Ask Mark

Q:  [What is] your vision for residential solar power in Philadelphia’s energy future?
Many Philadelphians, like me, have homes with flat roofs that receive plenty of
direct sunlight. Is the city considering any programs that would help us tap into that potential power, like California’s “Million Solar Roofs” project?
—Tom Schrand, Director of the Environmental Sustainability Program at Philadelphia University

A: Thanks, Tom. Great question. Just to clarify, Philadelphia’s own Million Solar Roofs Partnership (PMSR) was established in 1999 by the Energy Coordinating Agency and the Sustainable Development Fund. It was a regional effort to contribute new solar installations to a national goal of one million by 2010. Through public/private collaboration, public education, developing a market and infrastructure for solar applications, and providing training opportunities to those interested in solar technologies, the PMSR helped to install approximately 185 systems.


Ten years later, the country is poised for a major expansion in solar power, and Philadelphia wants to be right there to take advantage of any opportunities that will foster both utility-scale and small-scale projects. We’re working with a number of solar companies to investigate the installation of large arrays that feed the grid directly. Distributed generation can add capacity without further burdening the regional and national electricity grid ,and we want to use some of our larger sites for that purpose. It is not easy, though. Innovative financing options and a demand for RECs (Renewable Energy Credits) are needed to help to make such projects a reality
But your question is about deploying solar at the scale of individual houses and neighborhoods, and especially to take advantage of Philadelphia’s iconic rowhome. We have over 400,000 of them, and their flat roofs and shared walls create some great opportunities for solar installations.
The first thing we need to do is make it easy to use all the tools we already have, including the new grant funding we anticipate through the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). To do so, we need to create transparency in the process of installing an affordable solar or solar thermal system. To that end, Philadelphia is now a Solar America City partner with the U.S. Dept of Energy and other Solar America cities throughout the country. This partnership will support our efforts to lower those barriers and end the confusion. We will launch a new website this winter that will help residents and businesses learn about both the benefits of solar power and the help available to install it.
Next, we need to improve upon the tools we have. That’s the longer-term agenda of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. We are looking into the feasibility of programs like a Solar Shares program that provides solar to customers who can’t have it on their own roof through a community-supported solar project. We are investigating financing options like Berkeley FIRST that enable a homeowner to pay for an installation through a special tax on their property bill.
Where solar has been most widely used in the residential sector, there are powerful incentives for homeowners to sell electricity back to the grid. The state of Pennsylvania enables a customer to take advantage of net metering and we are exploring virtual net metering, potentially improving the economics even more. Germany’s solar radiation is weaker than rainy Seattle, yet it has the world’s largest number of solar energy installations. We want to look at the policies that shape their energy sector and consider the possibilities that will work best for Philadelphia.  ■+

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