Clean energy starred in many of the speeches at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week. And a new clean jobs report reveals that the future does indeed look bright for the industry in Pennsylvania. Since 2014, there has been 15 percent growth in clean energy jobs in the state. And while most of those gains came from the energy efficiency sector, Jim Spencer, whose company EverPower owns and operates large-scale wind projects, says to expect more growth in electricity generation in the coming years. “We’re no longer the red-headed stepchild,” Spencer says. “We’re pretty mainstream, and it’s been fun to have been a part of that.” Recently, we caught up with Spencer at his Pittsburgh office to dig into the recent jobs numbers and get his take on whether we’ll see the trend continue.
The Allegheny Front: So what are some of the things that are really keeping this wave of development in renewable energy moving?
Jim Spencer: One of the things that’s propelling the industry right now is that we have a five-year horizon on the production tax credit for wind. That is the first time that has ever happened since the tax credit was initiated 20-some years ago. It’s a federal tax credit, and it is about 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour. It represents about a third of the capital cost of a renewable energy facility. So what that has done is give investors and the market some certainty on the regulatory policy going forward, and that’s very helpful for the industry.
AF: So we’re guessing you find the numbers in this new report encouraging.
JS: They’re very encouraging. The report says there are roughly 65,000 green energy jobs in the state of Pennsylvania. And the number of Pennsylvanians now working in our coal mines is less than 8,000. So I think it’s good to compare and contrast what’s happening in the coal industry with what’s happening in renewables.
LISTEN: “What’s Behind Pennsylvania’s Growth in Renewables”
AF: So what could Pennsylvania do to grow more of these kinds of jobs?
JS: One thing we could do is increase our renewable portfolio standard. Pennsylvania, like most states, has a mandate that a certain percentage of the power generation must come from non-carbon sources of electricity. And when that mandate was passed, it was a pretty progressive benchmark. But since then, we’ve seen other states be much more aggressive in their targets for renewable energy. So Pennsylvania has really fallen behind.
AF: And is finding workers to work in the renewables industry difficult?
JS: The majority of workers that we employ are during the construction of a facility. And there have been some difficulties. Especially during the peak of the Marcellus Shale industry, there was a shortage of some of the trades when a large number of pipefitters and welders were working in the gas industry. I think in terms of operators for our facilities, the skills that operators at coal facilities in Pennsylvania would have are very easily transferable. There is some specialized knowledge. But the idea of maintaining a power plant—whether it’s coal, nuclear or a wind farm—those skills are transferable. So I’m hugely in favor of programs that help train those workers for some of the clean energy opportunities that exist today. We should be taking care of people who have really dedicated their lives to powering a coal or nuclear facility. They have served very well in those positions and we owe it to them to retrain them as technology changes.
Growth in clean energy jobs has surged 15 percent in Pennsylvania since 2014. And wind developer Jim Spencer projects that the state could triple its installed wind capacity in the coming years.
AF: Do you think there needs to be a bigger push on the federal level to encourage growth in the industry?
JS: I think a tremendous amount has happened at the federal level. The politics on this subject are difficult, but I think the reason that we were able to get an extension of the production tax credit for wind is that commonplace people are beginning to see the impacts of climate change. Whether it’s wildfires in the West or flooding in the South, this is confronting people on a daily basis. So the general populous is in favor of doing more to prevent climate change. What the federal government could do, and what I feel like is the most efficient way to address climate change, is regulate carbon—a carbon tax. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether that could get enough votes in Congress to pass.
AF: So can wind and other renewables compete with the cheap natural gas we’re seeing right now?
JS: The real answer to that question is, it depends on the price of natural gas. In this area, sometimes the price of gas is below a dollar. And so if a gas generator is using inexpensive natural gas like that, the cost of production is significantly lower and it’s very hard to compete. Now, we do not believe that these current prices of natural gas are sustainable in the long run. We no longer believe in $8 natural gas, which was a common view a few years ago. But we really think $4 to $5 natural gas is probably sustainable. And at that level, renewables compete very well.
AF: Solar has the biggest share of the renewables pie in Pennsylvania, but you build large-scale wind projects. So what is the future of wind energy here?
JS: We have the capacity within the state in terms of land and wind resource to double or triple the amount of installed capacity. And I think we will get there. In Pennsylvania, we’re located in the PJM grid, so we have the ability to build wind projects in the state and export [the energy] to other states—like North Carolina or Kentucky—that don’t have the [wind] resources we do. And as they are required to comply with the new standards of the Clean Power Plan, that creates a market for our wind projects.
Jim Spencer is CEO and founder of EverPower Wind Holdings—a developer, owner and operator of large-scale wind projects. He talked with The Allegheny Front host, Kara Holsopple.