Solar panels on the Millvale library. Brian Conway photo.

“Do you want to see something cool?”

Millvale Sustainability Coordinator, Zaheen Hussain walks to the side of the Millvale Community Library and gestures to the electric meter. It’s spinning backwards.

A solar panel array on the roof is harvesting more power than the library can use. At the end of the year, Duquesne Light will cut them a check for the surplus, and the library will reinvest the savings into more programming and full-time staff.

The solar array at the library is part of Millvale’s Ecodistrict Pivot Plan, a community-led vision for a more sustainable, livable Millvale. And in the coming weeks, several more businesses will join the ranks of the solar-powered: not just to be good global citizens, but because Millvale’s history of flooding demands an alternative power source.

Solar fellows

On Tuesday, ten Millvale teen solar fellows, ages 12-18, will shadow the installation of a 30kW solar installation at the Millvale Community Center.

The fellowship teaches children the technical aspects of solar technology, sustainability, and careers in the solar industry.

“We see the solar/renewable industry as an emerging industry and recognize the job opportunities that exist there,” says Hussain. “We are connecting youth to as much education and job prep as possible so that they’re ready as the industry grows.”

Millvale Sustainability Coordinator Zaheen Hussain. Photo by Brian Conway.
Millvale Sustainability Coordinator Zaheen Hussain. Photo by Brian Conway.

The 98-panel installation will make the community center Millvale’s third solarized community structure, after the library and adjacent Imagine Building, home to Tupelo Honey Teas. A grant to pay for the installation came from the Hillman Foundation via the Millvale Library.

Allegheny Solar Cooperative

Later this spring, the Allegheny Solar Cooperative will launch their first project in a commercial business not far from the library.

The cooperative, of which Hussain is the director, has a twofold goal: democratize solar ownership and provide solar energy for community-based organizations and local businesses. The project is supported by Neighborhood Allies.

The cooperative is inspired by the library project, but is an altogether unique entity. Members will pay money to the co-op that will be used to crowdfund solar installations on community buildings. Those businesses and organizations will then enter into a power purchase agreement with the co-op that will essentially let it function as a power company. Profits will be reinvested back into the co-op for additional projects.

The bigger picture

Hussain says that while solar allows the community to be good global citizens and reduce their carbon footprint, these installations are also part of a larger goal articulated in the Ecodistrict plan: the establishment of an independent energy hub based at the community center, which exists above the floodplain.

“We wanted a community space that, in the event of a grid failure, could unplug from the grid and collect power from surrounding solar installations, and be able to provide shelter operations and basic municipal operations.”

With enough solar (and hopefully some new battery technology) Millvale will be prepared for the next flood or natural disaster.

“Without the [2004 Hurricane Ivan] flood, Millvale wouldn’t be doing what it’s doing today,” says Hussain. “It’s been a catalyst for change.”

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.