A small band of Quakers, spiritual allies and solar entrepreneurs fight to get PECO to buy electricity from local rooftops

Photo by Albert C. Yee

Photo by Albert C. Yee

Higher Power

by Thomas Parry

Bill Cozzens had been skirting around the edges of the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT). A Germantown Quaker himself, Cozzens had attended a demonstration and a meeting, but was looking to get more involved. On the evening of May 3, Cozzens showed up to the Friends Center, a large, red brick building in the federal style tucked back from the corner of 15th and Cherry streets in Philadelphia. A tree-lined courtyard offers respite inside its campus, and the building’s significant green credentials are most visible on its green roof, which is also adorned with solar panels. Dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt and hiking boots, Cozzens signed in at the front desk and made his way through the center’s modernist addition to the third floor where he and a half dozen other Earth Quaker initiates formed in a semicircle around EQAT coordinator Matthew Armstead, a tall young man with perfect posture and a welcoming smile.

“There are a million places to start,” said Armstead. Last summer, after five years of pressure, EQAT’s campaign on PNC Bank closed with success: The sixth largest commercial bank in the country divested from mountaintop removal mining. As the skies cleared, EQAT set its sights on PECO, a Philadelphia-based power distributor feeding the sockets and bulbs of a 2,100 square mile spread of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

A new Pennsylvania law requires the company to expand the amount of solar energy its dishes out to customers. Though slight, the increase provides an opportunity

to stimulate green, living-wage jobs in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. EQAT set out to get PECO to buy its new solar from rooftop panels in North Philadelphia installed by North Philadelphians.

“The campaign merges economic justice, climate justice and racial justice,” Armstead told the new EQATers. “We are trying to do something that actually sets up the world that we want.”

To this end, EQAT showed up to PECO headquarters in September 2015 with an enormous puzzle portraying a sunstruck Philadelphia skyline, asking company execs to come down and place the final piece. EQAT formed the “PECO Choir” and filled the lobby with song.

They also gathered on the company’s patio and enacted a ritual known across the United States. On that rainy, early winter evening, rain let up into a mist, a generator came to life and speakers kicked out a beat: 56 Earth Quakers, ranging in age from 13 to 78, danced the Electric Slide.

Putting the soul in solar
The campaign gained attention. POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild, joined the effort, bringing along the strength of an interfaith alliance claiming 40 congregations and 25,000 members. The Inquirer, The Philadelphia Tribune and WHYY each followed the campaign.

On Earth Day last April, PECO invited EQAT to the table of a Solar Stakeholder Collaborative to take place this summer.

“And of course,” Armstead told the new EQATers, “we’re very curious to see what that means.”

A young man with a crew cut wearing a dark suit asked Armstead whether the cost of solar was a barrier for PECO.

Here, Cozzens spoke up. “The grid is required to dispatch the power that’s cheapest, that comes in at the lowest price first. Solar is more expensive per megawatt. It may not get dispatched, except at peak load times, when air conditioners are running and such.”

A beat passed in which the new EQATers took a look at Cozzens.

“I worked as a consultant for a while, so I learned a pretty good amount about the regulatory framework,” he confessed.

A modest man, William A. Cozzens was underselling his expertise. Cozzens earned a doctorate in urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania and subsequently spent 25 years as a consultant to energy companies.

“PECO’ll give all sorts of reasons why they can’t do it,” he told the meeting. Yet there he was, looking to escalate the campaign with the self-described “Earth Quakers.” Despite over two decades in the industry, Cozzens believes that change is possible.

One reason PECO has given in resisting EQAT’s demands is the absence of solar panels on North Philadelphia roofs. But then, PECO hasn’t met John Bowie.

Bowie is a tall man, silver-haired, and his bearing suggests an intensity that is at once passionate and weary. He leans in to speak and leans back to listen. He weighs each word.

Bowie represents Serenity Soular, a new company aspiring to turn its neighborhood into a source of well-paying solar energy installation jobs, creating skills and wealth from the ground up.

“On this block,” he says of the 1200 block of Seltzer Street, a narrow stretch of two-story homes just north of Lehigh where he and I arranged to meet, “we’ve got 18 houses here with roofs that are solar-ready,” Bowie said.

Last year, the Energy Coordinating Agency, a nonprofit dedicated to weatherizing homes and businesses in the tri-state area, installed new windows, siding and roofs on all but four of the homes on this block. Typically, getting the residents to buy in, show mortgages and give workers access can take months, but with Bowie and Serenity House—a neighborhood outreach center and home to Serenity Soular—it took an afternoon. The 1200 block of Seltzer knew and trusted them.

“The only ones we couldn’t get were the four owned by absentee landlords,” Bowie said.

We started down the block. The sidewalk, even on a trash day, was swept clean. Above us hung multicolored pennant flags strung between the roofs. Bowie motioned to the porches one by one. “Here’s the block captain,” he said. At another house: “The homeowner here is 92 years old. She’s got two generations in that house. If we could get solar on that roof, reduce her bills by a couple hundred a month and make a few jobs in the process, that’d be my dream.”

The tour ended in front of the Morris Chapel Baptist Church at 12th and Lehigh. Later this summer, the church would put up solar panels, Bowie told me. Serenity House would have a rooftop array in a matter of weeks. From our vantage point, five churches stood in view. “Churches have to be in the equation,” Bowie said. “They are the foundational element of our community.”

It was primary election day—Morris Chapel was the polling station—and the corner had the air of a reunion party.

Years ago, Bowie was homeless. He went by the name “Carwash” for the discount scrubbings he’d give to get by. One day, he left his cart and buckets and walked into rehab. The cart wound up in an abandoned building that burned down.

In the remains, his cart and a piece of ID were found. The neighborhood held a funeral for Carwash.

A few weeks later, he returned to North Philadelphia, clean and sober, back from the dead, ready to live again as John Bowie. Since then, he has devoted himself to giving his neighborhood new life. “This neighborhood can bounce back,” Bowie told me. “I am living witness that we can bounce back.”

Outside the Morris Chapel, a friend crossed the street to chat. Bowie said, “I’m working getting those solar jobs going.”

“Man, I need that,” the friend replied.

The neighborhood carries a 30 percent unemployment rate. When Serenity Soular raised the funds for two apprentice installer positions, word spread and 15 qualified candidates showed up.

Everything that Serenity Soular has achieved thus far it has financed through grants and crowdfunding. But to move forward, in order to gear up the capital-intensive proposition of a solar power energy company, Bowie needs more. His target is $200,000. “Give me that and six months, and I’ll have a team installing panels block by block,” he said.

“But whatever happens, we’re doing it anyway,” he added. “God made us to live, and to live you got to eat, and to eat you got to work. It’s our divine right.”

Serenity Soular grew out of Serenity House’s initiative to make the outreach center ecologically sustainable. The community-run center exists under the ministry of Arch Street United Methodist Church, and much of the day-to-day falls to O, a Quaker woman and self-described “love activist.”

I asked O how her religious faith informs her activism, and the question stirred her up to the point that she had to leave the room to grab a picture of the earth as seen from the moon.

“The earth is a single-celled organism within the heavenly body of the universe,” she said. “And we, as individuals, are organelles within that organism.”

O put her hand on my shoulder and stared into my eyes, as if to check that my channels were open.

The world and all its creatures are sacred, she explained. All of it is essential. All of it has God’s love. We have the privilege and responsibility of stewardship. When we abuse that position, we act against God’s love.

“Do you understand?” she asked.

The swelling choir
Bowie’s “divine right” and O’s concept of a “sacred earth” are part of a larger movement, a rising chorus of religious voices lending strength and relevance to the fight against climate change.

While the roots of faith-based environmentalism go deep, 2015 witnessed a stunning bloom in its intensity. In the second half of last year, Pope Francis published his encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’; an international symposium of Muslim leaders released the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change; the National Association of Evangelicals, one of the largest Evangelical Christian organizations in the U.S., released its own Call to Action on Creation Care; and finally, on the eve of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, more than 150 religious leaders, representing everyone from the Greek Orthodox church in Zimbabwe to Muslims in Norway, signed a statement saying, “We stand together to express deep concern for the consequences of climate change on the earth and its people, all entrusted, as our faiths reveal, to our common care.”

These voices affirm the “sacred earth.” Citing 700 Quranic verses, the Islamic declaration urges the faithful in the duty to maintain mizan, the equilibrium of nature that Allah created, imbuing all with value.

John Bowie’s “divine right,” tying creation and social justice together, finds echoes in Laudato Si’, which frames the fight against climate change as a religious and moral struggle to stem the oppression of the poor. The contamination, flooding, drought and famine will hit the poor first, and it will hit them the worst, Pope Francis outlined in Laudato Si’.

What’s more, these declarations have weight, translating beliefs shared by billions into action. This year, Buddhist monks in India have braved bullets in demonstrating for clean water; thousands of Muslims across the world fasted in a “green jihad”; young Evangelicals rallied in North Carolina for clean energy. They carried signs reading, “The earth belongs to God, not to us,” hitting the same notes heard in EQAT and POWER’s campaign for green jobs in Philadelphia.

“The earth is entrusted to us for the common good,” said Rabbi Julie Greenberg, POWER’s coordinator for green jobs. “Each human being is a child of God who belongs to the web of life. We are here to care for one another, not to race for more, more, more—no matter the consequences.”

In focusing their faith-backed powers on PECO, the Earth Quakers and their allies believe that they can influence the energy company’s practices, much of which PECO has attached to a complex regulatory framework and its obligation to shareholders. So, the question remains: Can a band of believers compel the corporation?

Above it all
At PECO headquarters at 23rd and Market, Philadelphians of all stripes come to clear up their electricity bills. They cross the concrete patio with babies on hips, canes in hand, or by the glide of a skateboard or bike. Above them rises 28 stories of PECO corporate office space, alternating in bands of matte black metal and glass of dark gold luster.

Inside, the lobby strikes a different tone from the formidable edifice. The hanging light fixtures are flower-shaped. Potted young trees populate the corners. Above the security turnstiles to the elevator bank, a banner declares, “Customers ... Community ... Environment.”

On Earth Day, PECO released an announcement touting its “creation and leadership of an exciting new Solar Stakeholder Collaborative,” inviting EQAT among others to the table.

In an office high in the tower, I asked PECO’s director of communications, Cathy Engel Menendez, what this collaborative might produce.

“Look back to the leadership that PECO had with wind development,” she said, referencing PECO Wind, a program in which the company joined the majority of other service providers in the northeastern United States in allowing customers, at additional cost to them, to source their electric supply through wind power. In 2012, PECO canceled the program. Rate caps that had held the market to 1996 prices expired. PECO Wind was no longer competitive.

“That clean market continued to grow and flourish,” Engel Menendez said. “That’s a beautiful outcome.”

The solar market in Pennsylvania has not flourished. PECO, the largest electricity buyer in the state, buys no more solar than the law requires, which in 2016 to 2017 amounts to .25 percent of its default supply.

In pizza terms, you’d have to order 50 pies before you had one full slice to represent solar. In 2020, given the yearly uptick in the statutory requirement, 50 pies would yield two solar slices.

Could PECO buy more solar than the law’s bare minimum?

“We could certainly do more if it met the ‘least cost’ requirement,” Engel Menendez said.

That requirement comes, again, from the utility code. Every time PECO assembles a plan to buy energy, it has to run that plan by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) and make the argument that the plan presents customers with the “least cost over time.”

Since this law hit in 2008, PECO has used a blind auction to make this argument, giving energy suppliers—frackers, coal plants, wind farms and more—a chance to bid on one- to two-year contracts to supply PECO’s power. The lowest bid wins.

I asked Engel Menendez whether the cost could factor in social damages. For example: tax dollars spent on treating fracking wastewater.

She shook her head. “It’s dollars per megawatt hour.” And according to PECO’s filings with the state, the company construes “over time” to mean the life of a one- to two-year contract. The law—Act 129—does not define “least

cost over time” in those terms. But Engel Menendez is not wrong.

PECO has argued this narrow definition of “least cost over time” at every filing of every purchasing plan. The PUC has approved them all.

“We’re a one-hundred-some-odd-year-old utility that is constantly focused on innovation and the future,” she said as we wrapped up our interview. “What’s important to us is to continue to provide that leadership.”

Before heading to the elevator, Engel Menendez was kind enough to show me the view from the tower’s north face. “The city is growing and changing so much,” she said. “It’s nice.”

Beyond the rail lines into 30th Street Station, Fairmount’s trees spread, and further out North Philadelphia’s roofs went on uninterrupted, save for the derelict smokestacks and church spires.

“I feel like we’re in a snow globe,” she said.

This little light of mine
PECO has options. The fact that the panels are not already on North Philadelphia roofs is not a deal breaker. PECO has awarded contracts on prospective supply, meaning that suppliers and PECO have signed on the dotted line without the energy producing panels or turbines in place, a source with over two decades experience in the energy markets told me. The supplier, with that contract in hand, can then get financing to make the necessary capital investments well before they have to deliver the kilowatts.

Furthermore, while the state has approved PECO’s use of the blind auction, the Public Utilities Commission does not insist on its continued use. The PUC is not interested in micromanaging PECO’s “acquisition framework,” a representative of the commission told me. Under the law, PECO’s obligation is to make the case that they have assembled a “prudent mix of contracts” in gathering energy at the “least cost over time.”

The meaning of least cost over time remains open, despite, in fact, lobbying efforts to the contrary. In 2010, Exelon Corporation, PECO’s parent company, lobbied Harrisburg through the National Energy Marketers Association, a trade group with members including Walmart and BP. The association asked PUC to nail the definition of cost down to dollars per kilowatt hour, and further asked that they be allowed to draft ever shorter contracts in securing supply.

PECO is tapped into a network of huge resources. Exelon pulled down $34.5 billion in revenues in 2015. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the energy giant drew these earnings from 159 companies. Exelon affiliates dot the United States and spread into Canada and Mexico (and, curiously, the Cayman Islands). Exelon includes other mega-distributors, such as Chicago’s ComEd, as well as Generation and Constellation, two of the country’s largest energy suppliers. This network of companies employs thousands of experts in the broad range of fields touched by energy production and transmission. These companies navigate a host of different regulatory fields, finding a way to make profits. As a company “constantly focused on innovation and the future,” PECO carries an enormous capacity to effect change.

“To whom much is given, much is required,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, quoting the Gospel of Luke. Royster, the executive director of POWER, addressed about 150 Earth Quakers, POWER members and their allies on May 10 in PECO Plaza, belting out his voice with a smile against the glass and metal of the building. Cheered by the announcement of the stakeholder collaborative, the campaign had returned to PECO with three new requirements.

They demanded that PECO make preparations to draw 20 percent of its default supply from solar by 2025, and that the energy come from rooftop panels not only in North Philadelphia, but from job-hungry towns and cities throughout PECO’s five county service area. Onto the plaza, EQAT carried a 28-foot color map marking Bristol in Bucks County, Chester in Delaware County, Coatesville in Chester County and Norristown in Montgomery County.

Finally, EQAT demanded that POWER, an equal partner in the green jobs campaign, be given a chair at the stakeholder collaborative.

“Mr. Adams, we want to be clear,” Royster said, addressing PECO’s chief executive officer presumably somewhere up in the tower, “we’re not just here for conversation—we need to do the dang thing!” Building up speed, Royster tossed out an “Amen, somebody,” and was met with a strong response: “Amen!”

“We need solar panels and we need them right now,” Royster said, laying down a refrain. “We need North Philadelphia to get engaged right now. We need PECO energy to invest right now so that we can have renewable energy that will carry us centuries into the future!”

As the action closed, one of the four business-attired police officers who had been watching the crowd shook Royster’s hand. Clasping each other’s shoulders, they talked. A PECO worker leaving the tower ran into a friend among the EQATers. The two young women hugged and laughed. Kids in highlighter-yellow EQAT T-shirts played tag among the concrete patio tables. EQATers passed around tiny cupcakes as a small celebration of PECO’s announcement of the Solar Stakeholder Collaborative. “Baby steps, baby steps,” said an elder Earth Quaker, taking one with blue and green icing.

The action then moved west, taking Market Street across the Schuylkill where the vista opened up to include the rising iron frames of four skyscrapers-to-be. The crowd flowed between the bumpers jammed into the crosswalk before 30th Street Station and entered with a song. Their voices mingled with the conductor calling, “All aboard for the Acela Express,” and came to a rest near the Amtrak destinations board. They sang “This Little Light of Mine.”

Commuters looked and pulled the earbuds out.

An extra-tall Earth Quaker with dreads in his long gray beard handed out pamphlets to commuters. Still moving, they scanned the pamphlets as they headed up the ramp to the regional rails.

Soon, they’d board and ride out to their houses in the counties ringing the city, where, as the sky darkened, they would click on the light.