Philadelphia’s Energy Campaign Focuses on Efficiency and Poverty Reduction

PHILADELPHIA — Even before the solar panels were installed, Terrie Lewine’s house was rigged for low-impact living.

The walls are lined with energy-efficient closed-cell insulation. Heat is provided by a series of radiant hot-water tubes built into the floors, instead of less efficient forced-air or traditional radiators. The house is divided into six energy zones, which are powered on and off by a timer. In the backyard, two big rain barrels catch and redistribute rainwater, hydrating not just the goldfish pond but a lush garden — peach and fig trees, passionflower, blackberry and raspberry bushes, grapes and hardy kiwi on the vine.

Lewine started building her house in South Kensington, a part of Philadelphia that was racked by vacancy and disinvestment for decades before entering its current phase of rapid gentrification, in 2013. She runs her coaching and relationship counseling business, Back to Life Urban Sanctuary, out of the first floor of the home, highlighting the property’s eco-friendly features on her website. But she admits there’s more she could do.

“I don’t use much gas, but I do have gas,” Lewine says. “So I’m a fracker and that freaks me out. I could switch that over to electric, but my heating system is really pretty and it’s super efficient.”

Until earlier this year, Lewine was paying a premium to power her house with renewable energy sources. But since April, her monthly energy bill has been close to zero dollars, thanks to the 12 solar panels installed on her roof.

Lewine signed up for the installation through Solarize Philly, a year-old program aimed at homeowners who were on the fence about going solar. She had always intended to go solar, and was able to get financing for the roughly $13,000 installation, along with a discount on panels that’s part of the main draw of group-buying programs like Solarize. But what’s unique about Solarize isn’t the discount; the program is part of a larger, city initiative to pursue energy efficiency while at the same time easing the financial burden on the city’s most economically vulnerable residents.

This month, the Philadelphia Energy Authority is wrapping up its second round of Solarize, with a special financing pilot program available for 45 households earning more than 150 percent of the federal poverty line but less than 80 percent of area median income, or $66,550 for a family of four. And it hopes to expand that program in future years.

Solarize is one part of a billion-dollar effort called the Philadelphia Energy Campaign. The campaign, which was created by the Philadelphia Energy Authority, is aimed at reducing the city’s carbon impacts through solar energy and retrofitting buildings for efficiency while also at helping its lower income citizens cut costs and find jobs.

In August, the Energy Authority held an event to celebrate a group of high school students who had completed a solar-energy training program. In its first year, the campaign helped create 225 jobs, projecting 600 by the end of 2018, according to its year-one report. It hopes to create 10,000 jobs in solar and clean energy sectors over the next decade.

Emily Schapira, executive director of the Philadelphia Energy Authority, says the solar energy market in Philadelphia needed a push to overcome uncertainty among residents about whether solar installations were viable in the city.

“It needed a set of consumer protections and sort of a thumbs-up from the government saying, ‘Yep, now’s a great time to do it. Here’s what it looks like. We’ll make sure you’re not getting cheated.’ That kind of stuff,” Schapira says.

Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability estimates that around 80 percent of the city’s carbon emissions come from buildings and industry, and the city has set a goal of reducing its greenhouse gas output by 80 percent by the year 2050. Encouraging solar adoption is one aspect of that effort. In the first round of Solarize, 186 households signed up, which Schapira says has provided some momentum for the program.

Philadelphia’s solar market is now the fourth fastest-growing in the country, according to a study from Ohm Analytics. But it’s still only reaching a wealthier class of homeowners in a city with a 26 percent poverty rate and many more people living just above the poverty line. More than half of the first round of Solarize customers paid cash for the installation, according to Schapira.

“So you can see who we’re sort of serving there, and it’s great — we still want them to do it, of course,” she says. “But we’re really looking at where we can do something helpful, and if we don’t add something to the mix here, there’s no reason for us to be doing it.”

In addition to the solar component, the campaign includes pilot programs for retrofitting public schools, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other municipal buildings, along with multifamily affordable housing projects.

During another pilot program completed within the past year, three housing complexes owned by Mission First Housing Group, a nonprofit focused on affordable, safe and sustainable housing, were retrofitted with smart thermostats, weatherstripping for air conditioning units and exterior doors, new insulation for water pipes and shower heads, LED lighting fixtures, occupancy sensors and new refrigerators, according to Jessica Moore, the group’s director of asset management. The project covered around 100 units in three different types of complexes — connected townhomes, a refurbished mansion, and a traditional apartment building — in west and northeast Philadelphia. It’s expected to reduce energy costs for both Mission First and its tenants, most of whom earn around 50 percent of the area median income, she says.

[SEE: The Best- and Worst-Run Cities in the U.S.]

Retrofits like those are ultimately supposed to pay for themselves through reduced energy costs. But investors and energy services companies have sometimes stayed away from small-scale low- and moderate-income housing projects, and the School District of Philadelphia has had financial troubles that have made it tough to access financing for capital improvements. By pooling projects, the Energy Authority can attract investment for smaller-scale work that wouldn’t otherwise get funded, Schapira says.

Philadelphia’s campaign is notable for explicitly tying equity concerns to energy goals, says Caroline Lauer, a researcher who studied the Philadelphia Energy Campaign as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In her report, which won “Best Paper on Housing” from the Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies, Lauer calls the campaign “an unlikely success story of a municipal climate initiative prioritizing the needs of its low-income and minority residents, transcending the disconnect between equity and environment by addressing affordable, safe housing through energy policy.”

Lauer, now a doctoral student in the University of North Carolina’s city and regional planning department, says Philadelphia’s energy campaign was the most compelling case study she could find of a program with the dual aim of energy efficiency and poverty reduction. “They approached the problem in a way that was much more holistic and intentional than I had really seen before,” she says.

The Philadelphia Energy Authority was created in 2010 by Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke and then-Mayor Michael Nutter. But the energy campaign didn’t get underway until half a decade later, when Clarke, whose concerns include affordable housing and poverty as well as energy goals, tasked Schapira with designing a program that could tie energy-efficiency work to job training.

While the campaign earns praise from observers for its layered ambitions, it remains to be seen how quickly it can move past the pilot phase of many of its programs.

Mark Alan Hughes, faculty director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, says the city is on solid ground when it comes to focusing on energy projects that will pay for themselves through reduced costs. But some of its programs require convincing households, one by one, to participate; that might get easier the more the programs grow, Hughes says, or it might not. And cities are more limited in their ability to achieve big environmental goals than they like to admit, Hughes says.

For now, the authority is focused on the need to reduce energy costs for lower-income residents. Schapira used to run a heating-oil cooperative in Philadelphia after she graduated from college, and she says the experience opened her eyes to the overlapping issues of energy efficiency, poverty and housing preservation. There was no amount of heating oil, even freely granted, that could fix a hole in someone’s roof or replace a missing window, she says.

So the goal of the energy campaign is that its four sectors of focus — affordable residential housing, schools, municipal buildings and small businesses — will “leverage each other,” drawing in energy investors that might not go for each project individually, Schapira says. In the process, the campaign hopes to reduce costs enough to make a difference for low-income people while lowering the city’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

“Energy is just a tool for impact,” Schapira says. “It’s not about the energy itself. Even though that is a great benefit, that’s the least important benefit of it. The most important benefit is housing preservation, poverty reduction, job creation — real things that change the trajectory of this city. And I think this scale is big enough that we’re talking about a real impact here.”

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