With new reports highlighting potential health hazards of gas stoves, and the Port Richmond gas explosion earlier this year, Philadelphians are thinking more about the safety of gas utilities in their homes and communities.
But when it comes to sustainability and safer utilities in the city, Philadelphia Gas Works is coming up short.
As the largest municipally-owned gas utility in the country, PGW is a unique asset that could lead our city into a sustainable energy future. Cleaner air, cleaner neighborhoods, and innovative technologies could make Philadelphia an example, throughout the U.S. and the world. Public ownership should ideally make PGW open, transparent, and collaborative.
Unfortunately, it’s none of these things, and the situation is only getting worse. It’s time for our elected officials to take action to force PGW to stop acting in secret and embrace sustainable solutions and partnerships.
Despite demands from concerned citizens, environmental organizations like Clean Air Council, and forward-thinking elected officials, PGW is determined to cling to its bureaucratic and fossil fuel-based business model to the bitter end. It has recently turned down several significant opportunities to chart a more sustainable — not to mention a more profitable — course into the future.
As more customers prioritize renewable energy and choose electric heat pumps, PGW’s remaining customers, who generally have lower incomes, are paying increased prices because they’re responsible for more of the fixed costs of the fossil gas distribution infrastructure. It’s a lose-lose situation, driving up both costs and bills. Layer on top a secretive management that stonewalls the public and alienates potential partners, and PGW is far from the utility Philadelphians deserve.
Case in point: PGW recently turned down a $10 million offer from Vicinity Energy, the company that operates Philadelphia’s steam loop system, to purchase a high-pressure gas pipeline dedicated to Vicinity’s cogeneration plant. Instead, PGW appears to be trying to drive Vicinity out of business. Never mind the fact that the steam loop system could be the best path to decarbonizing buildings in Philadelphia’s downtown core. If Vicinity builds its own pipeline, PGW could end up with the losing trifecta of an empty, useless pipe of its own, a hefty bill to remove and remediate that now-stranded asset, and a missed opportunity for a cash infusion.
That additional $10 million could be a vital piece of start-up capital to begin a city-wide transformation of Philadelphia’s thermal energy grid. Whether retrofitting houses and small businesses or investing in new neighborhood energy projects like geothermal microgrids, those funds could help PGW re-imagine Philadelphia as a zero-carbon, high-efficiency leader.
PGW is an asset that belongs to the people. It should be an agent for change and public service. The sad truth is that it lacks any real oversight and continues to operate without any demand for accountability from those in authority. We call on Mayor Kenney, City Council, and the Philadelphia Gas Commission to do their jobs, pull PGW out of its downward spiral, and put it back on a proper course.
We also call on every one of next year’s mayoral hopefuls to set PGW straight and require it to truly serve its owners, the people of Philadelphia.
Most importantly, PGW — as well as the Philadelphia Gas Commission and the Philadelphia Facilities Management Corporation, which oversee PGW — must be less secretive and more publicly accountable. PGW’s regulatory structure is overly complex, ineffective, and the product of disconnected historical circumstances rather than a coherent plan. It may require fundamental changes and reorganization.
One thing is clear: In its current form, PGW is not serving Philadelphians, ratepayers, or the environment. PGW must be reformed into a transparent, innovative leader. City officials have the power to make that happen.
Joseph Minott is the executive director and chief counsel of the Clean Air Council, Philadelphia’s oldest environmental nonprofit. He has spent his career championing environmental issues like clean air and water, advocating for a transition away from fossil fuels, and promoting clean energy solutions such as energy efficiency, wind, solar and geothermal.