How Philly plans to beat Trump and get green by 2050

The city is emulating Google, Apple and Australia.

Philadelphia Skyline
Joan Brady / Billy Penn
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When you have a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 — as Philadelphia does — how do you beat the federal government?

President Donald Trump’s administration scrubbed the words ‘climate change’ from WhiteHouse.Gov the day he took office. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supposed to avoid the phrase. And then there was last month. EPA chief Scott Pruitt rescinded the Clean Power Plan, canceling an Obama  administration mandate that would’ve greatly diminished carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants.

But Philadelphia has plans to negate those measures, not to mention a state legislature that hasn’t always been receptive to renewable energy. The city is already in the middle of a plan that will give it an edge. Philadelphia is seeking to contract with a private company in what’s called a power purchasing agreement to clean the local government’s electricity supply, with plans of partnering with major institutions to do the same in the future. It’s a major part of the Office of Sustainability’s “Powering Our Future: A Clean Energy Vision for Philadelphia.”

“The power purchase we announced is sort of our new approach to figure out how we can get more clean electricity in that grid without these policy shifts,” said Christine Knapp, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability. “Once that one is done hopefully we can do another one and another one until we’re at 100 percent [removed from fossil fuels].”

The request for proposals Philadelphia released for companies to bid on the power purchase agreement is due at the end of the month. Philadelphia will become one of a handful of cities worldwide to embark on such a plan. Here’s how a power purchase works:

Philadelphia’s electricity grid is currently connected to coal and natural gas power sources throughout the region. These are not considered clean energy. Through a power purchase, Philly would pay a distributor to provide a renewable energy source to the grid, something like wind, solar or hydro. The distributor could already exist or start a new project to provide the electricity.

“So someone could build a solar farm in Bucks County,” Knapp said, “and we’d be the purchaser of the electricity coming off that solar farm.”

While an increase in solar installations, energy-efficient homes and businesses, and geothermal energy can help reduce emissions in Philadelphia, none matter as much as a clean electricity supply. A full shift from the coal and natural gas that power Philadelphia now to clean energy would drop Philly’s carbon emissions by 6.5 million metric tons alone. By 2050, to reach its 80 percent reduction, Philly must cut a total of 13.2 million metric tons of carbon emissions.

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Office of Sustainability

Washington, D.C. and Houston are the only two American cities to engage in power purchasing agreements, said Rich Freeh, city energy project manager. DC announced a power purchasing agreement with Iberdrola in 2015, which provides 35 percent of the District government’s electricity through wind power.

The city’s power purchase agreement involves the local government’s electricity only. To make a greater impact on cleaning electrical supply for all Philadelphia, it would need to enlist the private sector.

Google and Apple, independent of city governments, for instance, have signed power purchasing agreements. But most companies don’t have the capital of Google and Apple. They would need to band together for a power purchase or partner with local government. Philly leaders hope powerful institutions like Penn or the zoo would partner with the city in the future. Several companies have done this in Melbourne, Australia.

The Clean Power Plan was supposed to bring Philadelphia — and every other American city — further away from fossil fuels. It mandated states to drop their carbon emissions by 24 to 33 percent by 2030. Had the plan come to fruition, there would have been far fewer sources of fossil fuels to choose from by 2030, for governments, private companies or individuals (you can choose renewable energy options for your home at Papowerswitch.com).

The city is also seeking feedback from residents on its overall carbon reduction goals. You can respond to the survey here. 

Power purchasing agreements alone, even if dozens and dozens of institutions join the city government, won’t clean Philly’s electricity supply. Given that Philadelphia is connected to a regional electricity grid, Harrisburg and the federal government will have to become involved at some point for the city clean its supply and reach its 80 percent reduction goal.

The power purchasing agreements are a small step.

“This is ground up pushing on the grid versus top down policy approach,” Knapp said, “which is going to take more time.”