Since the city proposed its climate action plan in October 2017, Pittsburgh has experienced extreme weather attributed to climate change each year, according to Grant Ervin, the city’s chief resilience officer.
There was the polar vortex in late 2017, when the average temperature between the midwest and East Coast fell to 16 degrees, the coldest New Year on record. In 2018 and 2019, the city saw two of the three heaviest years of precipitation in the city's history, leading to flooded roads and basements, and massive landslides that cost millions of dollars to remediate.
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And this July was the hottest July on record, with 12 days above 90 degrees. It gave Pittsburghers a taste of how the city is likely to feel every summer, as scientists predict the city will feel more like Alabama or Arkansas in the next generation or two.
Just as the city is trying to cope with the weather changes from climate change, it’s also trying to reduce the fossil fuel use that is causing it. The city now has only 10 years to meet its goal to reduce greenhouse gases across the city by 50%.
The city passed an ordinance in 2016 requiring all building owners with 50,000 or more square feet to report information about their energy and water use. But it hadn’t released the information until now. The city released the information to PublicSource for 2017 and 2018 and is working on a report and dashboard that will include data from 2019.
This new effort is critical, said Flore Marion, who is in charge of the city’s effort, because buildings make up about 80% of the city's greenhouse gas emissions and large buildings represent one of the cheapest and quickest opportunities to reduce emissions. New York City saw the energy use in its largest buildings fall by more than 10% the first five years after it started reporting it publicly.
The hope is to encourage private building owners to do what the city has already started: reduce their energy use. This summer, the City of Pittsburgh asked some of its employees to stay home or start work earlier in the morning when it’s less hot. And it started cooling some buildings early in the day and then turning off the air conditioning during the late afternoon, even during the record high temperatures.
It tried to reduce its energy at peak hours — a practice it gets paid for by the electric grid. But so far that “demand response” effort is only being implemented in the city’s two largest and most energy-intensive buildings and only in buildings the city owns.
Now the city is taking one of its most aggressive steps yet in its privately owned buildings. It’s publishing how much energy each of its largest buildings uses and how much greenhouse gases they emit. So the public will now be able to keep tabs on which buildings in the city are on pace to meet the city’s climate goals and which are not.
The hope is that, as businesses shop around for office space in the city, they will be able to see publicly which buildings will have the lowest energy bills. Marion said she would like to see the transparency trigger “a wave” of investments in energy efficiency as owners compete for tenants.
“Building owners don't actually see the need to invest right away because if it's not failing, they don't want to change something,” Marion said. “We're hoping to trigger that decision for them to realize, ‘Yes, we are doing worse than other buildings like us.’"
The city’s climate action plan prioritized getting better data on where its emissions are coming from, similar to watching the odometer in your car, Ervin said.
"Like whether your speed's too high or too low, you want to make sure you're going within the right range,” he said. "And so what you see is once you start measuring and then managing that consumption data, is that you ultimately start to make better decisions within the building.”
Marion said she hopes the new public data will spur owners to look for funding to improve. One of the most important tools, she said, is called C-PACE, and was adopted by Allegheny County this year. It allows building owners to take out loans to pay for energy-efficiency improvements and then pay off those loans with the money saved on their energy bills.
“Having a higher quality, energy-efficient space that basically creates a healthier environment is gonna be a real, real benefit and premium that building owners and operators are gonna see,” Ervin said.
The Green Building Alliance, a nonprofit that works on energy and water reductions, has already been publishing how much energy is being consumed by hundreds of the city’s largest buildings since 2015 as part of its 2030 District. The nonprofit offers to help those building owners to reduce their energy load.
But enrollment in the 2030 District is voluntary and the energy use of each individual building is kept confidential. The alliance releases a report every year that says how the district is doing as a whole.
"It’s a different approach to shame people into reducing their energy assumption versus to incentivize,” said Chris Cieslak, the director of the 2030 District. "The Green Building Alliance takes the approach to invite them on a journey to a more sustainable future.”
But Cieslak said the new data released by the city could help the nonprofit get more buildings to commit to energy reductions. The 2030 District will report energy use to the city for owners who don’t know how to comply with the city’s ordinance.
And Cieslak said it’s possible that the new approach may be necessary to push building owners to continue to improve. More than 500 buildings in the 2030 District had reduced their energy use collectively 23% by 2019, she said. During its first report for 2014, the district reported a 6% energy reduction.
“We have worked the carrot side of the equation…” she said. “We’re trying to get to 50% and so maybe you need the stick to get the rest of the way."
Cieslak said it will be critical for the city to present the information in a way that is clean and fair. There are often mistakes in the data when it’s reported, she said. A handful of the worst performing buildings in the city’s database likely only look bad because of mistakes in how those buildings reported their energy use. The database showed that two Downtown hotels were using more energy than most of the next 100 buildings combined and, she said, that’s not plausible.
She also said it’s important to compare buildings that are similar. Hospitals tend to use more energy than other buildings, she said, so using a lot of energy doesn’t necessarily mean the building is performing poorly.
"In fact, they may be very efficient performers compared to other similar use types or compared to where they started,” Cieslak said.
Universities take the lead
Aurora Sharrard, the sustainability director at the University of Pittsburgh, was surprised to see that, in 2018, the University of Pittsburgh was actually using less energy per square foot than Carnegie Mellon University [CMU]. She thought that, because of Pitt's energy-intensive science labs, Pitt’s energy use might be higher.
PublicSource analyzed the city’s dataset and it showed that CMU emitted more than 100,000 tons of greenhouse gases in 2018, while Pitt emitted about 63,000 tons. CMU also used more energy per square foot, a measure that allows comparisons between different sized buildings. Duquesne University, The Community College of Allegheny County and Point Park University collectively emitted about 59,000 tons. Chatham University didn’t participate.
CMU has already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by about 70% since 2005, according to Steve Guenther, the assistant vice president for Facilities Management and Campus Services. And that’s after adding 20% more space and 25% more students to campus, he said.
That’s largely because the district boiler that CMU uses switched its source of steam energy from coal to natural gas in 2008. It has also begun buying renewable electricity from a wind farm in Illinois, he said. And that renewable energy isn’t reflected in the city’s data. If CMU’s renewable energy purchases were included, he said, its greenhouse gases would be less than half of what the city’s data shows.
Guenther said CMU typically measures itself against 14 other comparable research universities across the country but the new public data in Pittsburgh could provide additional motivation for the university to make improvements.
“Everybody knows energy efficiency is a good thing,” he said. “And to be able to put it into a metric that people can understand and compare hopefully creates some positive competition and some positive pressure in order to move that in the right direction.”
The city’s data isn’t complete in some other ways, Sharrard said. It doesn’t include buildings outside the city limits where some of the university’s largest users of energy are. And Pitt reported the energy use in each of its buildings individually while Carnegie Mellon reported its use for the entire campus.
Pitt, which is about to publish its own energy use dashboard, reported information that was not required by the city. It included some buildings that were less than 50,000 square feet and residential buildings. The city doesn’t require its large residential buildings to report their energy use but Pitt reported its dormitory energy use anyway.
One of Pitt’s strategies for reducing emissions is relatively unusual in Pittsburgh: It’s buying an increasingly large share of its energy from local sources of renewable energy, including from a new hydroelectric power station being built along the Allegheny River and a 70-acre solar farm on the border of Allegheny and Beaver counties.
This means at least 38% of the university’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2023. The new data released by the city showed that very few large buildings are generating any renewable energy at all, although Sharrard said she thinks some property owners just aren’t reporting it.
The university may soon run into some expensive obstacles, Sharrard said. Some of its largest buildings use large steam boilers that are heated by natural gas. Stanford University recently spent $483 million to replace a similar natural gas-powered steam generation system, she said. Many large buildings in Pittsburgh use a similar “district heating” approach that would be very expensive to replace, as they look for alternatives to fossil fuels.
“You can offset electricity with renewables all day long,” she said, “but you can’t offset natural gas.”
Leading by example
For the first time this year, building owners will receive a report from the city on how their building is performing compared to other similar buildings. Ervin said the pandemic has been an opportunity for some building owners to see how their buildings could use less energy.
While the city hopes the new ordinance drives change, Marion has more work to do to make the system work as well as intended.
More than half of the city’s buildings have already reported their energy use but many have not. Hundreds of the city’s largest buildings, including many prominent ones such as Heinz Field, Rivers Casino and the August Wilson African American Center, haven’t yet complied with the ordinance. PublicSource reached out to all three building owners but didn’t receive a response.
“Some of them are deliberately not participating but some might not have seen the official letters for various reasons,” Marion wrote in an email.
In some buildings, collecting the data continues to be a challenge. If the tenant in the building effectively runs the building, she said, it can be hard to get the owner to force the tenant to report their energy use. Property managers can change from year to year, and it’s time-consuming to track the facility managers down. And in shopping malls it has been a challenge to get all of the businesses to collectively report their energy use.
New York, meanwhile, has changed its laws so that reducing energy use is no longer optional. While its universities and office buildings showed improvements after it started reporting building data publicly, hotels and hospitals didn’t show much improvement. So now New York’s buildings are required to lower their energy use or face large fines. New York is hoping this will lead to billions of dollars of investments in energy efficiency.
Marion and Ervin said Pittsburgh isn’t likely to use fines. Instead, they said, the city will try to lead by example. It recently passed a net-zero energy ordinance, began training city staff in passive house construction methods and have started to receive building design bids that incorporate energy efficiency.
"I'm really looking forward to in a year or two when those buildings are built or retrofitted to showcase that it worked and that we didn't have to spend more money than we would have with a normal building because we thought about energy at the forefront,” Marion said.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
This story was fact checked by Amanda Hernández and James Bell.