Prove your humanity

A measure in the state Senate seeks to profit off Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to power half the state government’s electricity needs with solar.

Last year, the Wolf Administration signed a 15-year deal to buy power from seven large solar fields across the state.

Wolf’s 2019 executive order on climate change called for at least 40 percent of the commonwealth’s annual electricity use to be offset by renewable energy.

Instead of letting the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by claiming the power generated by new solar projects, the bill would have the state sell the renewable energy credits generated by that clean power.

What are energy credits?

Companies and institutions that don’t have their own source of emissions-free power can buy alternative or renewable energy credits from existing projects to offset emissions they cause by things like heating buildings, shipping or manufacturing.

Senate Bill 945, sponsored by Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), would require the state to sell any credits created by government-owned renewable energy projects and use the money to plug abandoned oil and gas wells, which leak the potent greenhouse gas methane.

The move pits two climate solutions against one another.

If the state sells the credits created by the solar projects, it can’t claim credit for using clean energy and can’t use the carbon-free energy to reduce its greenhouse gas emission total.

But Yaw said the state could have a greater environmental impact by essentially selling the power to someone else, and taking care of old wells.

Not selling the credits, Yaw said, “is like having a winning lottery ticket and not cashing it in.”

Why plugging wells helps the climate

Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Scientists say emissions must be cut rapidly to avoid a worst-case warming scenario.

Yaw’s office estimates selling credits from the state’s solar projects could raise nearly $11 million each year. The Department of Environmental Protection estimates there are 200,000 abandoned wells in the state. Costs to plug them can range from $10,000 to $100,000, depending on the condition of the well.

The choice between using more renewable energy and plugging abandoned wells is not one the state needs to make.

Gov. Wolf’s office said in a statement that it recognizes plugging abandoned oil and gas wells is an important step. It said the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has the potential to give the state around $400 million over a 10-year period for abandoned well plugging.

“Selling alternative energy credits generated by commonwealth owned alternative energy projects reduces the environmental benefit of those projects. So while the administration supports well plugging, it does not support funding it in this way, especially given that we are anticipating significant federal funding for this purpose shortly,” the governor’s Press Secretary Elizabeth Rementer said.

Why selling renewable credit could hurt climate efforts

Sen. Carolyn Comitta (D-Chester) said if someone else buys credits from the state’s solar projects to offset their carbon footprints, the state might not be able to meet its own goals.

“The bill directly undermines the effort to reduce the state government’s greenhouse gas emissions at a time when we need to be a leader in the clean energy economy,” Comitta said.

Critics say adding so many credits to the market at one time will lower the price of credits and discourage more solar development.

Rob Altenburg, senior director for energy and climate at PennFuture, said because Pennsylvania has already met its solar goal under the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards, demand for the credits is not growing.

He said people who have put solar arrays on their homes often rely on credits to make the project more affordable and they would be hurt by the drop in price.

Though Altenburg said there is an immense need to fund well-plugging, he doesn’t think the proposal would make a dent in the number of unplugged, abandoned wells.

“I think it’s a pretty clear attempt to frustrate the governor’s plans in whatever way they can,” Altenburg said.

Yaw’s office did not answer a request to respond to that criticism.

Pa. Republican lawmakers and the U.S. Capitol attack
As part of WITF’s commitment to standing with facts, and because the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was an attempt to overthrow representative democracy in America, we are marking elected officials’ connections to the insurrection. Read more about this commitment.

Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) signed a letter asking members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s 2020 electoral votes despite no evidence that would call those results into question.The election-fraud lie led to the attack on the Capitol.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.