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At Bucks Gathering, Republicans Talk Solar Virtues

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Read the article on Bucks County Courier Times


A new conservative group is trying to change the perception that only Democrats support renewable energy like solar. The issue was discussed by local leaders and lawmakers on the Upper Makefield property of former Navy Secretary John Lehman Jr. last week.

A new conservative group is trying to change the perception that only Democrats support renewable energy like solar. The issue was discussed by local leaders and lawmakers on the Upper Makefield property of former Navy Secretary John Lehman Jr. last week.

Last week’s gathering on the bucolic Upper Makefield estate of John Lehman Jr., former secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, had all the trappings of political schmoozing.

Lehman, a prominent conservative writer on national defense issues and significant political donor, rubbed elbows with Pat Poprik, chair of the Bucks County GOP; state Rep. Todd Stephens, R-151, of Horsham; and Phil Innamorato, regional field director for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, among other officials and party members.

Guinea fowls, peacocks and a turkey stalked the property. When discussion about a particular bill in Harrisburg came up, one lawmaker joked that their vote might be bought with dessert.

But it was the entrée that was the surprise: a discussion of the virtues of renewable and solar energy, and a pushback on the narrative that Democrats are the only ones who take principled stands on clean energy technologies.

“What we’re trying to do is provide some political cover for Republicans,” said Chad Forcey, executive director of the Pennsylvania Conservative Energy Forum, a nonprofit that organized the event. “The problem with energy is that ‘clean and renewable’ has been so politicized, frankly because of the fighting over climate change.”

Forcey’s group, PennCEF, formed last year. It is part of and funded primarily by the Conservative Energy Network, a Michigan-based organization started in 2016 by Mark Pischea, an experienced Republican strategist in that state. Among PennCEF’s leadership council is Jim Cawley, former Republican Bucks County commissioner and Pennsylvania lieutenant governor.

There was little mention of climate change from PennCEF employees at the gathering last week or in the materials and talking points they passed out to attendees. Instead, it was the rights of property owners, deregulation of energy policy, and national security that largely drove the conversation. Lehman, who was one of the 10 members on the 9/11 Commission, particularly emphasized the latter.

“We reached a unanimous report with unanimous conclusions,” Lehman said of the commission, offering that there were 42 recommendations. “One of the most important was we need to find a way to get to energy independence. Because we have lost lives and treasure in the Middle East … defending what was a true national interest, an existential interest, to protect the oil sources in the Persian Gulf.”

Lehman also noted that the United States’ energy grid faces continued probing from countries such as China and Russia, which could launch cyberattacks or even cut undersea cable lines to throw the country into disarray. It was a point also driven home by John Storey, Harrisburg director for PennCEF, who noted that there is a federal mandate that military bases must be energy independent by 2030. As a result, Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County has installed a 20-acre solar array.

“That provides 18 percent of the base’s energy,” Storey said. “They’ve also transitioned from coal to natural gas in their buildings and are doing other things to come off the grid. It’s for national security reasons. The belief is that our energy grid is susceptible.”

The group also got a firsthand look at a solar array, walking the Lehman property to a 22,000-watt system installed several years ago. In 12 hours of direct sunlight, the system would generate about 250 kilowatt-hours of energy. Over a month, that would be enough to power about nine homes, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

The system was installed by Moore Energy LLC, owned by Northampton Board of Supervisors chairman Barry Moore. Moore explained that under Pennsylvania’s “net-metering” laws, excess energy from Lehman’s array gets sold back onto the grid and is used by his neighbors. But the system could improve even further if there were batteries on-site to store energy and have them for times of peak demand, Moore said.

“Say there’s a brownout in the area on a hot August day. … PECO could knock on John’s door electronically and use (the battery) to power other people in the neighborhood,” Moore said. “Now, could you imagine if you had hundreds of people in Upper Makefield with energy storage systems?”

Changing state laws to allow more ability to install such systems, called microgrids, was one of the key policy points pushed by PennCEF at the gathering. Forcey and Storey espoused particular support for House Bill 531, introduced in February by state Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne County. A bill memo says the legislation would allow residents to join “community solar projects” and effectively derive a portion of their power use from a local, renewable supply. The bill has significant bipartisan support, including sponsorship from Stephens and state Rep. Tom Murt, R-152, of Upper Moreland.

Other policies backed by PennCEF include support for on- and off-shore wind generation, electric vehicle infrastructure, and zoning and agricultural reform. Forcey said that currently farms are limited in how much solar energy they can sell based on prior agreements, rather than how much energy they actually put back onto the grid. He wants to change that.

“For a dairy farm in Allegheny County that’s struggling, that could mean life or death for them,” Forcey said. “If they can’t get enough money to sustain the farm from their herd, they’re going to be depending on those credits from solar.”

Forcey said opposition mainly comes from energy companies and utilities, including PECO, which runs Pennsylvania’s energy infrastructure. Mark Haas, director of legislative and government affairs for PECO, attended the gathering. He said PECO doesn’t have a blanket opposition to solar and other renewable energies, and sees a growing demand for the technology among customers.

But, he said, the economics become tricky. While solar installation prices have dropped, it’s still typically wealthier people who install solar and drop off the grid, leaving the utility to put more costs of maintaining physical infrastructure on the rest of the customer base.

“We’re trying to do the most we can to promote solar and be customer-responsive,” Haas said. “But as solar increases … we want to make sure that the costs of putting more solar on the grid are not absorbed by our lower-income customers. And that’s a challenge. It’s a political challenge.”

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About author
Chad Forcey comes to PennCEF with considerable experience in the world of advocacy. Forcey served the Irrigation Association and the PA Landscape and Nursery Association. He was the personal aide to Governor Mark Sweiker during his tenure in Harrisburg. An articulate spokesperson and seasoned writer, he works to educate, advocate, and engage Pennsylvanians to transition to clean energy in ways that bring jobs to the Commonwealth, make sense economically, protect land rights and guard our national security.
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