opens IMAGE file 2 min read January 2021 —Philadelphia is a burgeoning haven for clean energy generation and energy efficiency practices, both of which have been accelerated by the ripple effects of the pandemic. Emily Schapira, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA), shares her vision of a sustainable Philly and the progress made toward that end.
What role does the PEA play within the Philadelphia region?
The PEA is an independent municipal authority. It was created by the city council and mayor in 2011 to support energy affordability and sustainability for the city. In 2016, we launched our marquee initiative, the Philadelphia Energy Campaign, a 10-year, $1 billion investment in clean energy and energy efficiency projects to create 10,000 jobs. We’ve helped launch over $150 million in projects since the launch of that campaign and through 2019, we created about 1,300 jobs. We view our role as helping to create a robust, equitable clean energy market in Philadelphia, and we’ve seen that market really begin to blossom. We’ve been able to create and implement several tools that help the market move forward, like Commercial Property-Assessed Clean Energy financing (C-PACE), a commercial-industrial financing tool, and with Solarize Philly, a residential solar discount program that helps fund solar training for youth and access to solar for low- and moderate-income homeowners. We have helped foster significant change in the way people think about the energy market here. Philadelphia used to be a town driven by oil and gas. Now, with climate change upon us and market conditions favoring renewables, the script has begun to flip.
How would you characterize the dynamic between clean energy and public health?
Clean energy drives public health by improving both indoor and outdoor air quality. Our reliance on fossil fuels has led to Philadelphia having one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the nation, which will be greatly reduced by the recent closing and current redevelopment of the East Coast’s largest oil refinery. And as we’ve seen with COVID-19, indoor air quality and healthy conditions at home are more important than ever, and energy and utilities have a huge role to play.
Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of low-income ownership in the country. When those homes are handed down from generation to generation, families often don’t have the resources to maintain them, and the housing stock is already very old to begin with. That can lead to unhealthy conditions inside their homes like mold caused by long-standing leaks, drafty windows, inefficient heating and often a lack of proper ventilation and cooling. Energy is the go-to tool to put all the resources together. We run a program called Built to Last, which essentially stacks all of the existing low-income home repair programs using energy as the driver, leveraging state, local, federal, utility and nonprofit programs, adding electrification and solar power and resulting in full home restorations that leave that family with a safe, healthy and affordable home for the long term. We know from talking to our local health systems and from the research that has been done that health starts in the home.
How has the focus among businesses and residential communities evolved toward consolidating a sustainable footprint?
These are sizable problems that are not going to be solved by what we’ve been doing in the past. As has been said often, we’ve done an excellent job in Philadelphia at maintaining poverty, not reducing it. We are the poorest big city in the United States, with a 24.5% poverty rate. That has not changed much in recent decades. COVID-19 has only exacerbated it, particularly in Black and Brown communities. There is every opportunity in the world in housing and energy in Philadelphia right now. President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion clean energy plan could go a long way toward addressing some of these issues. We’ve seen a significant shift in the housing and community development space in energy efficiency and solar power – everyone agrees now that homes are not really affordable if you cannot afford the utilities. That has been a big cultural shift and similarly on health issues, people are realizing it is not good enough to build the cheapest thing. You have to build the asset that will be both healthy and affordable for the long term.
What are PEA’s top priorities for 2021?
Philadelphia has been the best-kept secret for a long time. There are a lot of companies operating in other parts of the country that have had no idea about the opportunities in Philadelphia, particularly in terms of the clean energy economy that is starting to boom. We’re excited to see more of those national and global companies come in and check out what we have going on. C-PACE was a real driver in getting a lot of these companies to come to town. Our outlook is rosy for next year.
The pandemic has been a huge challenge and we will have more challenges coming out of the winter. As we start getting people vaccinated and start moving toward a full economic reopening, our clean energy resources and initiatives will be key resources to help us build an equitable recovery, build it back better and ensure people are able to afford their utilities. In parallel, businesses are realizing the value of building more energy efficient structures. Solar is not just a nice-to-have or an asset only for the wealthy. It’s becoming increasingly affordable and gaining its place as a smart, long-term hedge. Battery storage is also starting to become an important component.
Our top priorities in 2021 will be to build scalable clean energy financing through our new green bank, drive commercial and non-profit solar, storage and energy efficiency adoption and collaborate with government and private actors to launch Built to Last to reduce poverty and preserve existing affordable housing.
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