It’s been an interesting week for the Steel City. First, President Trump cited Pittsburgh in his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, in which 195 nations voluntarily committed to combat climate change by reducing their carbon emissions. Not long after, Mayor Bill Peduto vowed to adhere to the goals of the landmark deal by joining Mayors for 100% Clean Energy and announcing that Pittsburgh would be powered entirely by clean, renewable energy by 2035. The news spread like wildfire, making the city the subject of national and international headlines, articles and talk show comedy bits.
But how realistic is the goal? And what are the next steps the City needs to take in order to achieve it?
“It’s certainly an aggressive target,” says PennFuture‘s director of policy Matt Stepp, whose organization released an official statement calling Trump’s withdrawal a “drastic, catastrophic” decision.
He adds that the 100 percent renewable target is audacious, but it’s realistic with “thoughtful planning, investment and policy changes.” According to the Mayors for 100% Clean Energy web page, that goal has already been realized in five U.S. cities: Aspen, CO, Burlington, VT, Greensburg, KS, Kodiak Island, AK, and Rock Port, MO.
Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation & Performance, says the 2035 goal expands green initiatives the City already has in place, among them a plan meant to reduce a significant chunk of the city’s carbon emissions by 2023. There’s also Pittsburgh 2030 District, an effort where local leaders and partners work with the Green Building Alliance to reduce the environmental impacts of building maintenance and construction in Downtown and Oakland.
“While the City is setting these goals, we see the opportunity to spur the market, as well as creative thinking and ingenuity in the sector,” says Ervin. “We’ve made some big advancements.”
Sustainable Pittsburgh Executive Director Court Gould believes now is the perfect time for Pittsburgh to start looking at creating a green energy grid, as solar, wind and other clean technologies have become cheaper and easier to deploy. REN21, a network of public and private sector groups that cover 155 nations and 96 percent of the world’s population, found that more than 24 percent of global electricity was produced by renewables at the end of 2016.
“This is a moment in history where these technologies are growing in scale, increasing in efficiency and dramatically reducing in cost,” says Gould. “This is not the time to backslide to a single-purpose energy economy, but to rapidly diversify and deploy these technologies.”
Pittsburgh has a number of renewable sources to choose from, but Ervin says the main focus would be on finding ways to source them locally. One approach would be to increase the city’s hydroelectric capacity by improving existing dams and adding new ones. Ervin says a few firms have received or are in the process of receiving Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permits for small-scale hydroelectricity projects on Pittsburgh’s waterways.
He also foresees generating wind energy from turbine farms in the Laurel Highlands or Somerset County and installing solar panels on local facilities like parking garages. The City is also looking at geothermal and steam as well as lesser known methods like anaerobic digestion, a process where electricity is produced from burning biogases that come from the breakdown of organic materials.
The City would also find ways to create so-called micro-grids that would power specific areas of Pittsburgh. Gould says the City is currently working with local companies to create micro-grid energy generation on the Lower Hill as part of the Uptown EcoInnovation District.
The City would then have to drive the demand for renewable energy from utilities like Duquesne Light.
“The City has a large purchasing power,” says Stepp. “They can leverage that to buy a lot of electricity and say, ‘We want to keep buying that amount, but it has to be 100 percent renewable by this date.’ Because they’re such a large consumer for the utility, that will help force things.”
Ervin says they plan to increase purchasing power by pulling together the Pittsburgh’s large energy consumers, including hospitals and universities. They’re also working with 30 different nonprofits and smaller communities to create a buying block as part of the Western Pennsylvania Energy Consortium.
Gould says the City can also pressure those they do business with, such as suppliers and contractors, to invest in renewable energy or take measures to reduce their carbon footprint.
Stepp says the switch to renewables won’t happen overnight, but will most likely be a “step increase over time.”
To ultimately achieve the 2035 goal, however, Ervin and Gould both say that the City will have to work on becoming far more energy efficient.
“Moving to a renewable energy future starts with energy efficiency,” says Gould, adding that there’s “a lot of low-hanging fruit” in all sectors, namely buildings and transportation.
Ervin seconds this statement by estimating that the majority of emissions— roughly around 80 percent—comes from municipal buildings while 15 percent comes from transportation like buses and public works vehicles such as garbage trucks.
Gould says Pittsburgh has already made strides in this area by retrofitting structures like parking garages with more energy efficient lighting systems and transitioning its vehicle fleet to run on electricity or cleaner-burning biofuels.
In terms of investment, Stepp believes some funding will have to come from private entities, citing former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s offer of $15 million to cover funding lost to the Paris climate agreement because of Trump’s withdrawal.
“In the absence of national leadership, the philanthropic community may be stepping in to help cities and states meet their renewable and climate targets,” says Stepp. “Pittsburgh has a really significant philanthropic community. How that community helps the City meet that goal is going to be really important.”
While the move to renewables means that extractive industries like coal would decline even further, Gould says the gains would make up for it, as jobs in areas like solar and wind would increase. PennFuture estimates that Pennsylvania already has 66,000 people working in the clean energy industries, more than those employed in the state’s coal and gas sectors combined.
Gould says switching to renewables would also lessen the financial burden on low-income families and improve air quality.
But no matter what, moving forward, the driver for green energy in Pittsburgh and throughout the country will have to come from local leadership.
“It will be enlightened mayors and governors who lead the innovative low-carbon economy that we have to achieve for our very sustainability,” says Gould, praising Peduto for sending “a strong message” to Washington. “We got the right mayor at the right time.”