By: Todd S. Stewart

Pennsylvania is the second largest producer of energy in the United States.[1]  Despite this impressive and impactful achievement, Pennsylvania has no coherent strategy for how to continue to grow its energy sector, or how to optimize state policy to ensure that energy provides a sustainable economic return while also transforming Pennsylvania into the sustainable energy leader that it needs to be. Senator Gene Yaw sponsored a bill this session to create an Independent Energy Office that would report to the General Assembly, and which could form the foundation for data driven, non-partisan policy initiatives that would promote the energy sector and assist in the transition to a more sustainable energy economy.  In Senator Yaw’s bill no energy source would be left off the table, which is appropriate, but consideration should be given to the obvious fact that some energy sources have externalities that make them less likely to flourish in the future.

For many years it was assumed that the Public Utility Commission (PUC) and/or the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) should carry the torch of energy policy; but that has not happened.  While the DEP has a hand in regulating renewable energy, as does the PUC, and while the PUC regulates those who distribute energy, for a number of reasons, those agencies are ill-suited to develop energy policy that may include new sources and markets.  These agencies have a duty to regulate utility service that is based on present technology and traditional regulatory schemes that are not easily upended.  The PUC and DEP should obviously have a voice when new policies are developed, but they cannot be relied upon to champion new paths forward while regulating those with a vested interest in the status quo.

An independent agency that can collect data from a variety of sources that will allow it to not only chronicle what is happening in the present, but also to forecast into the future, while staying out of the partisanship than can result in flawed policy, has all the makings of a great start for the Commonwealth down the road to a coherent and cohesive approach to policy.  Such an approach can fairly address questions such as: what is the best path for Pennsylvania to transition to a clean energy economy – starting from where we are today?  My criticism of Senator Yaw’s bill is that it stops short of authorizing the Independent Energy Office from proposing policy.  Rather, that task is left to the General Assembly, which has thus far found it to be incredibly difficult to agree on most issues related to energy.  Allowing the new agency to propose sensible policy alternatives, which still require the blessing of the lawmakers, removes a large potential pitfall in its design.  Pennsylvania needs to be a national and even international leader in energy production for the future.  That status provides jobs, a stable economy, and can promote development of a sustainable energy future. The way to get there is to allow an independent, non-partisan agency to drive the policy discussion and present best in class proposals, and to not rely on vested interests to be drivers of policy.  The path forward should be fair to all interests and be engineered to maximize benefits to the Commonwealth.  With a few edits, Senator Yaw’s bill could get us there.