Natural gas use recommendation spurs debate
HARRISBURG - A new recommendation to include natural gas as an eligible alternative energy source is drawing criticism from environmentalists because of its potential to dampen markets for other emerging energy sources.
The recommendation by the governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission would include natural gas under Pennsylvania's Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, a program that requires electric utilities to purchase 18 percent of their power from alternative and renewable energy sources by 2020.
The goal of the program is to create incentives to use cleaner fuels and lessen dependence on oil.
Making natural gas part of the alternative mix is among the nearly 100 recommendations covering a gamut of Marcellus Shale-related issues in a final report issued Friday by the commission. The commission said use of Marcellus gas should be a critical part of the state energy plan.
Under the recommendation, natural gas would be added to so-called "Tier II" sources where utilities are to draw 10 percent of their power supplies from by 2020. These include municipal solid waste, wood pulp, coal refuse and large-scale hydroprojects. Such a move if approved by lawmakers could potentially impact Tier II markets for cogeneration plants that are removing anthracite refuse piles in Northeast Pennsylvania.
Utilities are required to draw 8 percent of their power supplies from "Tier I" sources that include renewable forms of energy such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and methane by 2020.
Adding natural gas would hurt market demand for the other energy sources in the Tier II category, said Jan Jarrett, president of Penn Future, an environmental group.
"Right now, natural gas accounts for 25 percent of electric generation," she added. "It doesn't need an incentive."
The representatives of four environmental groups on the 30-member Shale commission have expressed concern about the Tier II recommendation. But other commission members said the move would lower natural gas prices. Cogeneration plant owners have yet to discuss the commission's recommendation, said Jeff McNelly, executive director of ARIPPA, an association representing alternative energy plants that convert coal refuse to electricity. ARIPPA's members include several cogeneration plants along Interstate 81 in Schuylkill County.
"If you add another industry into Tier II, you are going to have some effect on the others," McNelly added. "The devil is in the details."
The commission's recommendation would have to be carried out by the Corbett administration and lawmakers revising the 2004 state law that established the portfolio. A bill before the House would increase the requirement for the amount of solar energy purchased by utilities.
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