's Unit 2 reactor partially melted down. (Joanne Cassaro/WITF)

A sign marks the 1979 accident when Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 reactor partially melted down. Its mothballed cooling towers, now owned by FirstEnergy Corporation, are visible in the background. (Joanne Cassaro/WITF)


by Marie Cusick

The Hankin Group Solar Farm

Standing next to this solar farm in Morgantown, Berks County, you can see the Pennsylvania Turnpike traffic,  but the place still feels like a farm. The panels are tucked in behind rows of corn.

Lance Hillegas is showing me around. He’s the vice president of design and sustainable development with the Hankin Group — it’s the real estate development company that built the business park where we’re standing. In the distance, there’s a factory that makes custom vinyl windows called Viwinco. It gets most of the electricity produced by the panels.

“We supply between 40 and 50 percent of their electric,” Hillegas says, pointing toward the building.

When the Hankin Group built this  two megawatt solar farm in 2011, the company was making plans for even more solar installations.

But then things changed.

“Collapsed might be a strong word”

“At the time it looked like a great investment,” he says. “Since then, the solar renewable energy credit has gone down.”

The solar renewable energy credit (SREC) works like this: under a 2004 Pennsylvania law called the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, electric utilities are required to buy eight percent of their power from so-called “tier one” clean sources—like wind and solar– by the year 2021.

If they don’t make the power themselves, they can get it from someone who does; they buy an SREC.

“Back in 2010 when we were envisioning this project and even into 2011, [they] were worth as much as $300 an SREC,” says Hillegas. “Last year, they dipped as low as $20 an SREC.”

What did that do to Pennsylvania’s solar industry?

“Collapsed might be a strong word,” says Ron Celentano who heads Pennsylvania’s Solar Industries Association. “But a lot of the solar industry contractors and businesses either went bankrupt or went elsewhere.”

The funding for Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Solar Program also dried up last year. It was launched in 2009 under former Governor Ed Rendell and provided $100 million in rebates for solar panels on homes and small businesses.

Evan Endres is with the environmental group PennFuture and says the state should do more to support solar.

“We’re not as competitive in this market as other states, because other states have had consistent policy signals and consistent market signals that drive that market,” he says.

“People want their lights to work every time”

Despite the swings in the solar market, the industry has grown rapidly here and the price for panels has plummeted. Pennsylvania ranks 11th in the nation for installed solar capacity — that’s enough to power about 28,000 homes. But it’s still just a small drop in the bucket of the state’s electric portfolio. Less than three percent of its power comes from renewables like wind and solar. Solar is also an intermittent energy resource, so it needs the sun to shine in order to work.

Jake Smeltz is president of the Electric Power Generation Association — a trade group representing the region’s major electric utilities.

“You don’t want to become too reliant on things which can’t produce until their fuel is available,” he says. “Because people want their lights to work every time. Not 15 percent of the time.”

But solar advocates say emerging energy storage technologies like batteries could help solve that problem, so power could be stored until it’s needed.

At the same time, they’re concerned about policies on the horizon. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) recently proposed rules around net metering that have ruffled some feathers. Net metering is a benefit to producing more power than you use. So, for example, someone with solar panels on his roof can then sell that extra power back to the grid.

PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher explains.

“It would be to the point where your meter is now going backwards and you are paid for returning that electricity to the grid.”

But the PUC is trying to cap that at no more than 110 percent your historical power usage.

Endres of PennFuture thinks that will discourage investments.

“So you can see how that would be a problem especially for businesses and for homes — the usage changes,” he says. “What if someone gets an electric car? What if somebody does a whole host of whole house energy efficiency measures? What if a business adds a new type of manufacturing process? Energy is not particularly consistent from year to year.”

The PUC has gotten a lot of comments on the proposed rules, but Kocher says it’s not an effort to rain on anyone’s solar array. Instead, the commission wants to make sure people are actually customers who produce extra power –not simply entrepreneurs plugging in, trying to make money off the grid.

She says, for example, if a business wants to double in size and expand its solar array, it can do that.

“You would re-apply for the historical usage and show what you’re using now as opposed to what you were using then, and ask to be net metered according to the new historical usage.

Back when it built the Berks County solar farm built a few years ago, the Hankin Group got permission for future expansions. Lance Hillegas says, with more panels, it could be producing three times as much power.

“If it becomes attractive again, we would definitely start up and do more solar projects.”

The market for solar may bounce back as the Obama administration pushes states to cut greenhouse gas emissions and find cleaner sources of energy. Under proposed federal rules Pennsylvania will have to cut its carbon emissions 32 percent over the next 15 years.


by Katie Colaneri

Philadelphia Energy Solutions

The Valley Forge toll plaza is where route 76 splits from the Pennsylvania Turnpike and becomes the Schuylkill Expressway to Philadelphia. It’s one of the busiest turnpike interchanges with more than 60,000 cars passing through every day. And there’s a good chance the gasoline those cars are running on was made at the 148-year-old oil refinery in South Philadelphia.

Capitalizing on the shale boom

The round drums that store the crude oil can be seen from the Expressway. Inside, the refinery complex sprawls like a city on both sides of the Schuylkill River. It’s one of the oldest and largest refineries on the East Coast. Here, up to 350,000 barrels of raw crude oil get turned into gasoline, jet fuel, heating oil, diesel and chemicals every day.

Most of that raw crude comes to the refinery by train from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.

“What we don’t have right now is the copious quantities of the Marcellus [Shale] gas,” says Phil Rinaldi, CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions. “It sits 100 miles away or 150 miles away.”

Rinaldi is leading a group of business leaders and politicians advocating to build a pipeline to bring that shale gas to Philadelphia. The refinery would use it to generate electricity and to make new products like nitrate fertilizer, but the group hopes a natural gas pipeline could help turn the city – with its ports, rail lines, and proximity to major markets – into a job-rich energy hub.

“I think there’s an opportunity for greater Philadelphia to really develop industrially like we’ve seen in a couple of other places around the world when abundant natural gas was available – the U.S. Gulf Coast, 50 years ago and Saudi Arabia, 25 or 30 years ago,” Rinaldi says.

Refineries third for carbon emissions

But not everyone in and around Philadelphia wants the city to become the next Houston.

At a recent climate change rally outside city hall, Sue Edwards, of Swarthmore, gets choked up thinking about her children.

“I don’t want them to live in a planet where lots of people are drowning and dying of starvation because of droughts, huge storms that swamp people’s houses and threaten their lives,” she says. “I think that’s what we’re facing if we don’t stop using as much carbon fuel.”

Under a new proposal from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Pennsylvania would be required to cut 32 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from its power plants over the next 15 years.

After power plants, oil and natural gas wells and pipelines are the second largest source of carbon emissions with refineries coming in third, according to the EPA. For now, the agency says it is not planning to regulate carbon emissions from those sectors.

The federal Clean Power Plan has been seen as a win for natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal. However, the petroleum industry has gotten in line to fight the rule.

Back at the climate rally, East Falls resident Karen Melton doesn’t expect the world to move away from fossil fuels in her lifetime. 

“It’s not that we can’t do it,” she says. “We’re really up against the people who control much of the economy, much of the political power.”

“We have choices in Pennsylvania”

Workers in the refinery see things differently.

Two years ago, the energy business in Philadelphia was in trouble. This refinery, once owned by Sunoco, was on the verge of closure until the shale boom unleashed record-breaking amounts of cheap, domestic oil and gas.

John Clark is business manager of the local boilermakers union. Many of his members perform regular maintenance in the refinery, such as welding new pollution controls and scrubbers.

“We live here, we want to breathe fresh clean air like you do, too,” Clark says, “But we also need employment and we need heating oil, diesel fuel, gasoline.”

Many environmentalists see CEOs like Rinaldi as enablers of the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, which is leading to climate change. I ask him how he sees himself.

“Energy is the lifeblood of the world and it’s what makes a difference, and the form of that energy is not destroying. The form of that energy is enabling.” Rinaldi says. “It’s enabling people to live better lives, longer lives, more fulfilled lives.”

Mark Alan Hughes is Director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He says the state has become a microcosm of America’s love-hate relationship with energy. But he argues it could also be the place to reconcile that ambivalence.

“We have choices in Pennsylvania across every possible source of energy generation– of oil, of gas, of coal, of hydro, of solar, of wind and nuclear,” he says. “And so we are the necessary place to work through these issues.”

Otherwise, Hughes says we could all end up paying a much bigger toll down the road.

Background photo: The Point Breeze refinery sits along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. SoundCloud photo: The Girard Point refinery.   Photos by Kellie McGinn, Courtesy of Philadelphia Energy Solutions. 

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StateImpact Pennsylvania is a collaboration between WITF and WHYY covering the fiscal and environmental impact of Pennsylvania’s booming energy economy, with a focus on Marcellus Shale drilling. Read their reports on this site, and hear them on public radio stations across Pennsylvania.