What’s stopping Philly from reaching its solar energy goal

Jim Kenney and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown wanted enough for 20K homes by 2025. That’ll be tough.

Solar house
Mark Dent/Billy Penn
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City Council set an ambitious environmental goal three years ago. In March 2014, it passed a resolution introduced by Blondell Reynolds Brown and then-Councilman Jim Kenney calling for Philadelphia to have enough solar capacity to power 20,000 homes by 2025.

So far, it’s not going so well.

As of this year, Philadelphia has 354 solar roofs individually linked to the grid that produce an output of about 10 megawatts. Those 10 megawatts could power somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 homes. That’s an increase of about twice the solar output Philadelphia had at the beginning of 2014 (enough to power 867 homes) but still far behind where the city needs to be.

Using the estimate from 2014, Philly has added enough capacity to power about 250 more homes per year to get to its current capacity of 1,500 to 2,000 homes. To have enough capacity to meet the 20,000 benchmark, the city needs to be adding, on average, about 10 times more capacity each year than what it has been doing since initiating the goal.

“I think it’s feasible,” said Adam Agalloco, energy manager of the Office of Sustainability. “It’s ambitious, but I think that’s why you set goals. I think we’re hopeful the solar market will catch on as the prices continue to go down for installation and panels.”

The Eagles are responsible for about one-third of the city’s solar capacity. Their solar installation at Lincoln Financial Field generates three megawatts, Agalloco said. The 350-plus other solar roofs generate the other seven megawatts, with individual residences providing fractions of megawatts. Last week, City Council and the Office of Sustainability announced a plan called Solarize Philly, which intends to increase the city’s number of solar roofs by 500 by the end of 2018 through a reduction in the price of solar installation. It’s not clear how much those roofs would increase the city’s overall capacity.

According to a 2015 report by PennEnvironment, Philadelphia, the fifth-largest city in the United States, ranked 26th overall in solar capacity and 41st in per capita solar capacity.

There are a few reasons solar energy hasn’t caught on here, the top being price. While solar is considered valuable for the environment and City Council noted increased solar capacity could help create jobs, individuals who install solar roofs — for a price of approximately $20,000 — likely won’t start seeing savings until later than people in other states.

That’s because Pennsylvania, though it doesn’t have many barriers to getting a solar roof and offers rebates for installation, doesn’t have many incentives. For instance, the state offers no tax credits for properties with solar energy, as other states do.

“I don’t want to say there’s no hope,” Agalloco said of Pennsylvania providing better incentives. “But I don’t think we’re waiting for the state to provide that boost. We’re trying to do what we can locally.”

Pennsylvania does rank 13th nationally in the renewable energy credits market. People who generate solar energy on their property can sell it back to utility companies and save money.

Some progress has been made in Philly, too. The city has made the installation of solar panels “by-right” so no special zoning exemption is needed. It has also reduced the costs of permits for solar energy.

Reynolds Brown, who introduced the solar energy resolution in 2014 and is chair of Council’s environmental committee, did not respond to an interview request.

Kenney, in a statement, said he still supports the intent of the resolution, “Achieving enough solar energy to power 20,000 homes in Philadelphia by 2025 is an ambitious, but very much achievable goal for the City of Philadelphia.”

The Office of Sustainability has initiated campaigns in various neighborhoods to make residents aware of solar energy. Especially absent state incentives, the Office is hoping for a viral effect. Solar tends to spread when people see their friends and neighbors using it.

“The beauty of this is we’re seeing solar come down in price,” Agalloco said. “There’s still the price of electricity. We’re hopeful the market can still catch on here without those generous subsidies.”