When Pittsburgh began reinventing itself, few envisioned blue skies over the high-tech, health-care driven city it has become.
The city has an industrial past that cannot be ignored. The steel industry was hard on the region’s resources. No one dreamed of fishing the murky, polluted waters, and the city earned a reputation for its dirty, smoggy atmosphere. It’s a reputation that Pittsburgh is glad to move beyond.
“I think we have left that reputation far behind,” said Aftyn Giles, Sustainability Officer for Pittsburgh. “We’ve made major improvements. Air quality is only one of them.”
Yet the city has not turned its back on the past, but incorporated key strengths from the industrial base, while collaborating with business, higher education, the government and the community to build in innovative directions. For Pittsburgh, collaboration has become a regional priority.
“We had to collaborate together to rebuild our economy in the ’80s,” Terri Glueck, Director of Community Development and Communications for Innovation Works, a nonprofit that has worked effectively in the region. “That level of collaboration, that level of working and cooperation, is very typical in Pittsburgh.”
Ironically, Pittsburgh has a tradition of sustainability built into its steel buildings and businesses. The city is home to Alcoa, a manufacturer of aluminum, one of the most recycled materials in the world. Making new aluminum cans out of old aluminum uses 95% less energy, saves natural resources and lowers CO2 and other GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.
Even during its heavy industry years, there always was a waste minimization focus that has grown with the more encompassing sustainability movement. Now, companies such as PNC and Highmark, along with nonprofit organizations, have helped change the face of Pittsburgh.
“You don’t make steel without a component of recycled material” said David Mazza, Regional Director of the PRC (Pennsylvania Resources Council).
The PRC is the oldest nonprofit in the commonwealth. Founded in 1939, the statewide Council has been working on litter prevention and awareness that focuses on the human impact on built environments for over 70 years. They have been in the forefront of the Southwest PA story.
STEP 1: Plan
The start was a plan. Mr. Mazza was one of those who served on the Green City Commission, which brought people together to develop a plan for sustainability that led to the Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan (PCAP).
PCAP began in 2008, building on the collaborative efforts of municipal and regional governments, business and community leaders and nonprofit organizations. A living document, the PCAP helps coordinate the different tasks of each group. In 2011 the plan was updated as projects finished, incorporating new suggestions. Those included the creation of an academy to involve students by teaching them about local government and how it affects the city’s internal retrofits to government buildings and facilities, in order to decrease energy usage through all layers of the city.
“Even our internal vending machines are using less energy,” Ms. Giles said.
The educational institutions in Southwest Pennsylvania are a great asset in finding new ideas and solutions. Universities, such as Duquesne and Chatham, are committed to sustainability and have planned projects or demonstrations. Carnegie Mellon University has a strong focus on green technology and architectures, as well as on developing new technologies in alternative fuels. The University of Pittsburgh’s expertise in green chemistry enables it to create better products with cleaner methods.
STEP 2: Innovations that Work
One of the more ambitious projects to bring new businesses into the region is the nonprofit, Innovation Works. Innovation Works is part of a statewide network that brings together the best of Pennsylvania’s talent, ideas and technologies to serve as a catalyst for advancing the state’s knowledge-based economy. They work closely with business, government and nonprofit organizations that help to create new companies, jobs and investment capital in this region. In having designated funds for green/clean technologies, companies don’t have to compete with life sciences and robotics, which are strong competitors in the region.
“I think that we have a wealth of great organizations that are leading the way — there are lots of organizations and experts in the areas of improved green applications,” said Terri Glueck. “There are some real dollars being put toward these efforts,” she added. “[Our portfolio companies] are great importers of capital in our region, because most of that investment comes from outside the region.”
Since 1999, Innovation Works has invested in over 150 companies, putting $53 million into companies that have since raised $1.3 billion. Thirty seven of these were funded using half of a $10 million state investment for green/clean investing.
“We have so many great technologies to invest in. When the state opened up the energy fund, energy companies could draw on those available dollars,” Ms. Glueck said, adding that it gives a greater opportunity to reach a critical mass of energy companies.
Focusing on companies based in Southwest Pennsylvania, the organization provides seed funding and business expertise, investing for a few years until venture capital and private equity can take the company to the next level. Innovation Works’ goal is to find investors, and then continue to work with companies so that they use the investment wisely, in order to get to market quickly.
“You can get caught up in the malaise, the sense of loss, or you can find the best ways to move forward,” Ms. Glueck said.
Three Innovation Works Companies
BPL Global created a technology that improves electricity grid management so that companies can reduce stress on the grid. Their technology provides electric utilities with a suite of smart grid solutions for advanced distribution automation from substations through to commercial and residential customers.
Aquion Energy, located in Pittsburgh’s strip district, is a Carnegie Mellon (CMU) spinout that produces earth friendly batteries for large-scale electricity uses such as trains. While the production and disposal of normal batteries is fraught with harmful chemicals and metals, Aquion’s new battery is dirt and water based, making it an eco-friendly alternative.
Plextronics, another CMU spinout, enables the printing of thin, flexible solar panels and LEDs (light emitting diodes). The company’s technology will enable the mass production of printed devices, such as low-cost organic solar cells and high-efficiency lighting. The diodes show great success in boosting electricity generation, and output of organic LEDs.
STEP 3: Focus on the Built Environment
Interest in building more efficient buildings by incorporating green components picked up in the early ’90s. Rather than diversify its focus, the PRC co-founded a new organization to meet Pittsburgh’s need for green building expertise. The Green Building Alliance emerged as an outgrowth of Conservation Consultants, Inc. and PRC in 1993. The Alliance has gone on to influence green building design worldwide.
When it opened, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center was the largest LEED-certified building in the world. Part of the LEED certification was to meet requirements about how waste was handled. Pennsylvania Resources Council helped design the recycling system for the building, working with architects after the old center had been demolished to make way for the new building. For two years the land was a blank construction site while the redesign was planned.
The new building incorporated HVAC, lighting, gray water and waste management systems into the design. In order to ensure that the systems performed as designed, PRC worked with property management, staff and internal operations as systems were installed. They walked owners and staff through the systems’ implementation, educating people on the best practices for future use.
“For a long period of time, Pittsburgh had more LEED certified buildings than any other city in the country,” David Mazza, Regional Director of the PRC said.
Some of the problems the city faces include making sure everyone is on the same page when measuring progress. It is difficult to establish a baseline for measuring sustainability without communicating where to start and how to compare the problem itself.
“Everybody’s looking at different dynamics for determining what’s best,” Ms. Giles said. “What are we really looking at here? It makes it really challenging.”
There are multiple ways to measure building sustainability. Some people don’t endorse the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council) standard, believing that the stamp is not necessary as long as they are doing the right thing. Others that meet the standard are not certified, because owners do not want to pay the fee.
STEP 4: Manage Fuel Costs and Resources
While coal and natural gas are industries in Southwest Pennsylvania, the regional community has an opportunity to capitalize on green technology and sustainability. What is needed is a balance, with vocal leaders who are representatives of that coexistence. Ms. Glueck is hopeful that the region will become one of the few places in the world that can produce natural resources while maintaining a sustainable lifestyle.
“To me, one of the key components to sustainability is how to handle the waste,” Mr. Mazza said. “We need to be more careful about how we handle our natural resources.” “As much opportunity as there is with Marcellus Shale, we should not go back to a one-industry approach,” Ms. Glueck said. “Diversity is good for the economy.”
Another example, with a funny twist, happened in 2011. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced the city would transition city refuse trucks from diesel to natural gas power. The city’s transition inadvertently disrupted trash day. It turned out that the quieter engines did not alert those who were accustomed to hearing the loud diesel noise in order to time their run to get trash to the curb on pickup day!
For the next step, City officials are running a test project to see whether they can use biofuels, which have a tendency to gel in Pittsburgh’s cold winters. The city is working with partners to come up with a system that overcomes the freeze-thaw and stabilizes the fuel, but so far they have not been able to use above a 20-80 mix.
STEP 5: Improve Air and Water Quality
Pittsburgh is still working to improve air and water quality, two of its largest and enduring environmental issues. Situated between three mountains at the junction of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, Pittsburgh settlers thought the region impenetrable. But the same fortress-like mountains that drew settlers trap toxins and pollutants in the air. “We live downwind from other places, and we kind of get trapped,” Ms. Giles said. Functioning coal mines, which still exist in the region, produce acidic runoff. Even with the decline in industrial mining and manufacturing in the region, Pittsburgh lives with the results.
“Some of [the city's problems] are the woes of the past,” Ms. Giles said, adding that the “point of sustainability is to fix the problems of yesterday so they do not become the future generation’s problems.”
STEP 6: City Support and Policy
Everything the city does incorporates the idea of sustainability from changing light fixtures, HVAC systems to installing LED lighting on streetlights and traffic lights. There are a lot of things people may not always recognize, but internally the city officers have taken the idea to heart.
In the ’90s, The Pennsylvania Resources Council moved into its Pittsburgh office, where it now runs a number of initiatives, including waste minimization efforts throughout the city.
“Our relationship with the city has been going on as long as we’ve been here,” said Mr. Mazza.
The Council provides resources and expertise to the city on its waste reduction and recycling campaigns and has partnered with Pittsburgh on collection events as well as green special events within the city. Four years ago the Pennsylvania Resources Council began running the recycling and composting stations at the Three River Arts Festival, a 10-day annual event that has been going on for almost 30 years. The council successfully diverted 80 percent of waste generated by the arts festival, which draws between 250,000-300,000 visitors to the city.
“This whole program is still in its infancy, so there’s a long way for this to go,” Ms. Giles said. “Hopefully it will continue to grow and expand and really become a component of what the city is.”
By Hannah Schroer,
special to THE GREEN ECONOMY