Peco, Philly’s energy provider, relies on fossil fuels and aging infrastructure

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on June 29, 2023.


Our utility bills would be cheaper if we used other forms of energy.

When it comes to clean energy solutions that can help our communities weather the climate crisis, the Philadelphia metropolitan region is lagging far behind. The metro area recently received yet another F gradefor ozone pollution. More than 20% of Philadelphia’s children suffer from asthma; in Chester, that figure rises to almost 40%.

At the same time, our polluting energy grid has become more unaffordable and unreliable. Philadelphia’s energy burden — the percentage of a household’s income that goes to paying energy bills — is 86% higher than the national average. At the height of the pandemic, the region failed to meet state benchmarks for length of blackouts and restoring power, with the leading causes of power outages being equipment failures and tree-related issues.

The negative impacts of fossil fuels in Philadelphia and beyond can’t continue to be the norm.

We are quickly barreling toward a perfect storm of our own making. While local communities, nonprofits, businesses, and even elected officials have called for change, the region is still lagging behind largely because of disinterest from Peco, the region’s energy provider. The company has long heavily relied on fossil fuels and aging infrastructure to bring electricity to homes, while regularly hiking utility bills to levels unaffordable for many. Our future rests on the reversal of this trend of pollution and extraction to one of clean energy, resilient infrastructure, and a regenerative economy. And thankfully it can, so long as Peco gets its act together in these critical next few months.

This time is vital because in early 2024, Peco is required to present a four-year plan for procuring energy for review and approval by the state’s primary energy authority, the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission. Known as the Default Service Plan, this is Peco’s plan for purchasing electricity from generating facilities like power plants and then selling this electricity at “reasonable” retail rates to customers. For too long, the company’s plans have been overwhelmingly dependent on energy from fossil fuels and business practices older than its crumbling infrastructure. When it comes to the survival of one of America’s great metropolitan regions, Peco’s “business as usual” has long overstayed its welcome.

Despite the urgency of the moment, without public pressure, we cannot expect much change. Peco customers have been demanding for yearsthat the company make meaningful commitments to clean and renewable energy. Even now, groups like Philadelphia-based POWER Interfaith are working to encourage Peco to end its dependence on fossil fuels and push for a clean energy future in Pennsylvania.

Peco has responded with an old myth: that supporting an equitable and clean energy future, especially on a timeline that reflects the urgency of the climate crisis, is simply too expensive. But Peco’s business-as-usual model is already costing Philadelphians more, and the company has a reputation for overcharging households.

On the other hand, research on nearby states has demonstrated that if we meaningfully committed to distributed energy resources — small-scale, decentralized, and diverse clean energy projects like solar-plus-storage — it would reduce utility bills significantly for ratepayers. This approach would also add desperately needed reliability and resilience measures to an electricity grid increasingly characterized by life-threatening power outages brought to us by Peco’s lack of vision.

How do we make Peco accountable to a clean energy transition that serves everyone? Peco’s plan will be reviewed and approved by the PUC — and thanks to grassroots advocacy, this review process must be public. There will be public hearings, and we need people to turn out and speak up, especially those of us whose lives are most impacted by the region’s energy system. It will take concerted public effort to make full use of our seat at the table, instead of once again being on the menu.

We must work together to ensure Peco meets the needs of the times with a Default Service Plan that guarantees our energy grid becomes decarbonized, decentralized, diversified, and most importantly — democratized.

Kartik Amarnath is Mid-Atlantic regulatory director at national energy nonprofit Vote Solar.

JOIN THE MOVEMENT Sign up for updates from Vote Solar on solar progress and energy justice across the U.S.