A pivotal chance for Philadelphia’s climate future


One year ago, the Schuylkill River had just normalized after rising to catastrophic levels following Hurricane Ida. The ensuing floods that swallowed up the Vine Street Expressway, ruined homes, and businesses, and took multiple lives, provided a potent reminder that Philadelphia, nestled between two rivers, is uniquely susceptible to the impacts of extreme weather resulting from climate change.

If nothing else, a look back at the historic flooding should serve as a reminder of the need to advance prescriptive policies at the local level that curtail the negative effects of climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and protect Philadelphia’s health and infrastructure. The recent Supreme Court decision undermining the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions on a national level amplifies the need for cities like Philadelphia to take charge of their climate futures.

Thankfully, Philadelphia has a policy road map in place. In 2021, Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council made a “net zero” pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. It’s an ambitious goal that’s drawn support in other cities such as Boston, New York, and San Francisco. Coinciding with the pledge, the city also released a draft of its Climate Action Playbook — a blueprint of data-driven recommendations and expertise to suggest ways to reduce climate change’s impacts through an equitable and inclusive lens.

During Climate Week NYC 2022 and Global Clean Energy Action Forum in Pittsburgh, we want to spotlight Philadelphia and cities around the world that are at an inflection point for environmental progress. While municipalities need to look forward to innovations and policies, there are also existing programs and technologies that could be better harnessed by individuals and embraced by local governments to make a significant difference in achieving our climate goals.

For example, on a small scale, look at how electric cargo bikes are increasingly diminishing the environmental impact of urban deliveries. The British advocacy group Possible put out a study last year that found electric cargo bikes reduced emissions by 90 percent compared to diesel vans and by one-third compared to electric vans. Plus, the bikes were more efficient from a delivery standpoint, making more than 50 percent more deliveries than vans.

Although car emissions get a lot of publicity, building emissions are a bigger culprit. According to Climate Action Playbook, the buildings of Philadelphia emit a whopping 75 percent of the city’s total carbon footprint—triple the total emissions from all modes of transportation.

What cargo bikes are doing for deliveries, Vicinity is doing for building emissions. In April, we announced the launch of eSteam™. It’s a technology specifically designed to rapidly decarbonize this critical area of climate change. We will offer renewable thermal energy by installing electric boilers instead of the traditional gas-burning variety and industrial-scale heat pumps and thermal storage at our central facilities to provide sustainable and reliable service. Although eSteam™ will first be available in Boston and Cambridge, Philly will soon follow.

Investing in renewable energy sources will serve to increase energy stability and reliability in the face of recent climate and fossil fuel-related emergencies. At this week’s climate event in NYC, leaders noted that renewables would ensure resilience and security beyond driving economic growth.

We are committed to using innovative technology to upgrade how we create steam to serve downtown Philadelphia. We’ve already begun scoping and designing our systems for decarbonization. We are beyond excited with the overwhelmingly positive response to our plan among advocates, policymakers, and customers.

Simply put, Philadelphia is on track to become the largest decarbonized district energy system in the U.S.

At Vicinity Energy, we constantly look at what leaders are doing worldwide for inspiration and guidance on combatting climate change. Similar thermal energy systems surpass their climate goals in places like Copenhagen, and we need to do more in Philadelphia. Vicinity is innovating, implementing, and solving decarbonization challenges, “Getting It Done” with district energy.

Learn more about our electrification plan in our white paper.

Vicinity Energy White Paper - Revolutionizing Urban Sustainability

Jeannie Morris

Jeannie Morris is Vicinity's Senior Director of Government Affairs, responsible for leading the company’s government and industry relations strategy, including policy alignment with Vicinity’s Net Zero Carbon plan. She writes about topics related to district energy, climate policy, and working towards a clean energy future.