The Energy Coop

Adawi of The Energy Cooperative

Since facing An Inconvenient Truth about the perils of carbon emissions, many people are more interested to find ways they can help the effort to reduce global warming, foster greater energy efficiencies and promote cleaner air. Energy conservation is still the most effective first step people can take- purchasing Energy Star products and compact fluorescent lightbulbs, recycling, and using your car less. Philadelphia’s Energy Cooperative can help you assess your home’s energy situation and come up with a plan for greater effciency. They also offer residents a way to purchase electricity and heating oil from 100% renewable sources. I spoke with executive director Nadia Adawi about The Energy Cooperative’s programs.

Can you explain the coop principle in general? And can anyone join the coop?
Yep. The organization is the Energy Coop, which is exactly what it sounds like: we’re a cooperative providing energy services. The cooperative idea is an empowerment idea. It’s helping people manage their energy costs. We found the best model to do that is to be a member-owned organization. We work for our members. We don’t work for anyone else or on behalf of anyone else. Everything we do is driven to help our members.

How many members do you have?
We have about 4000 members.

Just in the Philadelphia area?
That is just in the Philadelphia area. We’re actually a statewide organization, but because we actually deliver energy products we found that it was critical to focus geographically. So here in the Philadelphia area we provide heating oil, a biodiesel blend of heating oil we call bioheating oil, and we provide renewable electricity. And now we’re actually providing biodiesel for fleets and for farm equipment and off-road use, and stuff like that.

So are those three different kinds of biodiesel?
Actually you can use heating oil in your diesel engine. It’s called something different so the IRS can tax it differently. It’s actually the same product.

That’s good to know, I get confused. I interviewed Glenn Brendle of Green Meadows Farm and he uses fryer oil to heat his home and his greenhouses, but he told me that that wasn’t considered biodiesel.
Right. What Glenn Brendle is doing is really cool. He picks up fryer grease from restaurants, filters it, cleans it, and burns it straight in a boiler. Now the other thing you can do with fryer oil, or any kind of waste grease, or even virgin vegetable oil, is perform a chemical transformation on it which is what makes biodiesel.

That’s with the additives, you mean, like adding lye, is that right?
Well there are catalysts, things that drive the chemical reaction. Basically, to put it simply, you take vegetable oil but you have to transform it into something else. The simplest way of looking at it is we start taking the glycerin out of the vegetable oil. Glycerin is not something you want to burn in an engine. It’s OK to burn it like Brendle does in a waste oil burner, but it’s not something you want running through a car.

Because it’s soapy or sticky?
Yes, and also because when it combusts there are some toxic emissions which we prefer not to be emitting in cleaner fuel.

What are “nox emissions”? They’re a byproduct of biodiesel, is that correct?
Nitrous oxides. Biodiesel has clear emissions in the really important stuff, like particulates, the teeny particles that get embedded in people’s lungs and actually make them very ill. Sulphur oxides, carbon oxides. But there’s been some question about whether it actually has higher emissions of nitrous oxides. For a long time people thought that it did and just accepted that. But there’s been new research coming out of the National Renewable Energy Lab where they took a look at all the studies about nox emissions. in some studies it went up and in some studies it went down, and right now, they just don’t know. So the industry is saying, we’re neutral on nox. Running biodiesel doesn’t reduce nox emissions but it also doesn’t increase it.

Now how does it work to switch over electricity to you? And what are your sources for electricity?
We are a licensed electricity supplier in Pennsylvania, which is kind of distinctive. To be this small an organization, to be a member-owned coop, and also to be a FIRC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) power marketer and licensed by the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) and all of that- it was actually a pretty steep learning curve for us to be able to get into the electricity business. But now folks can literally switch their account to us. Instead of getting electricity from PECO, from coal and nuclear power, you can actually get it from us. We tag onto their bill. And there’re some charges that PECO still has. PECO still owns all the poles and wires that go to your house. And they charge you for that every month, but you can switch to us for the generation part of your bill, the actual electricity component. And we get our electricity from wind power, from solar power, and from landfill gas here in Pennsylvania.

The solar power is a really cool model. It’s a model of where we want to be going. The most cooperative way possible. We buy our solar power from 48 members who have PV (Photovoltaic) systems on their roofs.

In the city?
In the city and in the surrounding suburbs, in the five counties in Philadelphia.

Wow. How much electricity does that supply?
It’s 1% of what we sell. It’s a small amount. But considering five years ago it was 0%, we’re making good progress.

Now, what’s the difference if you sign up for the Energy Cooperative through PECO or sign up for PECO Wind?
To me the biggest difference is you can either buy your wind power from the world’s largest marketer of nuclear power, which is the utility, OR you can buy your wind power, your solar power and your landfill gas power through a member-owned cooperative, which is socially responsible. Our power is more expensive than PECO’s, even their PECO Wind, but we think it’s worth it. The big distinction is that most people who buy PECO Wind are just buying a small percentage of their power from renewables. Our electricity is 100% renewable. You can’t just do 10%. You’ve got to do it all.

As more people join the coop will those prices go down? Is that how that market works?
Yes. As more people join the coop and buy our renewable energy, prices will go down and also we’ll be able to get more renewables built. That’s the whole goal here, to show there’s a demand for cleaner sources of power so that we stop building these coal-powered plants.

And that there’s a business model that eventually will be competitive with what exists right now. Will you tell me about your Fry-O-Diesel program?
We have an affiliated company, it’s actually a wholly owned subsidiary right now, called Philadelphia Fry-O-Diesel. The Energy Cooperative started as a heating oil coop 27 years ago. And we’ve always done heating oil, and then we got really active after adding the renewable electricity. But we never made the match between renewable and heating oil. So about 4 years ago we started looking at how you do renewable heating oil. That’s when we ran across biodiesel, which can be used for home heating, not just in a diesel engine for fleet fuel. But when we started looking, the closest source of production for biodiesel was Ohio and it was all made from virgin soy bean oil. And because we’re in it for air emissions benefits, the idea of trucking clean fuel from Ohio didin’t seem right. And also the issue of using oils- it’s very controversial. I’m not opposed to it, but we’re going to be contrained because there’s not enough land to grow enough beans to make enough fuel to satisfy what we need. We took a step back and said, this is stupid, we’re not going to do that. Let’s see what we can get going locally. And we spent about a year and a half doing research on how would you get local production going in Philadelphia. And that’s when we started Philadelphia Fry-O-Diesel. So Fry-O-Diesel is a company that’s set up to actually produce biodiesel using waste greases, and we’re actually focusing not even on the fryer grease. There’s a debate about whether fryer grease is really a waste or not. It’s got a use. Right now there’s actually big, entrenched companies that gather most of the fryer grease in the area. They refine it and they put it in animal feed as a fat additive. That use has been banned in the European Union, but here it’s still legal. So we started looking at what comes out of a restaurant that’s a true waste product, and that’s trap grease. And that’s literally the grease that runs down the drain when you’re washing dishes. You wash your pot and your pan, you run your dishwasher. Grease collects in a grease trap, which is just a big plastic box. We developed an innovative process to actually convert that because nobody had ever tried that before. So we got state grant funding, we built a small pilot plant up in North Philadelphia, and we proved you can actually do that. We’re now looking to scale up to a commercial production facility somewhere in the area. Anybody got $7 million they want to invest?

The demand for this technology is growing. Everyone wants to do their part to reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a lot of easy stuff you can do, and that’s part of our mission here. We’ll help make it easy.

Can you describe your Clean Cities program?
Greater Philadelphia Clean Cities program is actually a separate organization and program that is managed out of this office, and managed by us. It deals specifically with alternate fuels and petroleum displacement. So they’re focused solely on transportation, not on electricity or heating oil. They focus on transportation with the overarching goal of reducing our consumption of petroleum. That means mass transit, car sharing, hybrids, ethanol, and biodiesel. They have a recent story to report: the opening of the first publicly accessible ethanol/biodiesel pump in the city. At 12th and Vine.

So if you have a gas car…
If you have a gas car, you have to make sure it’s flex-fuel. Fortunately, a lot of cars are flex-fuel right off the assembly line, but unfortunately, it’s very hard to find out if you have a flex-fuel car. You have to look it up by the vehicle identification number.

Are there plans for more pumps in the city?
There are more plans for ethanol pumps right now. Clean Cities just go grant income to do an ethanol corridor across the state. Starting with the one in the city and going out the main line, through Lancaster, and then someone else picks it up for the rest of the way.

That’s awesome! Let me go back to something I read that really surprised me. This is going back to solar power. “Contrary to popular belief, solar power works quite well in the Philadelphia area.” I guess I’m one of those people under the impression that we have so many gray days here that solar wouldn’t work. I live in a typical row home in Philadelphia. How could I use solar in my own home?
You could. There’s a couple of things in play here. First of all, the technology is so much more efficient now that it can suck sunlight out even when it’s a gray day.

I saw that they’re using heliostats on skyscrapers in NYC to beam light to power light in different buildings that have light blocked by other buildings. Like electronic sunflowers.
That’s where we need to go. I talk about how great our model for solar power is, part of why it’s so great is we want to encourage people to generate electricity right in their own homes because we waste a lot of energy transporting energy. We’ve got a coal power plant in western Pennsylvania that’s literally keeping this light lit. That makes no sense at all. But obviously you can’t put a coal power plant in the middle of Philadelphia. But you can do stuff with solar power, there are even models for wind power that would work in an urban environment, although they’re mostly being developed in Europe. Getting to what we call distributed generation- the idea that you’ve got these little electricity generating facilities everywhere, as close to where the power is being used as you possibly can.

So someone like me, who’s a regular citizen…
There are a number of city roofs that have solar power. There’s some squirrelly stuff you have to do, like my city roof is flat, and you have to have the panels angled to get the best light, so if they were putting solar on my roof they would have to build a platform with an angled substructure to actually put the panels on.

But back to how solar power works decently here. It’s all based on solar insolation. We basically get about 70% of what Tuscon gets for solar energy, and that’s still decent. And the thing with solar power is it generates best in the summer when it’s sunniest, and that’s when we use the most electricity because of all the air conditioning.

I think I read there was a comprehensive program in Chicago to give citizens incentives for installing solar capability in their homes.
Yeah. And there’s a great program in New Jersey that pays half the cost, grant money. We had a small version of that program in Philadelphia that just ran out of money. Everyone’s waiting for that to come back. It’s all been funded by extorted money from the utilities. I mean ‘extorted’ in a good way, meaning it’s good for the utilities to help pay for that.

So there’s no program to help citizens build solar at this time?
Right now there’s no grant money available in Pennsylvania to do solar power. Our program will help cut the cost because we do buy the solar output from people. We buy at a pretty high price to help the economics. So that helps.

When I came into the office you were telling me what a crazy week it’d been. Would you like to talk about that?
We sent back $50,000 to our members this month. We actually had to raise our prices very high for electricity this last year and we thought it’d just be too much for people to pay. But more people stayed with us than we thought and we wound up at the end of the fiscal year with a surplus, and because we’re a cooperative, when we’re at a surplus, we give it back to our members. So we sent out 1300 patronage checks to our members for a total of $50,000.

I read in your literature that the cost to become a member is $5. Is that correct?
Yep. And it’s free for people at a lower fixed income.

So you join and then you pay a little more through PECO…
You pay your membership fee. Some people pay just because they like getting our newsletter. But then you can also choose to purchase renewable electricity through us, or if you heat with oil, you can purchase your heating oil through us.

Can you join online?
Absolutely!

Join the Energy Cooperative and find out more about alternative energy at www.theenergy.coop.

2007-01-03 09:40:01

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