6. The Future of PGW — A Just Transition, Beyond Selling more Fracked Gas

This show aired on Friday April 12, 2019 on PhillyCAM’s radio station WPPM 106.5 FM in Philadelphia. Hear the audio afterwards as a podcast . The script is below. Produced by Meenal Raval & Tanya Seaman, with technical assistance from Vanessa Maria Graber.



Hello and welcome to Philly Talks Climate — where we talk about the climate crisis, how it affects Philadelphia, and how we solve this for our region. I’m Meenal Raval, and I’ll be your host. I’m joined this week by longtime friend Tanya Seaman.

We know that we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels. We know that methane, or “natural” gas is a fossil fuel. We also know that many of us heat our homes with gas. So…

How do we stop using gas to heat our homes?

Is it even possible? The short answer is… Yes!

First, some News you can Use…

Earlier this week, Plymouth Township in Montco passed the Ready for 100 resolution. And yesterday, Chicago committed to 100% renewable energy.  All renewable electricity by 2035, and all renewable heating and transportation by 2050. What’s keeping Philly from doing the same? We need our City Council members to consider a similar Ready for 100 resolution.

Back to…

How do we stop using gas to heat our homes?

If you have ducts, you have a forced air system, and likely a furnace that burns gas to heat air, which is then pumped through your building. When it’s time to replace a gas furnace, we can replace it with an electric heat pump.

There are two types of heat pumps: air source heat pumps and ground source heat pumps. Air source heat pumps are typically just called heat pumps. Ground source heat pumps are often called geothermal systems. Heat pumps can heat as well as cool a building. Both types of heat pumps use heat from the air (or ground) to adjust the indoor temperature. During extreme temperatures (very cold or very hot) heat pumps use electricity to heat or cool a building.

If you have radiators, you likely have a boiler. A boiler heats water, which is then pumped through your building. When it’s time to replace a boiler, we could replace it with an electric boiler, which is common in Europe and Canada.

Another use for gas in our region is heating water for bathing, cooking, and cleaning, with a 40- or 80-gallon tank that heats water constantly — 24/7. When it’s time to replace a gas hot water system, consider a tankless electric water heating system. The benefits? 1. By going from a tank of hot water to a tankless system, you’ll free up space in your basement since you’ll no longer need that tank. 2. By going from gas to electric, you’ll have one less fossil fuel appliance to feel guilty over. 3. The new system is likely more efficient, especially since it needs to heat only the water you need at the time you use it, rather than heating water all the time, for very occasional use throughout the day This will save you money. No more gallons of hot water, at the ready, all the time, simply to heat up the planet!

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is offering its 1.5 million customers rebates for heat pumps, induction cooktops, and other electrification investments, which, combined with other market trends, has made all-electric construction the default for new residential buildings in Sacramento.

In Massachusetts, the state’s utilities will offer financial incentives for “fuel switching” — leaving behind the oil and propane boilers common in the region, in favor of air-source heat pumps.

We have the nation’s largest municipally owned utility — Philadelphia Gas Works, or PGW. If we’re all switching from gas to electric, what’s to become of PGW?

How do we re-tool the workforce?


How do we help low-income customers transition to electric heat?

A just transition is needed.

What’s a Just Transition? It’s a “vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. This means approaching production and consumption cycles holistically and waste-free.”

Let’s pull this apart a little:

First, it means that we create a vision for the sort of power we wish to use here in Philadelphia.

Second, it is a transition from mining coal and fracking gas to energy that we get from the earth, the sun, and the wind.

Third, it creates an energy cycle that is waste-free and that does not pollute.

How do we re-tool the workforce of 1600 people?

Geothermal – Geothermal is a viable heating option for our region. What is geothermal? Geothermal systems are coils of pipes buried in the ground that use the temperature under the ground to cool or heat our spaces. They heat the spaces by using a base temperature of 54 degrees and a heating system that generates additional heat. They cool spaces by drawing heat from our buildings back down into the ground.

Could a workforce skilled in replacing underground gas pipes be re-trained to install geothermal coils under our streets? We think this could be a good transition for pipefitters.

Geothermal installations, like solar, could be owned privately on one property. Or, like the community solar model, a community geothermal project could be an investment in a community.

Biogas – As our trash breaks down in a landfill, it creates landfill gas. This gas is quite similar to the gas obtained by drilling underground, and is called biogas. Typically, this gas is flared off into the atmosphere. Better if this biogas were piped into the local distribution system and used to heat our buildings.

Instead of placing our trash in landfills, we could process the food waste in an anaerobic digester plant. These plants could generate liquid fertilizer as well as biogas.

Could PGW’s current distribution system distribute biogas just as easily as fracked gas?

If so, PGW could accept food waste collected by Streets Dept, and operate anaerobic digestion plants. These plants could generate liquid fertilizer for all the trees that Parks & Rec and the Streets Dept could plant and care for, as well as biogas. The biogas could be used for some percent of our current use.

Distribution system – PGW currently has an aging distribution system for gas, which results in methane leaks. Leaks through out our City. Which results in unused gas increasing our greenhouse gas emissions. Leaks from the aging distribution system require a service crew to replace and repair the aging distribution lines.

Knowing we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, PGW could shut off gas service to customers downstream of the leaks, and replace gas appliances with electric ones.

There are several benefits of doing this including — less tearing-up of streets, less traffic diversion, reduced need for asphalt, cleaner energy use and of course, reduced methane leaks.

One question that arises is… how would we fund the new appliances? Currently, PGW has a budget of 33 million dollars annually to replace distribution lines. Lookup their DSIC (distribution system improvement charge) that we’re all paying into. 

Solar – Some of PGW’s workforce could be retrained in solar installation projects — be they rooftop or ground-mounted in a field.

To get solar on every roof that’s viable, we know that not every building owner is able to cough up cash up front. The City could offer financing via property tax bills. There’s a concept called PACE (property assessed clean energy). PACE has recently been permitted in Pennsylvania for commercial properties. Residential PACE could come soon after.

There’s also state-level legislation about Community Solar, where people can subscribe to a portion of the electricity generated by a large solar farm. It’s possible that PGW could support these community solar projects, providing renewable electricity to their customers.

Community Choice Aggregation – This is a way that a local entity, like PGW, can aggregate the buying power of all of us individual customers. This could have a goal of either lower costs for consumers, or offer us greater control of our energy mix, such as more renewable energy.

Community Choice Aggregation — or CCA —  allows local governments to pool their electricity to purchase and/or develop power on behalf of their residents, businesses, and municipal accounts.

Currently CCAs are possible in several states. CCAs in Massachusetts, Ohio, California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island serve Americans in over 1300 municipalities.

San Diego is considering creating a city-run utility to compete with investor-owned San Diego Gas & Electric.

There are currently more than 2000 communities served by public utilities, either through municipalization or Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) in the United States.

Boulder is the first city in the United States to remunicipalize their energy company after it was run by the private sector. They did this specifically to take control over their energy portfolio — so that they could reduce their carbon emissions and increase the percentage of clean energy they use. They were unable to do this when their utility was in private hands.

Since PECO isn’t able to provide Philadelphia with clean electricity, and since we see the need to electrify all of our gas applications, it makes sense to transform PGW, the gas utility we already own, to an electric utility.

Imagine this… We’ll heat our homes with electric heat pumps. And PGW aggregates our electricity needs (via a CCA) to create our own independent agency, competing with PECO in the clean energy race, to power all of our heat pumps!

Funding the transition – The City has many investment funds: the payroll fund and the pension fund, just to name two. These funds could divest from fossil fuels and reinvest the funds in a public bank. Instead of making the fossil fuel companies and the big banks richer, the earnings could stay in Philly to fund the needed transition. Does that sound too far-fetched?

The State of North Dakota has had a public bank for decades, and has been paying dividends to their residents.

The city [of Washington DC] is kicking in $40 million more to its newly established Green Bank, which helps fund clean-energy projects. These and other financing tools, like the DC Sustainable Energy Utility, will help DC’s building owners make the substantial investments needed to hit its carbon-reduction targets.

Another funding mechanism would be to provide Public Broadband – Yes, we have Comcast in our City. But many folks don’t have broadband. Chattanooga Tennessee started offering their own broadband in 2015. Not only did they find that there’s money to be made in broadband, doing so also “restored our luster and [has] given us a new lever to pull that has tied us to the next century”.

Public broadband is needed. Seattle has considered this as well.

Incentives to electrify everything – Currently, PGW offers rebates for replacing a gas furnace or boiler with another gas furnace or boiler. They even offer a rebate for installing gas equipment for a rehab or new construction.

By becoming our electric utility, we see PGW encouraging us to replace a gas furnace or boiler with an electric heat pump or boiler.  

So that’s quite a few ideas for the workforce. Let’s consider…

How do we help low-income customers transition to electric heat?

We’ll list some examples tried elsewhere in the country…

The Tennessee Valley Authority partnered on an EnergyRight Solutions Heat Pump program that allowed customers to make low monthly payments added to their electric bills, and to pay over 10 years. They also provided access to a qualified contractor network. This is one way to make the transition affordable.

Efficiency Maine is a program for Maine residents. Maine residents can lock in the price of heating and cooling with a heat pump for 20 years with NO UP-FRONT COST. The systems are financed by a PowerSaver loan managed by Efficiency Maine for $182 per month for a 15-year term at 5% APR fixed.

In Vermont, Green Mountain Power rents cold-climate heat pumps to their customers. The fee is as low as $39.99 a month. Green Mountain Power provides quick and easy installation — again, with no upfront cost.

In New York City, the public housing authority has installed geothermal projects for 225 units of public housing.

Examples like this could be replicated in Philadelphia. When combined with energy retrofits like insulation and draft sealing, Philadelphia could help our low-income community transition away from gas.

Engage with your elected reps

In two weeks, Philadelphia City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Utilities will have a public hearing about the Future of PGW. Yup, the very topic we’ve been discussing today.

If you have other ideas for a more sustainable PGW, please share with us at phillytalksclimate@gmail.com or with your favorite councilmember!

Details on our calendar page for Friday April 26th.

Connect with others

There are so many Earth Day events to choose from, both outdoors and indoors that it’s hard to offer you one this week. Whether it’s cleaning up our woods and streams, or understanding our role at this crucial time for humanity, please check our calendar of climate events. At phillytalksclimate.wordpress.com.

There are two events though that we’d like to highlight for you.

One is this coming Monday April 15th. It’s the day the Sunrise Movement launches the Green New Deal in Philadelphia.

The Philly Green New Deal would transition the City of Brotherly Love to 100% renewable, equitable, and accountable energy citywide by 2030, create living wage union jobs by retrofitting Philly’s buildings against lead exposure, carry out a Philadelphia-wide participatory planning process on how the Green New Deal should be implemented.Come by City Hall at 12 to hear candidates for City Council who have endorsed a Philadelphia Green New Deal speak about a truly transformative plan for our city.

Candidates confirmed to speak are Erika Almirón, Adrian Rivera-Reyes, Sherrie Cohen, Justin DiBerardinis, and Joe Cox

The other event we’d like to highlight is the 3 day Climate, Consciousness & Community Summit in Media PA, from Saturday April 20 thru Monday April 22. We invite those with a spiritual bent this weekend of Easter and Passover to come for one day, or all three. The Climate, Consciousness, and Community Summit organized by Kosmos Journal brings together influential climate thinkers, healers and change-makers – ranging from water protectors and local-economy pioneers, to artists, farmers, spiritual teachers, and more.

This event coincides with the Climate, Consciousness and Community summit at Findhorn, in Scotland. We will receive streamed keynote addresses from renowned leaders Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva and Charles Eisenstein. 

Local presenters are Rhonda Fabian, editor of Kosmos Journal, and our own Meenal Raval on Local Government Accountability, Mark Wallace on Beauty Will Save the World, Judy Wicks on Your Bioregional Economy, Lynne Iser & Mordechai Leibling on Work that Reconnects and Martin Pepper on Preparedness.

Engage in intimate dialogue and reflection as we confront hard truths and our deepest feelings about the converging crises we face on Earth, our home. We will convene in the beautiful, thriving Transition Town of Media, PA.

You’ve been listening to Philly Talks Climate, on PhillyCAM’s WPPM 106.5 LP in Philadelphia. You can find us online at phillytalksclimate.wordpress.com.

Thanks for listening!

Lead-in music – The Shadows

Music at the end – Leave it in the ground




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