SolarFest sign in Millvale.

Along with hundreds of other cities across the world, Pittsburgh has vowed to make its municipal power system 100 percent renewable-based by the year 2035. In addition, prominent members of the city’s business and research communities have pledged to shift toward powering their operations with 50 percent renewables by 2030.

While this major shift won’t be a simple or tidy process, the initiative has broad public support. According to recent polling, 86 percent of voters in Allegheny County want to reach 100 percent renewable energy — an 11 percent increase since last summer. And the plan has notable champions around the country.

How is it going? We’ve compiled a roundup of the innovations and promising new developments in Pittsburgh’s push toward bringing renewable power to the people.

It starts at home 

Pittsburgh’s Chief Resilience Officer Grant Ervin says getting our city to 100 percent renewable energy will depend on new financial systems just as much as technical ones.

Specifically, Ervin pointed to new and increasingly common business models from companies like SolarCity that allow consumers to purchase solar panel systems for their homes by paying a set monthly rate, as opposed to paying for the entire project all at once.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Ervin said the practice was analogous to automobile loans making cars newly affordable to a generation of middle-class Americans in the mid-20th century.

While technical breakthroughs will surely encourage a greener future, he says, “it’s the financial technology that makes a huge difference.”

The Elon Musk-owned SolarCity, which opened a Pittsburgh operations center in 2016, offers solar panel installations to homeowners with no upfront cost, and with production guarantee, monitoring and repair service included.

The company boasts that solar customers pay up to 20 percent less than they pay for utility power. They also offer solar to small and medium-sized businesses, as well as commercial and municipal customers in Pennsylvania.

More recent entrants to the market include the Utah-based Vivint Solar, which allows customers to buy systems outright with cash or a home equity line of credit, or through one of the company’s loan options. Once installed, Vivint claims that customers see an immediate average savings of 10 to 30 percent per month on home energy costs.

The cutting edge 

While the means for generating energy via solar or wind power are growing cheaper and more advanced by the year, the means for storing that energy have not grown nearly as fast.

Professor Rahul Panat, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, points out that the underlying technology behind most batteries has changed very little in recent decades. “The battery materials I use are the same as the ones they had in the ’80s and ’90s,” he says.

As every expert from Elon Musk to Forbes magazine notes, further innovations in energy storage are key to the broader adoption of renewable fuels.

Here again, Pittsburgh is leading the way.

Panat and his team have developed a method of intricately 3D printing lithium batteries that allow a much higher energy yield with a much lower density than standard batteries, which opens up untold possibilities for new battery shapes and designs.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Panat used the example of an aircraft where the wing itself served as the fuel source. “We can actually use it as a structural material and as a battery,” says Panat.

While Panat and his team have only released their findings in the past year, he expects the technology to be on the market sometime in the next three years.

Public and private partnerships

Given Mayor Peduto’s vow not to raise taxes in the coming fiscal year, and the already stretched state of city finances, partnerships among politicians, activist networks and charitable foundations have emerged as one of the city’s key strategies for pushing renewable energy.

Just last week, Peduto touted the benefits of bringing more solar panels into the city in a media statement from the “Mayors for Solar Energy” network, organized by the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center.

The region has plenty of launching points for solar generation, Peduto said, “from parking lots to rooftops. Increasing the amount of locally generated solar power helps reduce carbon pollution, clean our air and provide a resilient, sustainable and cost-effective electricity.”

On the business side, there is the 2030 Districts challenge. An initiative of the Green Building Alliance, the challenge supports building owners and managers in their goal to achieve 50 percent reductions in energy use, water consumption and transportation emissions of buildings, while improving indoor air quality, all by the year 2030.

With 78.7 million square feet of real estate committed to the challenge, Pittsburgh is by far the nation’s largest 2030 Districts city. The next closest city, Seattle, is at 45 million square feet. In fact, Pittsburgh represents nearly a quarter of the total commercial building space of the entire 2030 Districts Network, which includes cities such as Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Detroit.

The city’s efforts to build better buildings have earned the praise of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who visited here on Oct. 21 to announce Pittsburgh as one of the latest winners of his foundation’s American Cities Climate Challenge at a press conference on top of Mt. Washington.

In addition to $2.5 million to help ongoing city efforts, Pittsburgh will also receive two years of resources and technical support from Bloomberg Philanthropies as it looks to cut emissions and improve sustainability.

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.