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City gets $14.1 million energy grant

Energy-saving LED lights in 85,000 traffic signals. Solar panels at a city sewage treatment plant. Energy-efficiency upgrades at some buildings.

Energy-saving LED lights in 85,000 traffic signals.

Solar panels at a city sewage treatment plant.

Energy-efficiency upgrades at some buildings.

These are a few of the fruits of a $14.1 million grant for Philadelphia announced yesterday by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The big-ticket item is nearly $5.8 million for grants and low-interest loans to help businesses and industries retrofit buildings to be more energy-efficient.

But the wow factor for many in the city's environmental community was the $700,000 earmarked for expanding citywide the incentive-based recycling program, run by the private company RecycleBank.

Advocates had been lobbying for the program for years, but the city balked for a variety of reasons, and mainly that the finances didn't work out.

Now, the city can use the grant money to fund a radio frequency identification tag system - similar to E-ZPass - on city recycling trucks and household containers. It would track who is recycling and how much is being recycled.

Details are still being worked out, but the city plans to announce them in November. At its simplest, residents would receive discount coupons to area stores based on the participation rate of their entire block.

A year ago, city households were diverting about 8 percent of their trash into recycling. With the introduction of weekly pickup and single-stream recycling, where all items go into one bin, the rate has jumped to 15 percent.

Andrew Stober, of Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler's office, said he expected RecycleBank to up the rate into the 20s, saving millions of dollars in tipping fees. Currently, the city pays $65 a ton to landfill waste, but just 33 cents a ton to recycle it.

"I see every reason for us to be very excited," said recycling advocate Maurice Sampson, who for years has been at odds with the Streets Department over the issue.

"There isn't anything quite like what they're doing," he said. "It looks like we're about to enter that arena of Philadelphia leading again."

The grant, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - the economic stimulus package - is one of hundreds of energy-efficiency "formula grants," based mostly on population, going to states, counties, cities and tribes. Grants will total $2.7 billion.

Similar awards yesterday were $28 million to Chicago, $23 million to Houston, and $15 million to Los Angeles. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania received $23.5 million and New Jersey $14.4 million.

Area communities that have received smaller grants include Abington, Bensalem, Cheltenham, Cherry Hill, Haverford Township, Willingboro, and Middletown Township, Bucks County. Burlington County also received a grant.

Eric Orts, a Wharton School professor who specializes in environmental law and policy, said the city's plan overall "seems reasonable."

In particular, the loans and grants for building retrofits are "money well-spent," he said. "If you think of some of the easiest wins, building efficiency is probably the cheapest way to go."

The objective - in addition to reducing energy use nationwide - is to jump-start or expand innovative programs that can be replicated elsewhere, said Katherine Gajewski, Philadelphia's director of sustainability.

"We're going to be able to learn a lot through this infusion in the next 12 to 18 months," she said.

The grant program sets specific core areas where the money could be used - building retrofits, conservation programs, and energy audits, for instance. Within that, Gajewski said, city officials picked projects "that were either under way and needed additional funding, or programs that were in the wings that we wanted to use as opportunity to get off the ground."

The city's 500 BigBelly solar-powered streetside trash compactors have proven so popular since being introduced last spring that the city plans to spend $973,000 to buy 260 more to place along commercial corridors.

Vandalism has been minimal - graffiti and a car hit is about the extent of it - and the city has saved fuel and employee time, because the bins have to be emptied twice a week instead of five times.

The city also plans to convert 1,600 decommissioned parking meter poles (in areas now with central parking-receipt kiosks) to bike racks. An additional 1,000 racks will be installed elsewhere.

Christine Knapp, director of outreach for the nonprofit advocacy group PennFuture, noted that a "less sexy" plan, but a vital one, is the $250,700 to be spent on a monitoring system for the city's sustainability plan, GreenWorks, introduced in the spring.

With more than 150 actions recommended, Knapp said, it was important to "keep track of them. . . . It's really a critical piece, toward moving what are at this point just good ideas into actions."

In general, she said, the plan was "a pretty smart way of using $14 million."

Some funds will be used to retrofit city buildings, develop energy-oriented building codes, and staff a city energy management office.

Nearly $300,000 will go for training programs to help city workers reduce energy use by 10 percent - a challenge that began six months ago and is projected to save the city $3 million a year.