Contrarian: Wi-Fi? Because We Can

It’s time for Philly to take the lead

STREET’S MANAGING DIRECTOR used this same “big customer” logic last year when he cut 100 cars out of the city’s vehicle fleet by contracting with a car-sharing service that rents rides by the hour. The move saved tax dollars, and provided a lift for a small company that gives city residents a handy alternative to car ownership. It was a quiet, commonsensical “first” for Philadelphia, and now Berkeley and San Francisco are talking about copying it.

Wi-fi and car-sharing are hardly earth-shattering notions, but it looks like they work. That’s saying a lot in a town where stuff often doesn’t. What I’d like to see the city do next is take the same approach to its enormous oil and electric bills. If a portion of the $140 million that the city and school district spend on energy each year were redirected into renewable energy start-up companies inside the city, Philadelphia might become home to Solar Cell Valley, with its economy goosed for the next century or longer.

That’s because homegrown energy will likely be the Next Big Thing for the U.S. economy. It makes too much sense. Instead of buying and burning foreign oil, we should be spending the same dollars putting Americans back to work — building wind farms, solar panels, and plug-in hybrid cars that get 500 miles per gallon. There is already a broad coalition of labor unions and environmental groups devoted to this exact vision. It’s called the Apollo Alliance, and my guess is they could use a friendly city, not far from D.C., to showcase their ideas.

For a fraction of his $140 million fuel bill, Mayor Street could clear some land, bring in Apollo Alliance scientists and engineers, and tell them, “Hire our people and lower our bills.” The entire city would become a renewable energy laboratory. I’m picturing solar collectors on school and municipal building rooftops, geothermal energy at the airport, biomass experiments at the Philadelphia Gas Works, tidal energy captured from the Delaware, and some sort of new gizmo that makes good use of all that rising hot air in City Council. Move over, Silicon Valley. Here comes Solar Cell Valley.

Many of the parts are already in place. Both Governor Rendell and his top energy adviser are on the Apollo Alliance national advisory board. Philadelphia recently became the U.S. headquarters of Gamesa, a world-leading manufacturer of wind turbines. And PECO’s new deal with the PUC compels the company to pay into a sustainable development fund for exactly these kinds of projects.

Sure, it’s risky. If gasoline prices plummet again, the whole shebang could prove a noble failure, decades ahead of its time. But when you’re first at something, you sometimes enjoy the advantage of making your own luck.

For instance, one knock on wi-fi is that there are already new technologies coming up — superfast Internet networks with names like WiMAX and Ethernet Broadband — that will leave it in the dust. But I think this is exactly why wireless Philadelphia is important.

There may soon come a day when Verizon and Comcast are ready to invest in one of these new super-high-speed services. Will they start out by installing the new technologies in backward places like New York, where they already have the broadband market all sewn up? Of course not.

They’ll have to bring blazing-fast Internet to Philadelphia, a big city bold enough to compete with them head-on and beat their brains out on price and convenience — and do it first.