Image courtesy of Optimus Technologies.

Optimus Technologies, a local bio-fuel tech company, and the nonprofit Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) have, in their own distinctive ways, worked to make Pittsburgh more sustainable. Their efforts were recently recognized when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection awarded them both with the 2017 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence.

As described by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the award goes to projects that “represent the very best in innovation, collaboration, and public service in environmental stewardship.” Optimus received the award for deploying their clean-burning biodiesel conversion systems in City of Pittsburgh vehicles, while the URA made five municipally-operated garages more energy efficient by retrofitting them with LED fixtures and sensor systems.

“We are honored to receive the Governor’s Award for this energy-saving project,” says URA executive director Robert Rubinstein.

The URA project launched as part of the City of Pittsburgh’s Green Garage Initiative, which explored ways to reduce the amount of energy wasted each year by parking garages. The Pittsburgh Parking Authority credits the URA’s efforts for a 57 percent reduction in garage electricity use, which amounted to a total savings of $123,000 in the first nine months after the retrofitting.

Rubinstein adds that the URA hopes to “duplicate these lighting retrofit best practices in other structures around the city.”

Additionally, the Optimus project represents another small but potentially significant step toward tackling Pittsburgh’s notoriously poor air quality, which has partly been attributed to heavy traffic on streets and highways.

Founded in 2010, Optimus develops technology designed to make it easier to transition to more eco-friendly biofuels. Their Vector System enables medium- and heavy-duty trucks to run on 100 percent biodiesel, a fuel alternative derived from a mix of recycled cooking oil, soybean oil and animal fats.

The Environmental Protection Agency found that biodiesel produces fewer carbon emissions than traditional petroleum diesel. Another advantage is that it can be used in existing diesel engines without any modifications.

Image courtesy of Optimus Technologies.
Image courtesy of Optimus Technologies.

In 2013, Optimus partnered with Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities and the City of Pittsburgh to deploy their Vector System in 26 city vehicles, including trucks used for public works and recycling pickup. Though the Vector-equipped vehicles account for a tiny portion of the City of Pittsburgh’s 1,038 total vehicles, they contributed to a 6.4 percent fleet-wide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

“The idea behind that was to demonstrate how this small group of vehicles has a relatively large impact,” says Optimus CEO Colin Huwyler, claiming that the Vector System reduced each host vehicle’s carbon emissions by around 80 percent.

While he believes the technology offers environmental benefits, Huwyler points out that its major appeal lies in its ability to help companies and municipalities save money.

“Ultimately, the driver we see for adoption of the technology is that it makes economic sense,” he says, adding that using biodieselwhich, depending on the market, could cost up to a dollar less than regular dieselcould mean huge saving for operators whose trucks consume from 10,000 to 30,000 gallons of fuel per year.

The City of Pittsburgh project also marks a successful step in testing the Vector System as Optimus readies it for the market.

“We’re in the early commercial stages now, but we’ve had great feedback and traction as we start to get the product out there,” says Huwyler.

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.