The new Aspinwall Riverfront Park. Aspinwall is one of the communities participating in Clean Energy Pittsburgh. Photo by Sandra Tolliver.

While addressing a room of people at the Millvale Community Center, PennFuture CEO Larry Schweiger stressed how dire it was for the Pittsburgh region to drastically reduce its dependence on fossil fuels by investing in renewable energy.

“I personally believe the local communities are going to be the key for our future and helping to solve some of these energy problems that we face today,” he said.

His statements were made during a daylong workshop meant to launch Clean Energy Pittsburgh. Headed by PennFuture and funded by The Pittsburgh Foundation, the pilot program equips local leaders with the tools needed to help deploy green infrastructure and energy efficient practices in their neighborhoods.

The communities participating in the inaugural cohort include Wilkinsburg, Aspinwall, Etna, Sharpsburg and Lawrenceville.

While the City of Pittsburgh has its own sustainability goals in place, PennFuture’s chief development officer and Clean Energy Pittsburgh project manager Joy Braunstein says their initiative gives boroughs and neighborhoods the power to produce strategic clean energy plans that meet their own individual needs, which could range from improving public transportation to replacing street lights with more energy efficient LEDs.

During the launch, Schweiger laid out other possible Clean Energy Pittsburgh outcomes.

“We’re going to see homes that have very efficient systems, we’re going to see solar panels, and many other things if we all embrace a new vision,” he said.

Brittany Reno, executive director of the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization, sees the cohort as a way of addressing environmental issues threatening the well-being of her borough.

“Sharpsburg is a densely built urban riverfront community nestled between an active industrial railroad and a busy highway, so we’re dealing with a substantial amount of air pollution and issues around stormwater management,” says Reno. “Knowing that particulate matter pollution has a huge impact on health outcomesincreasing the incidence and intensity of things like heart disease, cancer and asthmaI see clean energy as a true public health issue with life or death consequences.”

Clean Energy Pittsburgh was largely inspired by the success of the Millvale Ecodistrict Pivot Plan, an ambitious approach to making the borough a more environmentally and economically sustainable place to live.

Solar panels on the roof of the Millvale Library. Image courtesy of PennFuture.

“I strongly believe the communities that are making these energy investments in efficiency and infrastructure are going to see the savings,” says Braunstein. “Millvale has already figured this out. By solarizing their community center they know exactly how much money they’re saving in utility costs per year and exactly how much money that means they can put back into other services for their community, which has a pretty distinct poverty rate.”

Braunstein anticipates that it will take each Clean Energy Pittsburgh community around 12-18 months to create a plan. Along the way, PennFuture will facilitate monthly calls and quarterly in-person meetings to check up on their progress. Once the plans are in place, the organization will work to further support the cohort’s efforts by seeking funds from “corporate and foundation friends.”

“Our hope is that we can help the communities leverage our nonprofit status to find ways to find investors,” says Braunstein. “We’re convinced that when these communities come up with these plans, there will be investment available for them.”

PennFuture believes the initiative could serve as a realistic way to transform one community at a time.

“Our intent is to roll out from this pilot and get these communities to help recruit other communities and make this self-perpetuating,” says Braunstein. “It’s being managed so it can expand beyond the Pittsburgh region. This could truly be a model that goes statewide or even countrywide.”

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.