Post Gazette: Have an idea or a project for reducing climate pollution? The government wants to know about it

In different rooms with different voices, peoples across Pennsylvania have been imagining what it would take to decarbonize their economies.

Some of these conversations began before the U.S. Congress enacted its landmark infrastructure bill in 2021, or the energy and climate powerhouse, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Others started afterward, or picked up steam as it became clear that a firehose of funding for greenhouse gas emission reduction schemes would be unleashed in a short period of time. Short, because of the urgency of climate change and the realities of a political system where energy and environmental policy can do a 180 every few years.

Over time, some of those discussions have gotten bigger, pulling in more companies, academics, industrial giants, local government officials and labor unions.

When funding became available for hydrogen hubs, groups coalesced to pursue it, drawing on the foundation of established relationships and already brainstormed ideas.

The same is happening now to pursue a different pot of money — $4.3 billion in Climate Pollution Reduction Grants. The money will be administered by state and local government agencies who must first come up with a plan for how to get the most greenhouse gas emission reductions, or the biggest bang for their buck. Applications are due in the next few months.

“We have all these people that have been talking in different rooms for a while,” said DJ Ryan, director of Strategic Initiatives and Policy at the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.

Earlier this month, the agency packed about 100 of them into the same room in the Strip District to talk specifics on the climate pollution reduction grant program.

The SPC might apply for it, Mr. Ryan said, or it might be another southwestern Pennsylvania agency. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection surely will, asking for the full $500 million, the cap available to a single applicant.

Both organizations are soliciting public feedback — the DEP’s request for information runs though Jan. 29 — and want to hear from organizations with shovel-ready decarbonization projects.

The state has decided to focus its program on industrial decarbonization, because, according to Pennsylvania’s latest greenhouse gas emissions inventory (with data from 2020), the industrial sector is the largest emitter, accounting for about 30% of the carbon footprint. And it’s widely considered the most difficult to decarbonize.

For residential, commercial and transportation technologies, the overarching logic has been to try and electrify everything possible — that way a cleaner electric grid can become the blanket decarbonization strategy for everything connected to it.

That’s not always available for industrial applications.

Direct burning of fossil fuels in industrial processes — this does not include the electricity used by plants — is the biggest chunk of the industrial GHG emissions pie, followed by oil and gas systems, industrial processes and coal mining.

Pennsylvania, which is fourth among the nation in its greenhouse gas emissions, has a goal of lowering that footprint by 26% by 2025 and by 80% by 2050, compared to 2005 levels.

The state is ahead of schedule. It pretty much met its 2025 goal in 2020, the latest year for which data is available, but the DEP cautioned that was only because of the drop in economic activity during the pandemic shutdowns and “may not be durable.” It expects 2021 data to show an increase.

Moreover, while every other sector of the state’s economy has seen a drop in emissions over the past 15 years — electricity production, for example, plummeted by 44% as natural gas overtook coal in the mix — industrial emissions have continued to rise.

Louie Krak, Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, has been showing up in a lot of the rooms where decarbonization talk happens. Recently, he’s been spreading the word about the grant opportunity, which he said is a “huge initiative for the governor’s office.”

There’s likely to be a continuum of projects that make up the state’s industrial decarbonization program, he said.

“The first line of defense is looking at energy efficiency solutions — incredibly shovel ready and economical to implement,” he said. “But as you start moving down the levers to electrification or fuel switching, a key to success in designing a statewide program is having different options that can be accomplished on different timescales.”

Nothing is set in stone yet, but the DEP is eyeing a program that grants $100 million for each million metric ton of CO2e eliminated, with a minimum reduction of 20,000 metric tons (which would fetch $2 million).

So what kinds of projects might qualify?

The DEP provides a list. It includes electric heat pumps, combined heat and power systems, thermal storage technologies, clean hydrogen, biomass or waste heat recovery, energy efficiency waste reduction methods, electrification, renewable energy and low-emission fuels.

It also allows equipment used to capture carbon emissions from industrial processes and to move and store it underground, or transform that carbon into fuel, chemicals, solid products and other materials.

The agency would like to list specific projects in its application to the EPA, which is due April 1. The federal agency is likely to announce winners in the summer.

For the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission — or whatever other local agency decides to apply — the focus is unlikely to overlap with the DEP’s industrial mindset.

“We’ve been in talks with people who want to do things that are a little more common — installing EV chargers, putting solar panels on roofs; and people developing alternative fuels — not only for vehicles but for airplanes,” Mr. Ryan said.

The gamut runs from big ideas to shovel ready projects. “It’s everything from retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient to moving freight from trucks to the river, for example,” Mr. Ryan said.

Many were in the works; others wouldn’t be deployed without federal funding, he said.

“The ideas have been out there for years and we finally have the opportunity to bring them to fruition,” he said. “We’re going to try to get as much as possible for this region.”

Those interested in submitting comments to the DEP should email ra.ep.cprg@pa.gov. To contact the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, email comments@spcregion.org.

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