Under pressure from environmental activists, Peco Energy Co. on Thursday convened a Solar Stakeholder Collaborative to explore ways to advance renewable power in the region.
Craig Adams, Peco's chief executive, said the collaborative was modeled on processes the company used previously to develop conservation and wind-energy programs.
"We're committed to providing that same leadership and dedication to advancing solar energy," Adams told about 80 energy experts and advocates at the daylong gathering at the Hub Commerce Square.
Many speakers said the path to broader adoption of solar power in Pennsylvania has numerous obstacles, including some requiring policy changes by a legislature that has been unreceptive to expanding renewable-power mandates.
The underlying message was that it would be difficult for Peco to meet activists' demands to buy more solar power than the law requires, and specifically from projects benefiting low-income neighborhoods.
Utilities such as Peco are required by law to buy a growing amount of solar power each year, but the transactions are conducted at arm's length by third parties through a structured process, said Christopher A. Lewis, a Blank Rome energy lawyer.
Pennsylvania's Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act of 2004, which requires utilities to obtain 18 percent of their power from alternative energy suppliers in 2021, includes a lower target for solar power than most surrounding states.
The Pennsylvania law requires utilities to obtain 0.5 percent of the power they sell from solar suppliers by 2021, compared to 3.47 percent in New Jersey, 2.25 percent in Delaware, and 2 percent in Maryland.
"I think it's obvious they chose a low threshold," said Lewis, who is also chairman of the Philadelphia Energy Authority.
Utilities are discouraged from exceeding the minimum by a separate law that requires them to buy power at the lowest cost to customers.
An increasingly popular method for customers to invest directly into renewable energy is through community solar programs, in which individuals receive bill credits and tax benefits for buying shares in local solar farms. Community solar projects appeal to buyers whose homes may be unsuitable for rooftop solar.
Pennsylvania is not among the handful of states that have adopted laws encouraging shared renewable projects, said Joel Thomas, manager of community solar for Community Energy Inc. of Radnor.
"Even in incredibly progressive legislatures, it takes years to accomplish," Thomas said. California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York are pioneering community solar efforts, he noted.
Cathy Engel Menendez, a Peco spokeswoman, said the company would consider some of the ideas generated from the collaborative's breakout sessions.
She said Peco may seek to streamline its "net-metering" process for compensating solar customers for the excess power they produce. She also said Peco is devising a proposal for "some kind of solar project that would benefit low-income customers."
Both measures would require approval from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.
Eileen Flanagan, a leader of the Earth Quaker Action Team, the activist group whose protests inspired Peco to organize Thursday's collaborative, was skeptical the process would lead to meaningful change.
"The real question is what is going to come out of this," she said. "The idea of getting stakeholders together can be a great step in a transformation of solar in this area, or it could be something that's meant to distract us and slow us down."
But she acknowledged that Peco attempted to address the issues raised by the group's protests.
"That means we have their attention," she said.