Pittsburgh is no longer a smoky city, but that doesn’t mean it has cleaned up its act

Buildings in downtown Pittsburgh can be seen from Hays Woods. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh is claiming the role of environmental leader but still touts its success relative to its dirty past. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In its bid to host Amazon’s second headquarters, Pittsburgh’s weakest attribute may be its sustainability.

“Amazon has made a commitment to use 100 percent renewable energy in all of its operations,” says Jim Spencer, CEO of EverPower, a windpower company based in Pittsburgh. But when he was asked by the city to provide prices for wind energy, Spencer says he was told that Pittsburgh was not going to offer 100 percent renewable energy.

Why couldn’t Pittsburgh — in this defining moment — pitch a sustainability plan that falls in line with Amazon’s aspirations?

Last summer, a few months before the city submitted its Amazon bid, Mayor Bill Peduto committed the city to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 in support of the Paris Agreement on climate change and in defiance of President Donald Trump. But when Peduto spoke at a clean building conference in April, the tone seemed different. He asked the audience to raise their hands if it was their first time to Pittsburgh. “Keep your hands up if you were expecting old rusty steel mills,” he said. “The rest of you are lying. The nice thing about Pittsburgh, there are not great expectations.”

This is the paradox of Pittsburgh’s current environmental identity: The city is claiming the role of environmental leader but still touts its success relative to its dirty past.

Amazon may not care about how much greener the city is than it used to be. It wants a green city, full stop.

So how green is Pittsburgh?

Getting beyond the past

The deficits of its past remain daunting — with billions of dollars needed to continue remediating overflowing sewers, lead pipes, brownfield contamination and more. The air quality still ranks among the nation’s worst near industrial polluters, such as the Clairton Coke Works, which was fined $1 million by the Allegheny County Health Department this summer for ongoing violations in the air quality agreement. But, overall, the air quality continues to improve, and planned upgrades to the sewer system over the next decade should make the rivers cleaner than they’ve been in generations.

Yet part of what it means to be a green city today is distinct from cleaning up the pollution of the past.

US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The biggest environmental challenge of the present is climate change, according to scientists at the United Nations and the only way to address it is for people to stop producing so many greenhouse gas emissions. Major cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 15 and 23 percent since 2005-2006, and even cities with fewer resources, such as St. Louis and San Diego, have seen their emissions drop.

There isn't a consistent time period all cities are using to measure their greenhouse gas emissions. During the only period measured in Pittsburgh, 2003 to 2013, carbon emissions increased by about 10 percent, despite efforts to curb them.

Alissa Burger, a senior policy adviser with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, says the city needs to start comparing itself to Seattle and Boston, not its industrial counterparts of the past. “It is going to get us further than comparing us to Cleveland,” she says. “Just because they are our rival in football doesn’t mean they are a rival when it comes to decarbonization.”

Pittsburgh can’t escape its geography or its past — an urban center in a region rich with coal and, more recently, discovered to be sitting in one of the largest natural gas plays in the world.

As time goes on, though, cities like Pittsburgh will not only continue to be judged by environmentalists, corporations and potential residents alike on traditional measures of pollution but also on how green its energy is. Many climate scientists believe everything that runs on fossil fuels, like cars, needs to eventually run on electricity. And the electricity itself needs to become much cleaner. This could be a significant opportunity to grow a green energy industry.

Leaders in Pittsburgh often cite the more than 8,000 clean energy jobs already here. But many of those jobs are not full time or are not truly new. The definition of a green job is any job where more than 0 percent of the work has a green component. The latest data suggests Allegheny County added 4,000 additional clean energy jobs last year but it’s not clear if these are new jobs or old jobs that have incorporated a component of clean energy work.

The job numbers are slightly misleading. The report labels any job with even just a day’s worth of green energy work as a green energy job. This could include an energy salesman who sells mostly ordinary energy policies but has renewable offerings, or a roofer who spends some time installing solar panels but is usually installing traditional roofs.

For example: When considering only those jobs where at least half of the day’s work involves green energy, the number of solar jobs decreases by about a third in Pennsylvania and the nation at large. Even fewer workers spend 100 percent of their day working in solar.

Most of those green energy jobs are construction jobs, according to Philip Jordan, vice president of BW Research Partnership, whose company performed the research. And, according to Jordan, Pennsylvania is actually slightly below average at creating green energy jobs.

If the city does have an advantage, some experts think it could lie in turning one of its biggest deficits — its old buildings — into its most powerful resource. About 80 percent of the city’s climate emissions come from the poor energy-efficiency of its buildings.

Beaver Valley nuclear plant. (Photo by Chuck Beard/Pittsburgh Magazine)

The city has already taken steps in a major energy efficiency initiative and, with more investment, could become a leader in the country’s push for energy efficiency. Some local experts think that developing and installing more efficient lighting, better insulation and other tighter building standards could be the area’s best hope for a green future.

Two years ago, Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for the City of Pittsburgh, began planning for how the city would respond to climate change. He says he repeatedly heard two major fears: One was about the closure of the Beaver Valley nuclear plant because of how much greenhouse gas-free energy it provided. The other concern was over a substantial increase in industrial production, such as what is expected to come from Shell's new Beaver County ethane cracker plant and others still to come.

Now, both worst-case scenarios appear to be imminent.

Renewable energy

Jane Miller and her husband, Mike Kissel, had a leak in the roof of their Edgewood home last year. Instead of a simple patch, the couple installed a new metal roof this year and then hired local solar company, EIS Solar, to install 15 solar panels. It’s enough to provide about 70 percent of the home’s electricity over the course of the year.

Solar panels at Jane Miller & Mike Kissel’s home. (Photo by Chuck Beard/Pittsburgh Magazine)

The Millers’ $20,000 investment in solar panels is just the sort of commitment that the city needs from its residents, landlords and business owners. Most people can’t afford to drastically reduce their carbon footprint immediately, so as big expenses come up, the city needs people to start replacing their cars and furnaces with greener choices.

The Millers’ solar panels would’ve cost three times as much and provided a third less electricity back in 2009, when EIS Solar was just starting out. Now, the Millers can expect their investment to pay for itself in about a decade.  

How green energy should look in Pittsburgh isn’t clear yet, though. Should it come from a solar farm in North Carolina (where about half of Pennsylvania’s solar comes from) or on roofs in the city’s own backyards? Maybe it should be solar and wind or some other mix.

In 2009, President Barack Obama heralded Pittsburgh as a center of “green technology” and, at the time, there was much to be excited about. Pennsylvania was heavily subsidizing solar energy and the installation of solar panels spiked.

The subsidies ended a few years later, and many of the solar companies left or went bankrupt. It’s not only solar energy that has stagnated.

In 2004, the state set a 2021 goal that 8 percent of its energy would come from renewables. It seemed ambitious then. The state is already buying 6.5 percent renewable energy, and there is more than enough wind energy available to meet the 8 percent goal now. So only one new wind farm has been built in Pennsylvania since 2012. Without raising the bar, progress has stalled.

Solar and wind energy make up less than 8 percent of the nation’s electricity but they have been growing 10 times as fast as fossil fuels since 2000.

The Twin Ridges Wind Farm is located on the Big Savage Ridge area near the Maryland- Pennsylvania border. (Photo by Chuck Beard/Pittsburgh Magazine)

Pennsylvania passed a bill this year that will require future renewables to be purchased locally, about 0.5 percent of which needs to be solar by 2021. California, by contrast, passed legislation in May that will require all new homes to include solar panels or be served by solar panels in the neighborhood; it takes effect in two years.

Here, EIS Solar’s current business depends largely on the good intentions of people like the Millers, says Brian Krenzelak, an employee who installed the panels. It also depends on workers like his colleague, Scott Ferrari-Adler, who says he took a pay cut from a sheet metal job to work in an industry he believes in.

The number of renewable energy jobs is frequently used to persuade the public that going green can also mean earning green. Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald cite a study that says there are 70,000 such jobs in Pennsylvania, and Allegheny County leads the way with more than 8,000. (The latest data from June shows 86,000 and 12,000 jobs, respectively, but the political rhetoric hasn’t yet caught up to the new numbers.)

Fossil fuels still dominate locally: There were more than 40,000 fossil fuel jobs in Pennsylvania in 2017, five times as many as in solar and wind. In the country as a whole, there are twice as many fossil fuel jobs as jobs in solar or wind. In places such as California, where the state does more to promote renewable energy, there are about twice as many jobs in renewable energy as fossil fuels.

Where are the green energy jobs?

There are a few reasons the region is lagging behind in green job creation. Among them is that there isn’t a lot of sun or wind in southwestern Pennsylvania, and the cost of electricity is cheaper than in places such as California or Massachusetts. So it takes people like the Millers much longer to break even on their investment.

The Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance has highlighted the local Sheet Metal Workers union in Pittsburgh for its energy efficiency training. Keith Schettler, training coordinator at the union, says sheet metal workers used to do more work in solar energy before government funding was cut in 2012. Now, a focus has been on teaching “lagging,” a skill that will be needed to seal the aluminum piping at the new Shell cracker plant in Beaver County.

While most green energy laws are created at the state and federal levels, cities such as Pittsburgh aren’t powerless. The Sierra Club has been trying to persuade cities to commit to 100 percent renewable energy, and Peduto has signed on in principle.

Soon after Peduto’s commitment in 2017, EverPower pitched the city on a new wind farm site that is ready to be developed near Somerset that could provide Pittsburgh with local green energy. Spencer, its founder and CEO, says that if renewables are going to be a substantial part of the energy mix here, then companies need long-term commitments from big buyers like the city.

"I think we’ve made [the city] a pretty compelling offer,” he says of the proposed 76 megawatts of electricity that 30 additional wind turbines could bring. "There has just been little action.”

Right now, the city buys its energy in a consortium with the county, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and several other government agencies and nonprofits. The consortium purchases 35 percent renewable energy. But most of that is from green energy produced in other states. And the debate is just getting underway about how much green energy the consortium may buy locally in 2020, when it’s next due to purchase energy.

So while “wind farm technician” is one of the fastest growing jobs across the country, there is little sign that those jobs will be coming to southwestern Pennsylvania any time soon.

The technicians at Twin Ridges, one of the last wind farms built in the state in 2012, say their jobs are some of the only well-paying jobs in their rural communities. The jobs require electrical or mechanical aptitude but not a specific degree, so they are highly sought after. But they’re not for everyone. “People really don’t like heights,” says John Pelar, one of the technicians.

We’re not sexy

“Our goal is simple: We want to lead the world,” Peduto said at an April 19 event touting how far Pittsburgh has come at reducing energy use in its buildings.

John Quigley, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, echoed the sentiment at a committee hearing on renewable energy in 2016. Pennsylvania has the third oldest building stock in the country, he testified, and these old buildings represent a unique opportunity.

“Energy efficiency is one of Pennsylvania's most abundant sources of energy…,” Quigley testified. “And energy efficiency is, in fact, the energy resource that creates the most jobs.”

Electricity saved is, from the perspective of climate change, just as good as additional solar or wind power because both reduce the amount of greenhouse gases used.

Tony Saccamango with Sound Home Plan conducts an energy audit. (Photo by Chuck Beard/Pittsburgh Magazine)

About 80 percent of the 70,000 green energy jobs in Pennsylvania are energy-efficiency jobs. (About a third of those jobs are in heating and air conditioning, making it unclear whether these are new jobs or modifications to how existing jobs are already performed.)

So before investing in renewable energy, Jordan of BW Research suggests Pittsburgh should do as much as it can to make its buildings more efficient.

It’s just that energy efficiency isn’t … sexy. Three energy experts said the same thing — “it’s not sexy” — to explain why energy efficiency doesn’t get the attention it deserves. “People gravitate toward renewables,” Jordan says. “But, in Pennsylvania, the opportunity is efficiency.”

The 2030 District, an initiative of the Green Building Alliance in Pittsburgh, is frequently cited by the city for spearheading this work. The voluntary coalition of building owners is the largest such district in the country to commit to reducing its energy (and water) use 50 percent below 2003 levels by 2030.

The 2030 District progress is also a reminder of how daunting the challenges are. Five years ago, the district announced that it had reduced energy consumption by 11.6 percent in its first year. Five years later, the district announced that it has reduced its energy consumption by a total of 12 percent.

With about three times as many buildings participating now than at the start, the 2030 District faces a dual challenge: it needs to further reduce energy use in buildings that have already made the easiest changes, such as adding more efficient light bulbs, while adding buildings that need to make both easy and expensive changes.

Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh's chief resilience officer, is leading the city's new plan to address climate change. (Photo by Justin Merriman/PublicSource)

New York City has decided it needs to take a more aggressive tact to reduce energy use in its old buildings. The mayor’s office is pushing to make energy reductions mandatory, with large fines for building owners who don’t comply.

“As much as voluntary actions are needed, we are quickly getting to the point where we need to mandate what performance needs to look like,” Mark Chambers, New York’s director of sustainability, told a national green building conference in Pittsburgh in April.

Pittsburgh prefers to move forward without “legislative hammers,” says Angelica Ciranni, senior director of the 2030 District.

“We always look to things happening in New York and California and say, ‘Wouldn’t that be nice?’” she says. “I just don’t know that there would be a lot of support for that locally, especially given the fact that so much progress is being made.”

Too lucrative to fail

Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania aren’t leading the country at creating green energy, but they aren’t at the bottom either. The solar industry has been recovering slowly and, although there has been very little wind power added, Pennsylvania still is among the top 20 states at producing wind power.

But one of its biggest environmental success stories is about to flip.

Old coal-power plants, one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases, were being driven out of business, in large part, by the abundance of cheap natural gas. This contributed greatly to the United States getting halfway to its 2025 Paris Agreement goal to reduce its carbon footprint.

However, the natural gas industry’s success appears to be threatening the city’s progress on climate change. FirstEnergy recently announced that, without government intervention, it plans to close several of its nuclear power reactors, including the one in Beaver Valley, which supplies Pittsburgh with 70 percent of its electricity. A recent paper out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that the biggest cause of nuclear plant closures like this one is the availability of cheap natural gas.

Rob Boulware, the director of stakeholder relations for Seneca Resources, shows off an active natural gas well in the Allegheny National Forest on May 8, 2018. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Nuclear power is by far the largest source of carbon-free energy in Pittsburgh. Gas is about twice as clean as coal, but it looks positively dirty compared to nuclear, which emits virtually no greenhouse gases.

Right now, there isn’t much demand for building more power plants of any kind, whether it’s renewable, gas plants or any other. Electricity use has remained flat for more than a decade and PJM, which manages the 13-state region Pennsylvania is a part of, says there is already more electricity capacity than needed. So the gas industry is trying to sell more gas to homes in the state and then export the excess.

There is increasing demand for plastics, though. And the natural gas in the region isn’t just plentiful, it’s considered “wet gas,” the right type to make plastics. It’s 30 percent cheaper to produce plastic resin here than on the Gulf Coast, according to David Ruppersberger, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, who spoke at an April energy innovation conference at Carnegie Mellon University.

That’s why a recent report, commissioned by Chevron Appalachia and Peoples Natural Gas, predicted that the region could gain 100,000 jobs if it embraces policies that support gas production, cracker plants and the industries they will support.

Kevin Acklin, the mayor’s former chief of staff who now works as chief legal counsel for Peoples, said at an April 24 energy forum at the Heinz History Center that developing natural gas and plastics could increase the size of the state’s economy by 10 percent.

“Amazon set up this ‘Hunger Games’ competition among cities for us to compete for them to come here … But I would submit that the opportunity we have before us to transform this community is much, much larger if we get this right,” Acklin says of the economic potential of the region’s natural gas.

As Acklin spoke, a couple dozen protesters in the audience raised signs that said “dirty.” The environmentalists don’t want the region to be defined by natural gas and plastics, much like it once was defined by coal and steel.

If the world is to avoid the greatest harms of climate change, climate scientists believe people are going to have to leave some fossil fuels in the ground.

With the second largest natural gas field in the world underneath it, our region’s actions will have far-reaching consequences. Even some of the rosiest projections for adopting renewable energy include natural gas decades into the future.

Gov. Tom Wolf proposed using $200 million from a severance tax on natural gas to stimulate the construction of solar panels and wind installations and to improve energy efficiency. The idea is to use natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a renewable future. But the proposal hasn’t gained traction.

Jared Cohon, president emeritus at CMU, moderated an April 5 panel about traditional energy sources. Cohon, who recently received a lifetime achievement award by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, acknowledges that fossil fuels, especially natural gas, will play a major role in the country’s energy mix for a long time, even as many leaders are committed to reducing them. “But if you are going to use them, you want to use them wisely with maximum benefit.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

This story was fact-checked by Abigail Lind.