Eighty percent of Oakland is committed to reducing energy and water use.

Pittsburgh is one five cities in the country to adopt the 2030 Challenge, an initiative that aims to halve energy consumption, transportation emissions, and water use by 2030, and the first to have two distinct areas committed to that goal: Downtown and Oakland. It’s an ambitious challenge, one that Oakland is clearly behind, with nearly 81% of the buildings committed to decreasing the neighborhood’s energy demands.

The initiative taps into the city’s tradition of civic collaboration, leaders say. By expanding the Pittsburgh 2030 District into Oakland, GBA is pulling together more people who can share ideas and experiences to ease the process of stepping down energy use and create a model for other communities.

The Pittsburgh 2030 District collaboration began in downtown in 2012, and the expansion into Oakland kicked off in August of this year. In Oakland, 22 partners, including UPMC, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Carnegie Mellon University and the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC), committed 244 buildings.

Here’s how it works: building owners voluntarily commit to upgrading or retrofitting buildings to achieve greater operational efficiency. The Green Building Alliance (GBA) acts as a sort of cruise ship tour guide, helping to orient and inform building owners about their energy consumption. Working with Energy Star Portfolio Manager, every participating building gets a baseline report about the energy it uses and how.

Normalizing that use for Pittsburgh–our hot summers and cold winters mean we carry energy loads differently than say, San Diego–each building is compared to a national average and to surrounding buildings to set goals.

Anna Siefken, special projects director of the Pittsburgh 2030, says the district is crucial for strengthening the city’s economic viability.

“It’s an economic driver. If you can cut that utility bill in different ways, building owners and businesses could hire more people or do a new project and that builds Pittsburgh,” she says. “We want these businesses to stay and be successful, because that is what drives our local economy.”

The downtown boundary has already met its 2015 goals by reducing energy use by 12%. While pleased with progress, Siefken says the district is not yet where it needs to be in regards to reducing transportation emissions and water use.

“There’s a lot of work to be done and we are dedicated to working with our partners to get there,” she says.

OPDC Executive Director Wanda Wilson says her organization will participate as a property owner as well as a community partner.

“It’s something that a lot of people are working on individually, improving the greening of their buildings or trying to reduce their environmental footprint through changes in the the performance of their buildings. It’s a great opportunity to see a collective effort instead of individual, isolated efforts.”

While tying all of those efforts together with shared goals, Siefken says the program is not prescriptive; GBA aims to help building owners achieve greater operational efficiency in a way that’s best suited to their situation.

“These folks are already interested in improving buildings because very often they have a set amount of money they want to spend on heating and cooling. GBA is a very well–connected community with a robust knowledge of what’s going on in the marketplace,” she says. “We can offer resources, support, and knowledge to drive those efficiencies.”

Martin Altschul, the university engineer for CMU’s facilities management services, says he expects the challenge to improve the school’s overhead; programs have to pay for themselves before they decide to do them. But he says he’s concerned about meeting the challenge’s later, more aggressive metrics.

“I think sometimes when people lay out plans into the future there’s an assumption that science and technology will conquer all. I worry that the program itself looking out toward 2025 and 2030 was overly optimistic, but hopefully I’m wrong,” he says. “Hopefully by that time technology will make it so we easily meet those goals and we just don’t know what those could be now.”

Siefken says that in order for Pittsburgh to be resilient in a changing world, we have to be forward thinking about resources; committing to the 2030 Challenge is a great place to begin.

Margaret J Krauss

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.