Successes, 'maybes' for energy package Rendell and Republicans agreed on solar power, but other decisions were put off until September.

Posted: July 11, 2007

A ray of sunlight for solar energy in Pennsylvania, a hopeful forecast for investment in other alternative sources of power, and continuing clouds over conservation.

That, in a nutshell, was the outcome of last-minute negotiations between Gov. Rendell and Republican leaders over a package of proposals Rendell had touted as his "Energy Independence Strategy."

Rendell had pushed past the traditional budget deadline and helped force a daylong furlough of state workers, partly on behalf of the energy package. He said it would make Pennsylvania a leader in conservation and renewable energy and would help avert double- or triple-digit increases in electricity prices when caps expired in the years ahead.

Last-minute negotiations with Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), the Senate's majority leader, led to agreement on some elements of the plan and postponed other questions for a special legislative session set to start Sept. 17.

The status of key issues:

Solar energy. Before leaving for the summer, the legislature is expected to pass one of four bills in the package, House Bill 1203, which Rendell said would clarify production targets set in 2004 and "be a real boost to our burgeoning solar-energy industry in the state."

Energy Independence Fund. Rendell proposed a surcharge on electric bills to finance $850 million in bonds for investment in conservation and alternative and renewable energy. On Monday night, he said Republican leaders had agreed to a $750 million fund, albeit financed with other revenue sources.

The sides portrayed the agreement a bit differently.

Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Pileggi, said the leadership had agreed to find $60 million a year in funding from existing sources, which he said "could fund up to $750 million" in bonds. But Arneson said Republicans might argue against front-loading all the spending via a bond issue.

Biofuels. Rendell's proposal would set targets for including agricultural products, such as ethanol and soy oil, in gasoline and diesel fuel. GOP leaders agreed to address the issue in September and expect it to get sizable support from the party.

"I don't think there will be any difficulty arriving at a consensus on biofuels," Arneson said.

Conservation, "smart meters." No agreement was reached on these two issues. They will be on the table in September.

To save money and protect the environment, Rendell wants utilities to give priority to conservation before they buy more energy from conventional sources. And he wants all residents and businesses to get "smart meters" so they can see the high cost utilities pay for power during peak-demand periods and volunteer for programs that will pay them for cutting back.

Arneson said the GOP was not necessarily opposed, though he said the power industry had questioned "whether or not the benefits of smart meters outweighed the costs of installing them."

But Arneson said consensus was possible on that and other issues.

"We've never tried to kill this package," he said. "We've always wanted to get more input, get more eyes looking at it, and hopefully strengthen it."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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