Philadelphia has been a leading city in America for 300 years. As the very site of our nation’s birth, Philadelphia stands for independence, freedom of choice and innovation. Today, Philadelphia stands at an energy and environmental crossroads.
Philadelphia faces the challenge of how to decarbonize and achieve net-zero carbon by 2050. It is time for Philadelphians to do what they’ve always done; bring solutions to the table.
My experience as former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection taught me that there is rarely, if ever, a one-size-fits-all solution to our environmental and energy challenges. The rowhouses in our neighborhoods require different solutions than Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. And because the energy needs of the City are too diverse and the options are far too numerous to pick one path, we must evaluate what’s working and what’s not in terms of our existing energy infrastructure.
The very cradle of American liberty and independence is committed to shackling itself to outdated technology, higher carbon emissions and millions of dollars in potentially stranded assets.
One of the toughest nuts to crack is how Philadelphia can achieve decarbonization while it owns the largest municipally-owned gas utility in the country, Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW). PGW contributes nearly one-fifth of the city’s carbon emissions and is responsible for at least $184 million in externalized climate costs each year. In addition to that, PGW has admitted that its aging pipeline infrastructure leaks 1 million tons of carbon equivalent per year.
The recently released PGW business diversification study regretfully admits that there is no viable way for PGW to decarbonize. In fact, PGW is actively working against the City’s decarbonization goals.
As reported in The Inquirer, PGW and the National Park Service (NPS) have reached a behind-closed-doors deal to take NPS off the City’s district energy system and install individual gas boilers in Independence National Park buildings. Think about that: The very cradle of American liberty and independence is committed to shackling itself to outdated technology, higher carbon emissions and millions of dollars in potentially stranded assets.
Now it’s federally owned Amtrak at the iconic 30th Street Station that is going gas on a huge scale. Amtrak is proposing to put in a PGW-fed gas boiler with pipes and stacks big enough to serve five stories of office space and over 1,000 employees. Amtrak’s decision, if allowed to stand, will pump an additional 1,800 tons of carbon into Philadelphia’s air for the next 50 years.
These NPS and Amtrak stranded assets will be paid for by PGW ratepayers, many of whom are below the poverty level. Further, WHYY reported that PGW has secretively lobbied for Senate Bill 275 which would take away the right of Philadelphia to choose how to decarbonize.
PGW contributes nearly one-fifth of the city’s carbon emissions and is responsible for at least $184 million in externalized climate costs each year. In addition to that, PGW has admitted that its aging pipeline infrastructure leaks 1 million tons of carbon equivalent per year.
Installing these new, gas-powered boilers would not be innovative. It would be regressive and costly, ignoring existing energy infrastructure that’s more environmentally sound.
One of Philadelphia’s unique assets is its cogeneration fed district energy system, the second largest in North America. Vicinity Energy owns the district pipe system, along with the Grays Ferry cogeneration plant in Philadelphia, which simultaneously generates electricity and thermal energy with highly efficient turbines. [Full disclosure: Vicinity Energy is a client of my company, Silent Majority Strategies.]
Rather than simply venting the excess heat (as the vast majority of electric generating stations do), Vicinity captures the excess heat and puts it to use, serving ~100 million square feet of buildings in Center City. At the moment, this includes the majority of the buildings maintained by the National Parks Services in Philadelphia.
Cogeneration (CHP) is recognized to be an effective tool in avoiding carbon emissions. CHP is incredibly efficient, as much as 20 to 25 percent more efficient than the best natural gas electric generation plants and it can be as high as 80 percent as compared to about 50 percent in an individual building gas boiler. Vicinity’s system avoids over 300,000 tons of carbon emissions annually. The steam heat provided is necessary for the operation of all of Philadelphia’s largest hospitals, labs and other critical facilities.
While the CHP facility is already ratcheting down carbon emissions in Philadelphia, it holds even more potential to help decarbonize Philadelphia. Vicinity is looking at the feasibility of converting to electric boilers and purchasing electricity from renewable sources which would have the effect of electrifying 100-million square feet of building space with the turn of one switch.
Possible installation of industrial-scale heat pumps would use heat from the Schuylkill River to preheat water, thus reducing the use of fossil fuel to generate steam. Also, there is potential for grid-scale energy storage. Molten salt batteries, which cannot be used in commercial buildings, would make the Vicinity facility the largest energy storage facility in the region. This opens the door to a faster ramp-up of solar and wind on the grid.
I have had the privilege of working with Vicinity for a while now and can say that the company is committed to a cleaner environment, the region’s economy, and the City of Philadelphia
National Park Service and Amtrak are making the wrong choice and they can still reverse course. It’s time to make smart choices.
Mike Krancer (@MikeKrancer), the former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and chief judge of the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board, is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm where he advises Vicinity Energy among others. The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.
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