Fridays for the Future #4 — PGW, the PUC and RNG: How gov’t gets in the way of climate action

Circa 2012

I have a resident expert on sustainability in my life: my friend Paul Kohl, the Director of Planning and Research at the PWD. His LinkedIn page says “PWD” for Philadelphia Water Department and that is the first abbreviation of many in this story. Get ready for PEA, PGW, PUC, RNG, NYC, PJM and maybe more.

It is all government-speak, which often obscures the reality of what is going on (like “Who are we even talking about? And what is ‘sustainability’ supposed to mean?”). These days the torturously slow, maddening pace of government regarding climate change is clogging up the immediate action we need to take.

For instance, I wrote a note to Kenyatta Johnson, the councilman for my congregation’s district in Philly. (I plan to contact everyone, once I find out who is who. I am making you a list). I got a nice phone message from his communications director, Vincent Thompson, who I have met on the street. He told me he was sending me a link for the Office of Sustainability. He said the City Council does not do much about climate change but may pass legislation proposed by the Mayor’s Office in which the Office of Sustainability falls. Kristine Knapp is the director. I am acquainted with her since she used to lead the Passyunk Square Civic Association, I was associated with their board for a hot minute back in the day. She’s great, but if you look at the office’s site, it will be hard to find something that resembles radical action. When Vincent called me again (! — you are on it!) I told him he could have directed me to Emily Shapira at PEA (Philadelphia Energy Authority) which is the brainchild of Darrel Clarke and is an arm of the City Council. It is hard to keep track of all these overlapping agencies. I am not sure they even get along.

Even though it often feels like a dead end, we need to talk to the government, somehow. You can put as many solar panels on your house as you like, which is good. But it is the work of government, not individuals, which is the main problem with the atmosphere. The main corporate polluters have a moral obligation to stop polluting, but the capitalist system under which they function has a deadly logic of its own and needs to be restrained by the government before profit-taking kills us all.

RNG could be part of the picture

My friend Paul knows all about these things as the scientist, engineer, under-affirmed leader and government project manager he has been. He told me a story about PGW (the city-owned energy utility) which demonstrates how government can work but then can be its own problem.

A 2015 report by the Pennsylvania PUC (Public Utilities Commission) found 7,600 total leaks across PGW’s (Philadelphia Gas Works‘) system with more than half being classified as hazardous.  (Good work PUC!) In June of 2021 (yes, SIX YEARS later) PGW announced plans to cut methane emissions 80% by 2050 by modernizing infrastructure and implementing new technology, according to this news release. The leaking methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming at a rate more than 80 times that of carbon dioxide. There are projects all over the country to cap it or capture it.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — quoted report is from 2018) and the City of Philadelphia have committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 to keep warming below 1.5 degrees centigrade.

  • This goal my not be enough, but it is the popular goal.
  • The federal government stalled during Trump’s FOUR YEARS (Rex Tillerson was Sec. of State, for one thing!).
  • The pandemic slowed or stopped some serious work.
  • The City has more fights about people having to come back to the office than they do about the best way to save the planet.

But we press on. The 20% of the methane loss they don’t think they can stop will be “offset” through planting trees or other measures, according to Rob Altenburg, senior director of energy and climate at PennFuture, a well-funded (as in Heinz and Pew and downtown galas) nonprofit focused on leading the transition to a clean energy economy across Pennsylvania.

Part of PGW’s plan is to seek “renewable natural gas (RNG) sources for gas supply, along with other RNG development opportunities.” RNG technology is itching to get going. Advanced anaerobic digestors are the new thing. NYC has some. In Philly, there is a proposed project to capture methane from food waste on an old refinery site that finally made its way through the courts in June of 2021 (report). PGW wanted to be purveyors of such RNG so we can keep the natural gas in the ground.

PA PUC Chair Gladys Dutrieuille

By August of 2021, the PUC stepped in and quashed the pilot project (Inquirer story). They did not disagree with the idea of it. But the law that gives the PUC authority to regulate utilities requires it to make sure consumers get the cheapest possible rates. RNG, at this point, costs about two to five times more than natural gas. So a majority of the board interpreted the law to say the small amount of expensive gas PGW planned to buy to get this industry going was not OK.

And some critics say RNG is not the best solution to methane from landfills and might even cause more pollution (article). And there will always be people saying we need to radically decrease consumption, not just try to change technology fast enough to keep up our destructive pace.

The Inquirer could not resist ending their article on the proposed plant by putting the blame on government: “The Republican-controlled General Assembly has demonstrated little appetite for climate mandates, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which might result in higher consumer costs.”

[BTW — I called the PUC to see why there are only three members right now instead of the prescribed five.  Their phone tree let’s you know what they do! They only took five minutes for the call back! But they could not answer my question and sent me up a level. After a minute and a half I was put into voicemail. Haven’t heard anything in two weeks — they must not have a Vincent.]

Paul’s RNG ideas

I would not say Paul is optimistic about the future, but he has certainly become an expert in providing us one as part of the PWD. He was part of the City’s plan for sustainability as represented in the PGW diversification study  and the PWD sustainability plans.

Paul knows how to capture energy from sewage and had a pilot plant running at one point. It successfully gave proof of concept but had technical issues and fell by the bureaucratic wayside. Two treatment plants, one in Bridesburg and one near the airport, run portions of their processes with methane and heat captured from waste.

In the northeast, the system captures both thermal and electrical energy from wastewater gas. Anaerobic digesters process sludge filtered from wastewater to produce biogas, which fuels engines creating heat and power for the plant. In addition, capturing the heat in the water being treated creates on-site energy that would normally be lost in transmission, increasing efficiency. In the southwest, the biogas is used to heat, dry and pelletize the waste. When you pass one of these plants and see the flares burning, that’s wasting the gas. That outlet is more for an emergency than for regular operation. You should call your Council member and ask why we are wasting gas.

Apart from admiring all the good work Paul and others are trying to do, this week’s exploration feels full of bureaucratic roadblocks and lack of cohesion. That probably seems a lot like your family maybe, or your church — people are people. I came away thinking I had better pray! One reason is so I don’t get consumed with anxiety — I think most of us are practicing not knowing too much about climate change because it is too terrible.  The other reason  to pray is so I take some action in the face of painfully slow progress — as usual, if God does not save us, we will not be saved.

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