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. 


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.


350 Phila Face to Face with SEPTA and the gas industry

From the 350 Philadelphia blog, authored by Meenal Raval –

“Yesterday,  8 of us met with 12 people to discuss SEPTA’s gas power plant project at the Midvale Bus Depot. We expressed our frustration, that our concerns have been ignored for 6 months. We referr…

Source: Face to Face with SEPTA and the gas industry

Thank God: for once, Bill McKibben is wrong!

Let’s face it. The identity politics that was so glowing and triumphant when Obama got elected has, eight years later, gnarled into a political dynamic about as joyous as waterboarding.

This transmogrification (and the simultaneous rebirth of America’s long-lost class consciousness) has masked the fact that identity politics still exists because it’s still relevant. It’s not fun, or charming, and especially when it comes to gender, it leads to an inordinate amount of bitter, personal divisiveness.  Like most other women in this country (and around the world) I am as thrilled to be electing the first woman president as I am eager for this merciless election to be over.

But there’s something that happened this week that made me realize just how wonderful it is to be voting for Hillary Clinton for president. I’ve been a organizer in Colorado and I generally agree with everything Bill McKibben says – except for this week. This week, McKibben, who has to be a professional optimist despite overwhelming odds, said that electing Hillary Clinton isn’t going to do anything for the climate movement. This I have heard repeated by angry non-participants or frustrated Sanderistsas about a number of other policy areas – but they’re wrong. Clinton may not have much value as a corporate Democrat, but she has almost atomic value because she’s a woman.

Regardless of Clinton’s future performance as a policymaker, having a female President is going to be a seismic shift in consciousness for this country. The impact of having visible female leadership – the most visible leader in the world – for four or eight years is going to dramatically shift the ground under American politics (and society.)

More women will indeed run for office because of her, and more women will take leadership positions in their organizations, their lives, their companies. Clinton knows this, and has said often in interviews that she is running so that women who come after her can see what is possible. We all learn by example – that is the basic nature of human identity. The election of Clinton as president will lead to the empowerment of millions of women, some in the subtlest of ways, because of sheer symbolism.

And what could our world possibly need more than millions of empowered women? All the traits required to transform our brutal, mechanistic, and terminally-ill society – empathy, compassion, self-sacrifice, service, kindness, connectedness – are just those traits that women have for so long been told disqualify them from leadership. Whether Hillary Clinton herself exemplifies these traits does not matter – although it’s a miracle that she, a Democrat from suburban Chicago, got there before a Margaret Thatcher conservative. What matters is that more women will be leading – in the environmental movement, in education, in business, and elsewhere. That will change everything.

We have two weekends left to campaign in Philadelphia – please come knock on doors or make phone calls if you haven’t already.

You can sign up here:

For questions, please call organizer Zach Taylor at 404- 862-0200 or email let me know when you are coming so I will be there!

Here are the shifts:

Saturday, October 29th






Sunday, October 30th






Saturday, November 5th






Sunday, November 6th






Monday, November 7th






ELECTION DAY: Tuesday, November 8th








I Don’t Ask/For Much These Days

Hey Hey, My My.

Went to a panel on Design and Social Change last week at Moore College. It was the triptych of what people think of as design – probably what students are taught – graphic design, tech, consumer goods. Moderator Jeremy Avellino is a sustainability expert and part-time hero, and wore a t-shirt crying ‘RESPECT THE LOCALS’ – a product of Philadelphia Print Works, whose president Maryam Pugh sat on the panel. It was lovely, a underpopulated room of rabble-rousers.

“The first time I saw someone spraying foam into a building I’d designed, I freaked out! I said, “I BUILT THIS?!” and never did it again,” said Jeremy. “Now I am a spray-foam abolitionist. How boring is that. People on city council get really excited about ending spray foam, and then also immediately say it’s completely impossible.”

I’d run into Jethro Heiko there – the only word for this is the Chinese syllable translated as ‘auspicious’ – and, sitting next to each other, we just rolled our eyes. Jethro helps people confront death and dying for his day job. Compared to that, zoning disputes are merely fun, but as I am beginning to understand, they shape the city for hundreds of years.

Design is more than furniture, more than buildings. Design is the whisper through every field. Through most of the panel I sat thinking about Fish 2.0 and water innovation and Farm Hack and how to apply biomimicry to human political systems.

Anyone troubled by the divergence of “solving for poverty” from “solving for environmental destruction” can rejoice in that when it comes to food, they are often the same solution. It’s different here in Amerikkka, of course. “I think when we solve for poverty, we will solve for sustainability,” says Jeremy. But solving for poverty in Philadelphia often means buying plastic kitchenware at Family Dollar. What we need designers to do is figure out how to grow soybeans in the desert with 2 percent of current resource use.

“A farm is a built environment!” as Mat Davis pointed out later, driving home in his dirty, gloriously paint-splashed Tacoma. The architecture firm I work at builds universities, and the architecture firm  next door builds Walmarts. We might as well be throwing bombs at each other across the alley. I tried to read Vitruvius this year and couldn’t get through the fanboy introduction – an ode to Rome’s record of innovation in carnage and oppression. Someday humanity will be building beautiful houses out of reclaimed materials, and they will be both agonizingly unstandardized, and shockingly easy to source. The glory days of “sustainable architecture” haven’t even begun yet. Postmodernism can also be – wait for it… about materials.

locals – for all your holiday shopping needs!

I try not to get distracted. I haven’t even figured out what to do about energy yet in my hometown. The pilots of sustainability here are already charting new courses – this is a lively place for green initiatives- but I am still trying to spot the “chink in the armor,” as Mio Culture’s Isaac Salm terms it.

The only thing I am going to do now is look up “human-centered design.” Until Jethro used the phrase to describe what he does, I had no idea this existed: the design of human interaction. This is intriguing. When Mat Davis taught architecture, he’d have his students read a short story, and then draw a zoning map of the plot. I have a quivery feeling, like I’ve graduated to a higher level of magic. In 2007, Casino Free had a bigger volunteer GOTV operation than any of the campaigns -including the mayoral campaigns – for a ballot initiative that was legally nothing. But symbolically atomic.


Your Co-Op Election: Vote for Sun and Wind

Op-Ed written for the Colorado Renewable Energy Society in the North Forty News, Wellington, Colorado:

If you are a Poudre Valley REA member, the last envelope you got wasn’t a bill. It was an opportunity to make history.

It was a ballot, allowing you to choose the elected leadership of the co-op.

In other words, the Board of Directors who will steer the course of PVREA toward a renewable future or keep on with business as usual – and higher rates.

More here.


Colorado State University Should Divest


My op-ed in the Coloradoan:

The oil economy is everywhere. Feb. 14, a “human oil spill” ravaged the downtown Oak Street Plaza, as 350 Fort Collins members lay strewn out over black plastic under scenes of tar sands mining in Utah. The black-clad petroleum impersonators chanted and drummed, all to the point of gathering signatures calling on Colorado State University to divest from fossil fuels.

Divestment from fossil fuels is a global movement and an excellent tactic to transition from destructive fossil fuel mining and consumption to a renewable future powered by renewable sources. The idea is this: holdings of fossil fuels by cities, colleges, individuals, and other institutions — often in the millions of dollars – are sold off so that those industries have less access to capital.

Many diverse colleges have already put their money where their principles are and divested: Stanford, the New School, Naropa University and many more ( Cities can do this as well; Fort Collins certainly could follow the lead of Ithaca, Provincetown or Oakland. We are already leaders in the fight for climate justice.

Read the rest here.

Will Denver Allow Fracking in its city limits?

Cross Posted at Triple Pundit.

After years of local battles across the state of Colorado, the fracking debate is about to come home to roost.

On Feb. 10, a coalition of youth, businesses, community and religious leaders announced their opposition to fracking — which is currently in the planning stages not only in Denver neighborhoods, but also the plateau up in the Rockies that supplies almost 40 percent of the city’s water.

The “Don’t Frack Denver” coalition assembled on the steps of Denver City Hall on Tuesday and warned passionately about the public health dangers posed by fracking. Then, the group delivered letters to the offices of Mayor Michael Hancock and city council, calling for an immediate moratorium on fracking in the city limits. Protesters also asked local politicians for support in the fight to stop fracking upstream in the South Platte River watershed, the city’s chief source of water.

“Fracking makes Coloradans sick, drives down property values, and contaminates our public water and clean air,” said Sam Schabaker, western region director of Food and Water Watch. “Denver’s exceptional quality of life is too precious to risk: Fracking must not take place in our community or watershed.”

Read more at Triple Pundit.