Nicetown Gas Plant is a Terrible Deal for this City

My testimony at SEPTA’s board meeting, Nov. 19, 2016. Good coverage of the meeting – thanks to Meenal Raval – is here at the 350 Philadelphia blog. 

democracy

Hello. My name is Hannah Miller; I’ve covered the energy industry as a journalist for several publications, and worked in operations and sales for two solar companies. I live in South Philly and ride SEPTA daily.

As a civilization, we are way past the point where new fossil-fuel infrastructure should be considered a possibility. From the local health impacts to the global, from the economic burden these plants will be on SEPTA riders, to the agency’s betrayal of democratic processes, there are far more reasons to cancel these plans than to go forward, and I hope that the agency remembers its public-service mission.

There are many questionable development projects proposed in this city, but the idea of putting a gas-burning power plant smack in the middle of a poor neighborhood really takes the cake. With the respiratory-disease epidemic already faced by this part of Philadelphia – where a reported 1 in 3 children have asthma – it is morally wrong to build a gas power plant in Nicetown. It’s morally wrong to build one anywhere, but this location – doubtlessly picked by someone in Harrisburg who doesn’t have to live here – just reinforces the oil and gas industry’s utter disregard for life.

Why SEPTA – one of the cornerstones of Philadelphia’s claim to fame as a ‘green’ city – would participate in building this is beyond any logical or economic explanation, especially when the agency is building out a very successful battery-backup-storage system elsewhere. If SEPTA wants an answer to resilience concerns, it needs to look no farther than its own successful storage program, which generate revenues as well as provide peak-time power.

If SEPTA were concerned about the health of its ridership, it would be looking to clean and renewable energy to supply 100 percent of its power needs. And if it were interested in its own financial future, it would not be building gas-burning power plants. They burn a commodity that will only become rarer and more expensive for the entire life of the plant. And if it were genuinely aware of the impact of environmental racism, it would never think to put this plant in Nicetown – or in any of the other possible places they are rumored to be building plants.

So what is actually driving this decision? What is SEPTA doing? So far, the neighborhood most impacted is unanimously against this proposal. This won’t help SEPTA provide better bus service at Midvale, or train service at Wayne Junction. In fact, because of the flawed contract that SEPTA has agreed to, SEPTA is going to lose money and be paying higher prices with this than they could be if they invested in renewable energy. If SEPTA really wants to lower energy costs, there are numerous renewable energy experts, companies, contractors, and enthusiasts who could find ways for SEPTA to power its system effectively, at benefit to the whole community.

Climate change and air pollution are not things that just happen. They are the result of thousands of decision made by cities, companies, and transit agencies.

SEPTA has put forward a goal of being sustainable, and we applaud that; this goal is absolutely incompatible with building new fossil fuel infrastructure. If anything, SEPTA should be lowering its use of fossil fuels. For all the children and adults who live in the area, as well as those traveling through the bus depot or Wayne Junction, this plant is death and disease. There is no political tradeoff anywhere that will make this worth it, especially given that the plant is being shoved down SEPTA’s throat by the gas lobby, which has at least one lawyer on the board.

I used to sell Power Purchase Agreements for solar companies – similar agreements to what SEPTA is signing here. With a PPA, a customer agrees to a multi-year contract in order to lock in a low price. With solar, it was very easy for us to do this – once the equipment was in place, the fuel was free. The reason that solar has exploded in many states around is the US is comparatively, the cost of all fossil fuels is going to go up. Most of the easily fracked gas in the Marcellus Shale has already been burned, and we are in a post-peak period; the technologies required at get at more “extreme” energy will make these fuels more and more expensive as time goes on. SEPTA is buying into this game when it knows it’s going to lose. I believe the commissioners already know this.

SEPTA – and our region – have a responsibility to the future. With every bit of new fossil-fuel infrastructure we build, we put off the transition to clean energy by decades. Utilities simply don’t have the money to build gas plants and pipelines, then turn around 3 years later and junk all of this in favor of solar and wind. Once infrastructure is built, it’s there for the long haul, or at least until the cost of building it is recouped.

With almost 70 percent of its ridership and funding coming from Philadelphia, SEPTA needs to stand up to the gas companies who have a lock on Harrisburg. There are Philadelphians who develop respiratory illnesses and worse from this – it is a statistical inevitability that people will die. This is a bad deal for SEPTA, a bad deal for Nicetown, a bad deal for SEPTA riders – and the worst part is, there are perfectly feasible clean options available.

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