Solarize Delco completes largest project to date as the county takes a fresh approach to sustainability

Solarize Delco's ribbon cutting. Left to Right:
Peter Puglionesi, Melisa Romano, and Noel Smyth of Solarize Delco; Mike Zabel State Representative; Pastor Tim Johansen with son Leo; Colin Quinn VP Haverford Board of Commissioners; Francine Locke Del. Co. Director of Sustainability; Elaine Schaefer Del. Co. Council, Gerald Hart President Haverford Board of Commissioners. (Courtesy of Delaware County/Adrienne Marofsky)

Solarize Delco's ribbon cutting. Left to Right: Peter Puglionesi, Melisa Romano, and Noel Smyth of Solarize Delco; Mike Zabel State Representative; Pastor Tim Johansen with son Leo; Colin Quinn VP Haverford Board of Commissioners; Francine Locke Del. Co. Director of Sustainability; Elaine Schaefer Del. Co. Council, Gerald Hart President Haverford Board of Commissioners. (Courtesy of Delaware County/Adrienne Marofsky)

Delaware County is aiming to be more sustainable — one roof at a time. Volunteers with Solarize Delco and local officials cut the ribbon this week on a solar panel installation at Temple Lutheran Church in Haverford Township.

The installation is the largest project Solarize Delco has completed to date, and it will allow the church to produce 100% of its own electricity, reducing the church’s carbon emissions by 24 tons a year.

“It’s a really exciting development and a great example of the great work that Solarize Delco is doing,” County Council Member Elaine Schaefer said.

Established in 2019 after branching off from Solarize Southeast PA, Solarize Delco is a self-described collective of “neighbors helping neighbors take the first step towards going solar.” The group is made up of three volunteers who are all also commissioner-appointed members of Haverford’s Environmental Advisory Committee: Melisa Romano, Noel Smyth, and Peter Puglionesi.

“We are all volunteering our time unpaid, and doing this mostly because we want to see progress in battling climate change and getting carbon-free renewable energy capacity installed,” Puglionesi said.

Installing solar panels can be quite pricey in the short term — and that’s where Solarize Delco has found its niche.

“We are just here to give non-biased advice and help people navigate putting solar panels on their home, because it’s a pretty expensive endeavor. And if you don’t know all the details on what you’re doing, it can feel like you’re walking into an auto salesman kind of mentality world. So we’re just here to help our neighbors,” Romano said.

Solarize Delco has a memorandum of understanding with a local energy installation company to provide a discount to property owners and volume incentives.

“The more people that build in a particular year, the steeper the discounts. They come at the end of the year in the form of a rebate,” Puglionesi said.

The group assisted with 14 contracts in 2020, according to Romano. This year, it is aiming for 20 contracts; the count stands at nine so far.

And with the recent project at the church, Solarize Delco has already surpassed its 2020 tally of total kilowatts of solar panels installed. Smyth is a member of the church and helped manage the process from both sides.

“My message to folks is it’s time to take action to reduce our emissions as a society. We’ve warmed the planet past where it’s safe anymore, and it’s just going to get worse. So it’s time to take action,” Smyth said.

The county’s interest in Solarize Delco’s work is relatively new, according to the volunteers, and they pointed to Delco’s pivot toward sustainability as the source.

County Council flipped from Republican to Democratic control in 2019’s election. Schaefer said the new leadership brought a whole new approach to looking at government operations.

“We would like sustainability to be an overarching theme of everything we do. When we first came in, our executive director, Howard Lazarus, suggested that we hire a chief sustainability officer, who oversees many of our departments,” Schaefer said.

In 2020, the council passed a resolution establishing a sustainability commission to develop a plan for Delaware County. Soon after that, the council appointed Francine Locke, who previously worked as the director of sustainability and green schools for the School District of Philadelphia, as the county’s chief sustainability officer. She officially began her work in January.

In addition to working with the sustainability commission, Locke now oversees six departments: planning and the Office of Housing and Community Development; public works; facilities management; fleet management; parks and recreation; and the conservation district.

“The overall gist of it is to create a more sustainable and resilient Delaware County, and that includes at the government level, county government, municipal government — what individuals can also do to be more sustainable,” Locke said.

The sustainability plan the county is developing will have a climate action component, too.

“Right now, we’re collecting data on baseline for all of our county-owned buildings with regards to energy consumption, water consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions. And from that baseline information, we’re going to start developing targets,” Locke said.

The sustainability team is working with Delco’s 49 municipalities so that they can align their goals of reducing waste and energy consumption, as well as addressing the elephant in the room: environmental justice.

Locke said there haven’t been any obstacles aside from the lack of data. However, she said she enjoys starting from scratch.

With the sustainability plan effectively needed yesterday, Locke and the commission have been working at warp speed to come up with initiatives. Luckily, she said, some of the work had already been done.

For example, the county is looking to target waste at the moment.

“I’m really fortunate to be coming into the county when we are working on a solid waste management plan that’s mandated by the DEP … we’re putting an RFP out by, I think, next week,” Locke said.

Each municipality handles waste in its own way, but the county wants to evaluate what is working by hiring a consultant. Officials have already taken note of what is working exceptionally well in certain municipalities, like Media’s new composting program.

“That composting program is a really wonderful best-management practice that we would like to replicate elsewhere. And so we’re actually meeting with the folks and Media to find out more about how that worked. And I know it was a lot of effort on the part of the community members. It took a long time to get there together, but their lessons learned will help us to be able to replicate that program elsewhere,” Locke said.

Delaware County is in the process of electrifying its fleet of vehicles via a grant. It is also looking at renewable energy partnerships with neighboring counties after being brought together by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

From stormwater management to clean energy, Delco is looking to see what’s working and what’s not. Locke is also exploring ways to make sure that access to sustainability is not an issue for people at a socioeconomic disadvantage.

“We want to make sure that every community has access to these resources. And so part of the sustainability plan that we’re developing is finding ways to bring resources to all communities. The pathway has not been clearly defined yet, because we’re still working on the plan. But it is a major initiative,” Locke said.

The sustainability plan might be ready for its debut at the beginning of 2022, she said.

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