Interviews & Profiles

Q&A with E. Mitchell Swann

The PEA board chair talks Philadelphia energy programs and the future of production

E. Mitchell Swann

E. Mitchell Swann Provided

When E. Mitchell Swann joined the Philadelphia Energy Authority board in 2011, he brought a wealth of technical expertise in engineering and construction to the municipal authority. And with more than 30 years of experience in project management, Swann sought to make the city’s energy usage both more efficient and effective. 

City & State spoke with Swann, PEA board chair, on the current state of energy in the Philadelphia region, PEA’s forward-looking programs and what Philadelphia and the commonwealth could do to be at the forefront of future energy. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did your professional experience lead you to serve on the PEA board? And what specific areas of the work caught your attention?

I’ve had a passion for mechanical engineering and the sciences, in the energy realm, for quite a while now. From a professional perspective, where I come in is designing a lot of buildings and systems that involve energy. With PEA, I was asked to participate and I said yes. There was a natural interest in those areas and the ways in which energy production benefits the economy, the city and society. We all use it, we all need it, and so as part of the engineering function, we should try and be as efficient in its usage with as little disruption as possible. 

What does PEA do? 

In large measure, part of its genesis was that the city charter prevents an administration from entering into contracts that extend longer than four years. For things like stadiums, arenas or airport terminals, there is a municipal authority that engages in those activities because they can operate longer than four years. As the energy authority was being founded and developed, energy became an industry in which those types of deals – power purchase agreements, energy savings contracts and things like that – were going to last more than four years as well. A methodology was needed to deal with that and it was felt that the energy was a bit more of a technical playing area that the municipal authority wasn’t set up well to do. So we created the energy authority and the original board – balanced with lawyers, engineers and policy people – in an effort to ensure we understand the nature of those kinds of arrangements so the city could be more productive and have better outcomes. 

What are some of the more recent goals you’ve hit or programs you think should be highlighted?

Solarize Philly is a great program – basically bringing solar to residents in the city in tangible arrangements so people can understand it, get involved in it and not feel at risk dealing with a company that stuck a leaflet in their mailbox. 

We’ve got the Built to Last Program, which seeks to do some basic home repairs for low-income homeowners, coupled with energy conservation and decarbonization, where appropriate. It helps people who face a lot of financial barriers participate and it helps stabilize their homes, reduce their operating expenses and improve their living environment. 

We also have the Commercial Property-Assessed Clean Energy or C-PACE program, which gives commercial projects a very favorable vehicle to put energy conservation and clean energy elements into their projects. It can help nudge a project toward having a reduced carbon footprint with energy efficiency, where it might have been hard to make it happen before due to financing. C-PACE makes that much more attractive to do. 

Because we’re not a political unit and these service contracts have longer durations, we think about things in a slightly different way than city governments. We don’t think about what happens next term. We’re trying to do a bit more long-range thinking, which is often in short supply. 

How do you see PEA expanding its scale and scope within the region?

In certain respects, I see some energy – no pun intended – happening around the Built to Last program and scaling that up across the state. I could see similar activities around solarizing. Because we’ve done that program for a while now, we have some expertise so we can train the trainers or franchise the idea and help other parts of the state or other states capitalize on that. 

I think that PEA can be an advocate for thinking about where the city and the state want to go toward the future of energy. There is a great desire to be self-sufficient. To the extent that we can make ourselves less dependent on outside supplies, we become more resilient. Just think about what went on with the Texas freeze-up and the collapse of their gas system, which was a real nightmare. If you have a more diversified methodology and network, it allows you to be more resilient to shock in the system, so no single element will create a major catastrophe.