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The City of Pittsburgh set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030. The objective is the centerpiece of the city’s third climate action plan, passed in 2018.
Over the past two years, Chief Resilience Officer Grant Ervin has been trying to show how the city can meet the mark. His plan focuses on increasing the energy efficiency of city buildings, procuring more green energy and building out an electric vehicle fleet.
The city now owns 19 electric vehicles and is preparing to turn its entire lot on Second Avenue into the city’s first large-scale electric charging lot. If the city continues to implement his recommendations in its upcoming budget, he expects the municipality's emissions to fall by about 19% by the end of 2020.
But while the city is taking the lead, it hasn’t yet kicked off one of its most important strategies: pressuring the biggest buildings in the city to stop using so much energy. And there isn’t a plan yet for how to reduce the next biggest source of emissions: energy use in people’s homes.
Sitting around a conference table with his four-member team, Ervin expressed optimism. “If we make the moves we have in concept now and the ones close to being in queue, the city’s operations will hit its targets. I’m pretty confident about that,” he said. “Are you, guys?”
“Not with business as usual,” responded Flore Marion, the city’s energy advisor. “But with the plan we are laying.”
Because climate change legislation has stalled nationally, many advocates believe the biggest hope for progress right now is at the local level, including in cities like Pittsburgh. Mayor Bill Peduto pledged as much during a public clash with President Donald Trump right before the city released its latest plan.
Marion recently finished a report analyzing the energy use in all 154 of the City of Pittsburgh’s buildings. So instead of just randomly picking which buildings to target, the city can focus on the least efficient ones first.
Marion’s report showed that Firehouses 22 and 34 are the least efficient: they use more energy per square foot than any other firehouse in the city. So if the city wants to get the most bang for its buck, focusing on those two buildings first will save the most energy and the most money in the long run.
To start, Marion expects to work on renovations of about 10 buildings per year. In the long run, this will save the city $1.3 million per year once the city has cut its energy use in half. There is no special climate change fund or separate accounting for costs associated with the efforts. But the city budgets a certain amount of money each year for building renovations, and the hope is to use that money to drive down its yearly energy costs.
“We’re looking at what’s the long-term benefit and implications, not just the quick and easy fix but how do we structurally fix the building to make it a higher-quality, higher-performance structure,” Ervin said.
The city’s buildings represent a fraction of the city’s total energy use. Most of the change will have to come from the city’s private businesses and institutions and, right now, it’s not clear which ones to focus on.
Ervin has received two years of energy data from around 500 of the city’s largest buildings, four of which are owned by the city, and Marion said she will finish analyzing the data by the end of the year.
“We don’t want to just release the data and have building owners feel discouraged about their performance,” she said. “The goal is to support people and make them aware that once you realize your building is poor performing, there is a system out there to save money and energy.”
Many buildings have already formally joined together in a special 2030 District pledge to reduce their energy use by 50%. More than 500 buildings are committed to these reductions. Many of the member buildings in Oakland and Downtown have been committed for more than five years. The University of Pittsburgh, for example, has prioritized 25 buildings for energy retrofits between 2018 and 2020; lighting is being upgraded at the Petersen Events Center and there are planned changes to the Cathedral of Learning and the Chevron Science Center to name a few.
Last year the university also agreed to purchase hydroelectric power from a new plant on the Allegheny River near the Highland Park bridge. The plant will supply the university with about 25% of its power starting in 2022. Not only will the university be using less energy, but the energy it does use will result in fewer greenhouse gases.
The city is preparing to follow suit, said Sarah Yeager, the city’s energy planner. The city was already purchasing 35% of its power from green sources but most of the money it was spending on green energy went to companies in places like Texas and North Carolina. That played “more of an accounting function” for renewable energy that is already built, Yeager said, and didn’t incentivize companies to build more green energy capacity here. She said the city will be ready to buy local green power within a year.
While Pittsburgh has some of the country’s greenest buildings, in places like Phipps Conservatory and at Frick Park, some developers still haven’t gotten the message, Ervin said.
“So, when you have affordable housing developments, developments in Lawrenceville, just building a building, a box to put tenants in, but not thinking about the implications,” he said, “you are building for yesterday rather than building for tomorrow.”
One of the biggest gaps in the city’s current plan is how to address the city’s aging housing stock, which accounts for more than a quarter of the city’s total climate emissions. The city needs homeowners to do what the city is doing: get an energy audit of where energy is being wasted and then invest in efficiency upgrades.
Conservation Consultants, Inc., [CCI] a nonprofit that currently audits about 120 homes per year, launched a competition in August to see which Pittsburgh homes could reduce their energy consumption the most. There are cash prizes and an online tool to compare homes.
But to enter the contest, homeowners need to first spend $400 on an energy audit. Even Ervin said that is a tough ask, particularly because the audit could then recommend many thousands of dollars in upgrades.
In some other states, there are better incentives for homeowners to invest in more efficient energy, said Lucy de Barbaro, the manager of market services for CCI. “And those can be substantial rebates, and people are moved to act. And we don’t have it here,” she said. “We are frustrated with not being able to mobilize larger populations.”
Individuals have until the end of October to sign up for the CCI competition, but a few weeks after CCI announced the contest, only 11 of the more than 130,000 households in the city had signed up. That won’t be enough to move the needle.
The city is supposed to have reduced its greenhouse gas emissions 20% by 2023, to be on pace. But the most recent data, from 2013, shows the city’s total emissions (not only the municipal emissions) were up 10%.
The city’s climate work is changing the way the city does business, Ervin said. But it won’t be enough if more businesses and residents don’t follow suit.
“The challenge is to expand the scale and growth in these areas,” Ervin said. “We all need to do more.”
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 Matt Maielli.