Turbines at the Somerset Wind Farm in Somerset, PA. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Pittsburgh will become the center of a critical climate change debate when the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) hosts its upcoming event at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Various speakers and experts will gather for Achieving Deep Carbon Reductions: Paths for Pennsylvania’s Electricity Future, a PEC-sponsored conference focused on the so-called deep decarbonization of Pennsylvania’s electricity sector. The term means cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent or greater by 2050 through a combination of renewables, carbon capture and storage, and next-generation nuclear technologies.

In an official statement, Lindsay Baxter, PEC’s program manager for Energy and Climate, said the ambitious figure falls in line with “what the world’s top scientists recommend.”

The move would mean drastic changes for a state where cities like Pittsburgh are listed as having the worst air pollution in the country.

PEC president and CEO Davitt Woodwell says the intention of the conference is to figure out how to make these major carbon cuts while still maintaining a strong economy and reliable, affordable energy supply. Doing so requires cooperation among regulators, policymakers and energy producers.

“One of the reasons Pennsylvania is so interesting for this topic is we have about every type of electricity generation you can think of,” says Woodwell, rattling off major contributors like coal and gas, along with renewables like solar, hydro and wind. “It’s a place where so much of this comes into play and from an economic side there are upsides for industries, business and workers who will benefit no matter what.”

The conference will feature viewpoints from national experts, such as Jessica Lovering of the Breakthrough Institute, an energy and environment think tank, as well as local and state leaders, such as Patrick McDonnell, acting secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection. The lineup also includes representatives from the Department of Energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making, and the Penn State Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science.

“We’re really thrilled that all of these people are willing to talk about it,” says Woodwell, adding that their combined input will help PEC put together a “white paper of how we think Pennsylvania should tackle this issue of deep decarbonization going forward.”

The conference appears especially important as environmental advocates prepare for the federal government to scale back regulations on polluters. Many fear the dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plancreated to achieve a 33 percent reduction in carbon pollution from U.S. power plants by 2050by newly appointed head Scott Pruitt.

It also aligns with efforts to address pollution issues at the city and state levels, including the City of Pittsburgh’s Climate Action Plan, which wants a 20 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2023.

Woodwell believes the state is in a position to tackle deep decarbonization and become a model of sustainability.

“Pennsylvania is an important player in all these issues because of the emissions we produce and all the energy-related industries that are here, and because of all the innovation going on at the universities and in the business community,” says Woodwell. “This is a great opportunity for the Commonwealth to become a leader and benefit from it.”

Achieving Deep Carbon Reductions: Paths for Pennsylvania’s Electricity Future will take place at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center from March 15-16.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.