KING OF PRUSSIA — More than 70 community activists gathered recently in the Upper Merion Township building to discuss a burgeoning energy transition trend in southeastern Pennsylvania. At present, the region accounts for nearly 20 percent of the 145 municipalities nationwide which have committed to the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100, a campaign which helps municipalities transition from fossil fuel dependency to renewable energy sources.
The region’s success caught the attention of Jodie Van Horn, the California-based founder and director of RF100. Van Horn contacted Jim Wylie, Chair of the Sierra Club’s all-volunteer Southeast Pennsylvania Group, to organize a meet-and-greet with regional volunteers, in part to honor them, in part to learn from them.
“I wanted to know what this part of the country is doing right,” Van Horn said.
With Van Horn as a headliner, three panels emerged to represent the public sector, private sector, and community engagement. Panelists presented resources and tools available to communities interested in developing a transition plan.
As the meeting concluded, the Sierra Club strategist reflected on her interactions with local volunteers.
“The number one ingredient for tangible changes that we’re seeing at the local level in southeastern Pennsylvania has been community pressure and advocacy. There’s a dedicated, knowledgeable group of residents who are demanding action and willing to help their elected local leaders figure out how to achieve 100 percent renewable energy,” Van Horn said. “They’re working together. It’s not each community for itself. What I saw on my visit is that they’ve banded together to form a powerful coalition across the region, and they’re learning and growing together.”
“The places we’ve seen the most progress are places with strong collaboration across municipalities. Southeastern Pennsylvania is a great example of a power player on the national landscape. The people here are ready for solutions.”
Van Horn credited municipal action as a main driver for changes at the state level.
“There are few things that America agrees on as much as the need for clean energy,” Van Horn said. “It’s a public opinion juggernaut. National support for renewables is over 80 percent, and that support cuts across party lines and geographical boundaries. Our local lawmakers are starting to respond to an overwhelming demand from their constituents. States are taking action, and it’s happening faster than we expected. The past year was a watershed. Six states passed resolutions to be 100 percent renewable, and it’s been because of the work of cities and municipalities that states are committing.”
Since RF100 launched in 2016, Montgomery County has become a regional trendsetter. Eleven municipalities within the county have committed to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, and 100 percent renewable heat and transportation by 2050. Chester and Delaware Counties have seen 10 and four municipal commitments, respectively, and in October, Philadelphia added its name to the list of RF100 cities.
For Wylie, Pennsylvania’s smaller municipalities are tailor-made for RF100 commitments.
“We organize on a county level, but we don’t really work with county governments. Influence stays municipal,” he said. “We’ve had to rely on volunteers, and we’ve had very strong volunteer organizations in the suburbs.”
Most important to the region’s success, Wylie said, is its network of Environmental Advisory Councils.
“They’re not paid staff members,” Wylie said. “They’re volunteers that care about the environment and understand the issues we’re facing. When RF100 appeared, EACs were already looking for solutions to recommend to municipal officials. Once we connected with those groups, it became a fairly straightforward process to give them the tools to make the case to their respective municipalities.”
For Wylie, the future strength of energy transition will be its numbers.
“We need to go out and seek these opportunities for aggregated purchasing. The bigger entities get the bigger bids. We’re competitive with fossil fuels, but we have to work for it to get those electricity prices,” he said.
Local officials were quick to point to Van Horn’s vision, and the Sierra Club’s commitment to that vision, as a centerpiece of their efforts.
“The Sierra Club is pushing and pulling us all the time,” Will Williams, sustainability director of West Chester Borough, said. “We have a lot of perspectives from them.”
“We’re very supportive of RF100,” Jon Lesher, a member of the Montgomery County Planning Commission, said. “It’s driven a lot of conversation, and it’s generated the most interest I’ve seen from municipalities to talk about greenhouse gas reductions.”
“The county is working to procure more solar,” Lesher said. “We’re looking to expand our scope and finalize more projects.”
Panelists took time to celebrate advancements in energy efficiency.
“There are always barriers to energy efficiency, but lighting has really taken off,” Julian Boggs, policy director of the Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance, said. “In 2011, American households weren’t using LED lights at all. In 2019, 74 percent of households have at least one LED. The distance we’ve made has saved gobs of electricity, money and emissions.”
Panelists from the private and public sectors reminded constituents of energy transition’s domestic challenges.
“We pay 40-60 percent more for permitting a solar project than Europe,” John Byrne, Chairman and President of the Foundation for Renewable Energy and Environment, said.
Philadelphia’s Dennis Rowan, President of Rowan Energy Integration, said, "In 2019, the average miles-per-gallon for the American vehicle fleet is 24. In 1916, the average was 16. If the internet had progressed at that rate, it’d be a dead technology.”
For Van Horn, the movement she created four years ago would be remiss to ignore inequity across national boundaries.
“Economic justice and race are interconnected. We have to include both of those concepts in our conversations,” she said. “Those who contribute the least to our emissions are those who bear the greatest impacts from fossil fuels. People of color are receiving fewer solar installations, even among jurisdictions of identical income.”
“Eventually all of our utilities are going to be renewable, and companies are changing their portfolios,” Van Horn said. “On a celebratory note, renewable energy generation surpassed that of coal power for the first time this year.”
“The best solutions are those that involve the community they’re serving. It needs to be an inclusive movement,” Van Horn said. “RF100 is primarily a volunteer-led campaign. It’s grassroots, so it’s laypeople that are making the incredible changes we’re seeing, and that’s the case across the country. That was always our intention: give people the tools to enact the changes they wish to see.”