Capitol Beat

A Q&A with state Sen. Gene Yaw, chair of the Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee

state Sen. Gene Yaw

state Sen. Gene Yaw Commonwealth Media Services

As chair of the Pennsylvania Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee, state Sen. Gene Yaw plays a major role in determining the direction the state Senate takes on energy policy. 

In the following conversation, Yaw speaks with City & State about his goals for the committee in 2024, the state of the commonwealth’s energy infrastructure, Pennsylvania’s efforts to reduce emissions through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and whether the state could benefit from an independent office devoted to energy.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

With it being a new year in Harrisburg, what are some of your policy goals for the Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee?

I think the integrity of the electric power grid is probably the No. 1 issue facing every resident of Pennsylvania and possibly – if you want to expand that – every person in the United States. We depend so much on electricity and we’re rapidly decreasing the reliability of our electric grid.

Every modern society that we’re aware of is organized based on three building blocks. Number one is energy. With energy, you can build an economy, and once you have an economy, you can worry about the environment. It has to be almost in that order. For example, if you don’t have an economy, and you’re worried about: ‘Do you have a job?’ or ‘Do I have food to eat today?’ You really don’t care much about the environment. One of the things that I try to establish with the Environmental Committee is that the best thing for the environment that we could ever wish for would be to have a robust economy. I think that that’s something that gets lost on a lot of people. What we’re doing right now in our energy policy – and unfortunately, Pennsylvania is part of this, I think – is we’re tinkering with the environmental part, without considering the economic impact or what’s going on at that level – at the mid-level.

There are two ways to produce electricity: thermal and nonthermal. Thermal means any way that you can produce steam. You could use gas, you could use coal, you can use oil, you use nuclear. The advantage of that thermal power is this: It is available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It does not depend on the weather, it does not depend on the time of day or any other factors. Nonthermal is everything else; mainly what we think about is the renewables – the wind and solar. Wind and solar – nonthermal sources –are intermittent power sources, and they're of limited duration. At six o’clock tonight, the sun’s not gonna be shining. So where's the power come from? It’s got to come from these thermal production (sources). In Pennsylvania, as a result of mainly environmental rules, we’re closing down the baseload power plants.

I think that it’s absolutely critical that the committee keep its focus on how we deal with these power plants that we’re not replacing. We used to have a tremendous gap between the demand and the capacity. That gap is narrowing to the point where it’s critical. If we have a major weather event, we’re going to be in trouble.

How do we reverse that and move in the opposite direction?

I was asked to do a presentation before the board of managers of PJM – the regional transmission organization – who asked me: “What do you think it’s going to take to get people's attention?” And I said, “Unfortunately, it’s going to take a catastrophic event with significant loss of life – that might get people's attention.” Now that happened in Texas. That’s what we had out there in Winter Storm Elliot two years ago. There were 200 people that died – and it didn’t get people’s attention. 

Over the past 75 years, we have become so accustomed to flipping a light switch, and when you flip the switch, the lights come on. Nobody even thinks about it. So we don’t pay any attention to it. I told PJM – this is a little bit facetious, but it’s the best descriptor – I said you have managed to put this together with wire and duct tape and make this system work. As a result of that, people don’t pay attention, they don’t care. 

PJM has 1,400 generators of electricity in their 13-state area. In that same area, there are about 90,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. Remember: PJM is a voluntary-type organization. They don’t own the lines. They don't own the generation – they take the power generation that's available and send it directly where it goes, where it's needed. We keep saying, “We're eliminating all this baseload, all this reserve capacity.” Their No. 1 goal is reliability. So far, they’ve done a very good job, and I told them, “You're gonna get blamed if the system goes down – it’s your fault.” and they said, “We know that,” even though they don't own anything. All they do is try and coordinate it. We’re dealing them a hand of cards. I'm not sure how they're gonna play it, how they can play it.

Gov. Shapiro’s RGGI working group put out a memo with some recommendations and one of them was exploring a PJM-wide cap and trade structure. Is that worth exploring? Or should Pennsylvania be putting cap-and-trade aside?

I guess you could explore it. I'm never gonna say that you shouldn't talk about some of these things, but just think about the hurdles to overcome. There's 13 states. You're gonna get 13 state legislatures to go along with this? I don't think so. That's my opinion. 

Now, I'm not sure that some of the people understand what PJM is, either. There were some things that came out of the governor's office a year ago. He severely chastised PJM for not approving more of the solar and wind applications. That’s not the problem. They can approve every one of them that's pending right now. It is not going to answer the question I asked originally: Where's the power come from at 3 a.m. in the morning on a cold winter night? I'm not sure that there was a real understanding of the role that PJM plays. 

You’ve introduced Senate Bill 832, which would establish an Independent Energy Office in Pennsylvania. What would this office do?

With energy being the basic building block of society, we need an Independent Energy Office just like the IFO – the Independent Fiscal Office. I was around when that office was created. There was a lot of teeth-gnashing going on about duplicating things that are already done and all this stuff. If you tried to eliminate the IFO at this point, there would be an uproar about it because everybody relies on them. You don't necessarily agree with them, but you rely on them as a source, as a touchstone resource to form opinions about what our financial condition is. 

Energy is so important to Pennsylvania – we need a consistent organization where their sole purpose is to reflect on where we stand in energy production and the energy market.