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Can Philadelphia be America’s Greenest City?

by Rachel Vigoda

When the City of Philadelphia released its final Greenworks progress report under Mayor Michael Nutter, the administration wasn’t just summing up which goals were met under Philly’s first sustainability plan. It was passing the torch.

Nutter created the Mayor's Office of Sustainability in 2008; in 2014 voters made it a permanent department. The Office of Sustainability (the “Mayor’s” was later dropped) launched Greenworks in 2009, incorporating five alliterative goals around energy, environment, equity, economy and engagement. The goals were meas- urable through 15 targets, ranging from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to providing walkable access to affordable, healthy food.

Some targets were exceeded and some were missed by a mile—which leaves Mayor Jim Kenney and Office of Sustainability Director Christine Knapp plenty to work on to turn Philadelphia into America’s greenest city. But it’s still early days, and Knapp is “in planning mode,” she says.

“It was intended to be an eight-year plan,” Knapp says of Greenworks, “so our big first task is to update it, to create a new framework of sustainability for the city and figure out where we want to be eight years from now, what the goals are and what the initiatives are that will help us meet them.”

Knapp is also hoping to engage the community more than the department has done in the past, starting with an online survey, a Twitter chat that took place on Earth Day and a series of open meetings, including two coming up on May 4 and 10. The idea is to focus on outreach and engagement now, spend the summer writing up the next phase of Greenworks and then release the new plan in the fall.

“In its first iteration, Greenworks did a great job of laying out sustainability goals for the city,” says Alex Dews, who worked for the Office of Sustainability and is now executive director at the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, the local arm of the U.S. Green Build- ing Council. Looking ahead, “I think this version will continue to focus on the breadth of sustainability issues that impact city residents, but also will keep drilling down on issues like energy management, capital planning and community engagement,” Dews says. “The context is much different now than it was in 2009, and solid baseline information will allow for better precision in setting goals and developing strategies to achieve them.”

One area the new Greenworks plan will definitely tackle with better precision is climate change, thanks to a report released by the city in winter 2015 that will let the Office of Sustainability set realistic targets, Knapp says: “It gave us specific data about what we can expect to see in Philadelphia over the coming decade.”

According to the report, “Growing Strong: Toward a Climate-Ready Philadelphia,” it’s going to get warmer and wetter. “How warm and how wet is a little bit up to us—not just Philadelphia, but the world— if we’re taking action or not,” she says. “But we do need to prepare because even if we stopped emitting carbon right now we would still be experiencing effects.”

The report outlines what infrastructure and assets are at risk and what can be done to protect the city, and Greenworks will incorporate steps local government should take based on that data. At the same time, tying in the community engagement objective, Knapp wants to ramp up public education about climate adaption, as well as other initiatives in which Greenworks will be involved.

“We don’t have staff people doing communications, so it’s a challenge for us to tell our story and let people know not only what we’re doing, but what programs we have they might be able to take advantage of,” she says. “We want people to know how they can take this work we’re doing and bring it to their communities, their homes, their schools, their churches.

“We all live in the same environment, and should all have an equal role in taking care of it—and I think people want to take action but they’re looking for more information about what they can do.”

Knapp came to the Office of Sustainability from the Philadelphia Water Department, where she served as director of government affairs, working closely with City Council. PWD has its own ground- breaking sustainability initiative, Green City, Clean Waters, a 25-year plan to improve the health of the city’s watersheds by installing green stormwater infrastructure.

The infrastructure, like green roofs, manages sewage overflow and stormwater runoff, the rain that flows over roads and other impervious surfaces and winds up, untreated, in streams and rivers. Com- bating that takes a combination of infiltrating water into the ground, evaporating a portion of it into the air and releasing some of it slowly back into the sewer system.

Around 60 local businesses involved in some aspect of green stormwater infrastructure—from initial design concept through maintenance—are part of the Sustainable Business Network’s Green Stormwater Infrastructure Partners. The SBN launched GSI Partners in 2013 in response to Green City, Clean Waters, and wants to make sure a big portion of the city’s investment in the program stays local.

“The city said it would invest $2 billion over a 25-year period and create incentives that would get the private market to invest money in that area as well. So it created a unique opportunity for us to build a local industry around green stormwater infrastructure,” says Jamie Gauthier, executive director for the SBN. “We want Philadelphia to be a hub of innovation as it relates to GSI.”

The SBN has also been stepping up its policy and advocacy work, adding dedicated policy staff and collaborating with City Council members on bills to help companies going green. One example: The organization recently worked with Councilwoman Maria Quinones- Sanchez to introduce two bills that will increase tax credits to sustainable businesses.

“We were fortunate to be on the mayor’s transition team, on the committee for sustainability, which gave us an opportunity to promote some of the things we’re prioritizing, especially advancing the green stormwater infrastructure industry,” Gauthier says. “It was a huge opportunity for us to help inform what hopefully will be the mayor’s agenda.”

That opportunity was a good sign, Gauthier adds: “It indicates that the administration sees us as a valuable partner, and that the administration values sustainability and sustainable businesses.”

The SBN is also paying close attention to the Philadelphia Energy Campaign, which City Council President Darrell Clarke announced in February. The project is designed to stimulate job growth through upgrading city- owned buildings and schools to make them more energy efficient.

Knapp includes energy efficiency in city- owned properties on the list of Greenworks priorities, especially after the success of the Quadplex Project. Energy audits were per- formed on the Quadplex—City Hall, the Municipal Services Building, the Criminal Justice Center and the One Parkway Building— and upgrades were implemented to improve efficiency. The city says it saved approximately $2 million in utility costs during the construction phase and expects an annual savings of about $1.45 million.

“We’re saving not just a lot of energy, but also a lot of money, and we want to replicate that in other city buildings,” including smaller spaces like recreation centers and libraries, Knapp says.

Dews wants to see those kinds of sustain- ability initiatives in all building projects. Most of Philadelphia’s carbon emissions come from buildings, he says, and a third of the carbon-producing energy used in buildings is wasted—which also wastes money.

“In the near term, [the DVGBC’s] key objective is to ensure that buildings, where we spend 90 percent of our time, are healthy places to be,” he says. “In the longer term, the imperative is to ensure that buildings—and the lifestyles that go with them—don’t jeopardize life on the planet. Increased adoption of green building techniques achieves both of these things simultaneously.”

The green upgrades at the Quadplex were fairly low tech: Lighting control systems, water conservation and better insulation. For more high-tech action, head down to the Navy Yard.

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Energy picked the Navy Yard as the location for a study on micro-Phasor Measurement Units. The study, slated to commence later this year and wrap up in 2017, will explore a way to make local electricity distribution systems more reliable.

Electricity is delivered in two parts:

Transmission is the bigger piece of the puzzle that carries power from where it’s generated to substations, while distribution brings electricity to the end user, into homes and businesses. “A lot of effort has gone into making the transmission part of the system efficient. Exelon, PECO, PGN— they have a handle on how to wheel this power back and forth geographically, across states. But there’s a lot less research and advancement on the smaller distribution system,” says Will Agate, senior vice president, Navy Yard Energy Operations and Initiatives at PIDC, Philadelphia’s public-private economic development corporation and master developer of the Navy Yard.

That isn’t to say no advances are being made on the distribution side; PECO’s smart meters, for example, are part of distribution. Smart meters set up two-way communication with PECO and the customer and guide the utility company in understanding where electricity is needed. “It allows you to better control ways of pushing out power, which allows for renewable energy to be deployed on a localized scale,” Agate explains.

The smart meter infrastructure includes a communications system, with a network operations center that analyzes the data it receives and decides how to use it. Add to that local power generation, and you have a microgrid framework. A few years ago, when the Navy Yard was revising its real estate master plan, PIDC realized it needed to design an energy master plan at the same time to best utilize new technologies for sustainable energy—which led to the development of four separate, but connected, microgrids.

The Department of Energy was looking to borrow Phasor Management Unit technology from the transmission process and see how it could be used for distribution, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California received a grant to create a version of the technology: the micro-PMUs. They’re ready to be tested out on a real microgrid system, and the Navy Yard is doing the hon- ors. “The micro-PMU will be overlaid on a portion of the Navy Yard, to see if it does a better job of making those [electricity] decisions than the existing technology,” Agate says.

If it works, it will make the energy flow at the Navy Yard more efficient, and potentially—as with green stormwater infrastructure and other sustainability initiatives—be a model for the rest of the country, giving the project an economic development angle as well.

“If we can be on the forefront of help- ing the industry look at these challenges and see actual deployment working,” Agate says, “that will lead to more companies paying attention to the Navy Yard, and the Greater Philadelphia region.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Philly Biz, Volume 1, Issue 5 (April, 2016).
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