Climate Change in Pennsylvania: Energy transition provides opportunity for job growth, innovation

Editor’s note: Centre Daily Times is observing Earth Day with a three-day series about climate change issues and how they affect Pennsylvania.

Climate change causes a lot of problems. But it can also create opportunities for job growth and innovation.

Calls to move entirely to renewable energy might seem like what our country and our world need, but some people argue it would jeopardize Pennsylvania’s workers and its economy.


In 2013, coal production added $4.5 billion to Pennsylvania’s economy and provided 36,204 direct and indirect jobs, said Abby Foster, who until recently was the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance director of communications and advocacy.

Coal is the “backbone of our state,” she said.

The coal industry faces a number of cyclical obstacles, such as the low price of natural gas, coal not being competitive on the global resources market and this year’s mild winter, according to the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance.

But the industry might have to come to terms with the Clean Power Plan, if the stay the U.S. Supreme Court has placed on it is lifted.

“There is no way to comply (with the plan) without transition away from coal,” she said.

The Clean Power Plan calls for carbon emissions from the power sector to be 32 percent lower than 2005 levels by 2030, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Clean Power Plan calls for carbon emissions from the power sector to be 32 percent lower than 2005 levels by 2030.

The coal industry, Foster said, is a huge part of the economy for some counties in Pennsylvania.

“The money that President Obama is allocating to coal communities affected by these regulations is a drop in the bucket and a double-edged sword. While these communities are certainly feeling the impact, they do not want government handouts to ‘fix’ a problem that overreaching government regulations have created,” Foster said. “... These people and companies would prefer fair and achievable regulations, a fighting chance to hold their own against fair competition from natural gas, not disingenuous funding to help retrain workers for jobs that pay half of their current wages.”

These are generational jobs, she said.

Coal has sustained these counties, and county officials know they can rely on these taxes, unlike renewable energy jobs that Foster said won’t replace coal jobs that are going away.

According to the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, from 2002 to 2010, taxpayers subsidized wind and solar projects to the tune of more than $530 million. From that money, 8,703 jobs — mostly temporary — were created.


While the natural gas industry competes with coal, it has also flattened out in recent months.

The price of oil and gas has been suppressed, and production of natural gas in Pennsylvania has plateaued during the past several months, said David Yoxtheimer, hydrogeologist and extension associate at Penn State.

With the lower prices, less drilling and hydraulic fracturing have been taking place, Yoxtheimer said, resulting in a drop-off in employment.

Some operators have laid off as many as half of their workforce during the past year, he said, and prices will have to go up before employment will.

The global petroleum price has affected the job market significantly, and for Pennsylvania, the global oil price has affected jobs in the coal mining and shale gas production sectors. Last year, due to the low price, coal mining and natural gas production had a loss of jobs, said Chunshan Song, distinguished professor of fuel science and director of the Earth and Mineral Science Energy Institute at Penn State.

While fracturing and drilling operations have slowed, investment in installing pipeline continues, Yoxtheimer said.

What is happening, though, is a movement of manufacturing facilities to Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is economically attractive to manufacturers because of the amount of natural gas derived from Marcellus Shale in the commonwealth, Yoxtheimer said. Manufacturing is returning to Pennsylvania. Some jobs that were lost to China are coming back.

Any manufacturing facility can benefit from the lower price of natural gas, he said.

Indeed, natural gas production is viewed as a step in the right direction for the environment, said Tom Richard, professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment.

“The current proposed regulations for electricity — carbon emission reductions, the Clean Power Plan — those are fairly easily met in Pennsylvania by shifting … from coal to natural gas without any significant increase in renewables,” Richard said.

Richard added that many spinoff jobs are associated with natural gas.

“It’s encouraging manufacturing of other energy-intensive products to move back here, relocate here, expand in our state,” he said.


“I think everyone in Pennsylvania wants Pennsylvania to be a viable, robust economy in the future, to have jobs and good living for our residents,” Richard said, “and to be contributors to the United States and to the planet in terms of human needs.”

Fossil energy and low carbon energy don’t need to be mutually exclusive, he said.

Song agreed.

So-called clean coal includes a number of aspects, such as cleaner processing of coal, more efficient coal utilization that will produce more energy with less carbon dioxide emitted and CO2 capture, Song said.

Pennsylvania produced 44.7 million tons of coal in 2014 but produced 39.7 million tons in 2015.

The “most straightforward” way to reduce carbon emissions from coal and natural gas, Richard said, is to capture the carbon and either use it in manufacturing or put it back in the ground.

“I think that there’s a big opportunity for fossil energy in Pennsylvania in the future if we were to reframe and build out infrastructure so that we can make our fossil resources the lowest carbon in the world,” he said.


Richard said a “huge” growth in solar and wind jobs has occurred in Pennsylvania, which has been supported by the commonwealth in terms of industrial development activities and policies that require a certain amount of the state’s electricity portfolio to come from renewable energy sources.

Daniel Ciolkosz called the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards a “game changer.”

The research associate in agricultural and biological engineering at Penn State said it allowed renewables to have a consistent place in the marketplace, which has had a substantial effect.

While Pennsylvania has to be careful to do what’s best for the people and the state, there are ways to move into the future with better jobs and better livelihoods, Ciolkosz said.

Myriad jobs come with renewable energy.

“When we think about the energy sector we have to think about both the supply and the demand side. And there’s going to be job opportunities in both of those,” Richard said.

A lot of the biomass and solar jobs will be front-line, skill-based jobs, which will include work in forests, transportation, processing with heavy manufacturing equipment and working in agriculture, he said.

Solar power jobs will also include installation, which involves carpentry and electrical jobs, he added.

In addition to those, professional jobs associated with the science and technology of new energy sources, designing facilities, building facilities and marketing new products will also be created.

Wind energy production, Richard said, has been “tricky” for Pennsylvania.

Companies made investments and wind systems were built in Pennsylvania, but manufacturing jobs have drifted overseas, he said. China, in particular, has been making “the biggest investments in the world in wind energy recently.”

Pennsylvania also employs several thousand people in nuclear power production at its five plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“We’re a major nuclear energy state,” Richard said.

Even with the current renewable energy technology, Ciolkosz said, a lot of room for growth exists.


Pennsylvania has “very strong natural resource-based industries,” such as forestry and agriculture, Richard said.

In addition, the state has a massive infrastructure, much of which is in low-lying areas along the Delaware River Estuary and the lower Susquehanna River.

Climate change is affecting those areas, Richard said. More intense rainfall and more frequent droughts are creating stress for forests and agriculture, too.

“We don’t like to see jobs created to clean up problems,” he said. But, trying to get in front of the effects of climate change and understanding the needs of infrastructure in more severe weather, for example, will create job opportunities.

“One of the things we’re trying to work through is how do we increase the resilience of those natural resource-based industries so that they can adapt to the changes that we expect, but also help mitigate them wherever possible,” Richard said.


“As we continue to make (an) effort in renewable energy, we must also continue the research and development in cleaner and more efficient fossil energy utilization and development,” Song said.

As we continue to make (an) effort in renewable energy, we must also continue the research and development in cleaner and more efficient fossil energy utilization and development.

Chunshan Song, distinguished professor of fuel science and director of the Earth and Mineral Science Energy Institute at Penn State

Pennsylvania has always been an energy state, Richard said. And it’s been through energy transitions before — from charcoal to coal and oil to natural gas and renewable energy.

Richard said the transition will create winners and losers, and it’s important to make sure people in stressed regions are assisted. That happens by building a more robust economy and making sure training opportunities are available to move into new technologies, he added.

“We’re now looking at another energy transition, and I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t expect that Pennsylvania, if we’re thoughtful and plan for it, can’t continue to be an energy powerhouse,” he said.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619; @sarahrafacz

Related stories from Centre Daily Times