Peco is moving forward with plans to significantly increase its diet of solar energy in coming years, including several programs that would directly benefit low-income customers.

The Philadelphia utility outlined five "conceptual" programs this week to support construction of 39 megawatts of solar capacity in its Southeastern Pennsylvania service territory. That's about 15 percent of the statewide total of 265 megawatts of installed solar capacity at the end of last year.

The utility's proposals would create a grant fund for low-income homeowners to install rooftop solar panels, increase customer access to solar-centric competitive power suppliers, and build Peco-owned solar facilities that would generate credits for low-income customers. If Peco moves forward on all the proposals, the solar investment would total about $97 million.

"What Peco's talking about doing is going to be very visible," said Liz Robinson, executive director of the Energy Coordinating Agency, which organizes low-income weatherization programs.

The utility, which has 1.6 million customers, outlined the plans Wednesday at the second meeting of its Solar Stakeholder Collaborative, which it launched this year after activists targeted the company headquarters with marches, demanding that Peco support low-income solar programs.

The Earth Quaker Action Team, the group whose protests prodded Peco to action, said in a statement that the utility's proposals "barely scratch the surface." It said it plans more marches.

But Robinson, whose energy agency has worked with low-income customers for more than three decades, said the proposals were a remarkable turnaround for Peco.

Said Liz Murphy, Peco's senior vice president of regulatory and external affairs: "As the local utility, we are positioned to advance ideas that will grow local solar, create local jobs, and benefit low-income customers, while also ensuring there is no negative impact to other customers."

Peco cautioned that its proposals are preliminary, and eventually would require approval from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Ideas include creating a $3 million grant fund that would support the cost of installing rooftop solar panels in low-income areas. The fund would be similar to its Matching Energy Assistance Fund, in which Peco matches tax-deductible private contributions for energy grants.

Peco also proposed allowing customers to buy monthly blocks of locally produced solar power, modeled on its successful Peco Wind program. Peco says it would buy the solar power from local producers, such as schools and rec centers outfitted with rooftop panels.

Another option would encourage some of the 79,000 Peco customers who are now enrolled with competitive suppliers through its Smart Energy Choice program to switch to a solar-centric supplier and get part of their power from local producers.

Peco's two largest solar initiatives would allow the company itself to build 22 megawatts of solar facilities in low-income areas, putting it back into a business that utilities were forced to exit when the state opened power generation to market competition in 1996.

One Peco plan envisions the utility's building 10 megawatts of solar projects in low-income areas. Ten percent of the revenue would go to 5,000 low-income customers in the form of $50 annual bill credits. Another proposal calls for Peco to invest $20 million to build 12 megawatts of local solar projects. Peco would buy the renewable energy credits from the projects to meet its obligations under the state's Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard.