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Voices of 100%: can Philadelphia and its suburbs revolutionize their local energy system?

What gives the suburbs of Philadelphia an edge over the central city in making commitments to 100% renewable energy?

For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Meenal Raval, a leader in the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Thanks to organizing from this campaign, 16 suburbs surrounding Philadelphia have made formal, community-wide commitments to transition to 100% renewable energy. Despite its revolutionary roots, however, the core city has not yet set a citywide commitment.

This conversation digs into what actions and policies are needed to implement local clean energy solutions that will help Philadelphia and communities in the larger metropolitan region gain independence from dirty energy and an incumbent, centralized utility model.

Listen to the full episode to learn how Philadelphia and its suburbs are taking action to support local, clean energy, and explore more highlights and resources, below — including a transcript and written summary of the conversation.

Episode Transcript

How Suburbs Can Lead on Clean Energy

While more than 100 diverse communities of all sizes have set goals to pursue 100 percent renewable energy, suburbs can get written off in conversations about sustainability or clean energy. That hasn’t been the case in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia’s suburbs and township managers of these communities have been taking the lead to set ambitious goals and make transition plans for clean energy. Meanwhile, leaders in the central city itself have made excuses, or think “that they’ve done enough,” Raval notes.

So what gives the suburbs an edge in setting and pursuing their goals?

“The folks in the suburbs realize that each of them needs to work with their neighbors to engage the township official,” Raval says, describing the success of organizing efforts in suburban Philadelphia communities.

In addition to organized community members, Raval points out that a unique structure of having environmental advisory committees in the suburbs — which have been “around for decades” — have also helped nurture local leadership in the fight for clean energy.

“The same committees are where the leadership is coming from. They’re poised to push for the renewable energy resolution and then once the resolution is passed, they’re working on the transition plan,” Raval explains.

Piecemeal Clean Energy Solutions in Philadelphia

While Philadelphia has signed onto the Paris Climate Accord and its mayor appears supportive of clean energy, Raval describes how there is not enough “buy-in from city council to work on the transition” and that the city’s clean energy investments have been “piecemeal” as a result.

One of these solutions includes a power purchase agreement with the developer of a nearby 70 megawatt solar array being constructed near Gettysburg, Pa. This investment will cost-effectively supply almost a quarter of the city government’s electricity use once it goes into effect. While Raval notes the agreement has yet to be officially signed, she hopes it will spark other similar investments. The city is now working with other institutional partners to explore and negotiate such contracts.

“The city can produce electricity from the solar project for the same price that they currently pay for the default grid power. They were amazed that they could accomplish that,” Raval explains.

The city is also switching its national renewable energy credits (or RECs) to those from local sources and “slowly considering solar on city buildings,” Raval notes.


For more on the benefits of putting solar on municipal buildings, how to remove barriers to making more of these investments, and examples of cities making municipal rooftop solar a priority, dig into our 2015 report, “Public Rooftop Revolution.”

In addition, Raval shares other strategies that Philadelphia could take — but isn’t yet — that include installing solar on libraries and recreation centers that the city plans to retrofit anyway, which is otherwise a missed opportunity. A large-scale energy efficiency retrofit program for commercial buildings, like New York City is doing, could be another important local step. She also notes ways to transform the city’s transportation system — pushing for electric buses, installing curbside electric vehicle charging infrastructure, or advocating for bicycling.

Pennsylvania Policy Can Enable Local Clean Energy

Because the state of Pennsylvania has a competitive electricity market, it allows for customers to ask for power purchase agreements — like the solar array contract the city of Philadelphia is pursuing. However, one downside to the state’s electricity market structure is that utilities “can just shrug their shoulders and not feel obligated to any other renewable energy goals, other than those set by the state,” Raval notes.

This makes state policy all the more important for enabling local, clean energy. Raval is hopeful about the state senators who are pushing to increase the state’s renewable portfolio standard from 8 to 30 percent by 2030––although this 2030 goal would be less aggressive than existing standards in Minnesota, Colorado, and Oregon––and about the prospect of Pennsylvania following the lead of a growing number of other states that have committed to 100 percent renewable energy.

Raval also notes other encouraging policy proposals during the course of the conversation, including a statewide community solar program. If the community solar bill is successful, Pennsylvania would join more than 15 states that have passed similar shared renewable programs.


For more on why state policies matter when it comes to supporting local, renewable energy, explore our 2019 Community Power Scorecard and companion article about Why ILSR’s 2019 Community Power Scorecard Matters.

 

Another proposal Farrell and Raval discuss has not yet been introduced, but would allow for community choice aggregation in the state. This gives communities new options to get “much more renewable energy than their default utility is providing,” Farrell explains.

While negotiations among state legislators and investor-owned utilities can set states back on their path to clean energy, such as rolling back net metering in exchange for community solar, Raval remains hopeful. She thinks a number of clean energy measures — linked to below in the Episode Notes — could pass the state’s legislature and help shape the future of local, renewable energy for communities across the state. An upcoming clean energy and climate lobby day will ensure legislators hear from community members who support these efforts.

Setting a Positive Clean Energy Vision in a Fracking State

Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign in Southeastern Pennsylvania has seen success, Raval believes, because of its positive approach — instead of just resisting something negative. As a result of its solutions-oriented vision, she says that the campaign has “drawn a lot more volunteers than other projects have.”

The promise of green job opportunities in clean energy and energy efficiency, while reducing air and water pollution in a state known for fracking, is another benefit.

“We’ve seen firsthand our water and our air get fouled by first by extraction, then by transportation and lastly by combustion,” Raval explains of the state’s history with fracked gas and fossil fuels. “So, people have finally made the connection and… the suburbs are where the pipeline goes through — I think that could be one reason why they’ve woken up.”

Indeed, communities that have seen these costs of fossil fuels are demanding their local elected officials help invest in alternatives.

“Having a commitment would mean there’s a shared understanding between the public and the elected rep that we no longer invest in fossil fuel projects,” Raval explains.

With commitments to transition from fossil fuels and to 100 percent renewable energy, a next step for many communities will be how to shift away from gas for cooking, heating, and other uses. Raval explains how some in Philadelphia are beginning to explore how to shift the city-owned Philadelphia Gas Works utility into a “post carbon utility” and disconnect its gas service, in order to reduce both demand for and leakage from fracked gas.

Advice for Others Organizing for 100 Percent Renewable Energy

In reflecting on the lessons she has learned from being an organizer in the campaign for 100 percent renewable energy, Raval encourages community members to give their elected officials public support and to show them examples — a “roadmap” — of what is possible.  “Many will take the ball and run with it,” she says. For such examples or inspiration, ILSR created its Community Power Toolkit, to illustrate how cities across the country can invest in local, renewable energy.


Find inspiration from cities across the country with examples and roadmaps for transforming the local energy system and investing in clean energy in the Institute’s Community Power Toolkit.

 

Raval concludes the interview with some words of encouragement, emphasizing the need for persistence in this work:

“I would say persistence. Go to as many things as you can, speak for the climate at each one. Come prepared with examples from other places. You can speak on whatever calls to you, whether it was public health or clean energy or future generations. Keep at it,” Raval recommends.

Want to hear other stories of how communities are building local power and supporting renewable energy?

Stay-tuned for future episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast now every two weeks, including our next episode featuring a recent interview with Soulardarity, an organization working to build energy democracy in Highland Park, Michigan.

Episode Notes

Raval and Farrell discussed a number of measures being considered by the Pennsylvania State Legislature this session to advance clean and renewable energy. Details and links to these bills with additional notes from Raval follow:

  • Increase the State’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) — Currently, Pennsylvania requires its utilities generate only 8 percent of electricity from renewables by 2021. There is leadership by Senators Haywood and 18 others to increase this requirement. Their Senate Bill, SB 600, would raise the renewable energy targets in from 8 to 30 percent by 2030. In the House, Representatives Comitta and 37 others have introduced a companion bill, HB 1195.
  • State-Level Commitment to 100% Renewable — Rep. Rabb and 68 others re-introduced HB 2145 from last session, as HB 1425. This is a state-level commitment to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Six other states, districts, or territories have passed such commitments to-date (Hawaii, California, Washington D.C., New Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Nevada).
  • Community Solar Legislation — This is expected to pass this year, and the current HB 531 bill has 62 sponsors to-date.
  • Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) — Raval notes that her team of volunteers and leaders are working with Rep. Hohenstein to get a CCA bill introduced in the legislature.

For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.


This is the 11th episode of our special Voices of 100% series, and 80th of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell or Marie Donahue on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update. Research Associate Maria McCoy assisted with editing the summary post for this episode.

Featured Photo Credit: rdphotography via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

 

Contact:

John Farrell is the Director of Democratic Energy at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and widely known as the guru of distributed energy.John is best known for his vivid illustrations of the economic and environmental benefits of local ownership of decentralized renewable energy.John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at [email protected]