Pittsburgh Cleantech Leadership Flowering

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Pittsburgh has committed to 50% reduction in CO2 emissions and energy and water usage by the year 2030, leading North American cities in this regard. It has made significant headway toward these goals, largely by applying lots of cleantech, according to the Pittsburgh 2030 District’s newly released 2016 Progress Report.

The report details how property partners cut $19 million in 2016 energy costs by implementing innovations in lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilation, totaling $53 million in savings since their initial reporting.

Participants saved 982 million kBtu last year alone, which is equivalent to the CO2 emissions of driving a car 271 million miles. With 491 participating properties, Pittsburgh leads all 17 established 2030 Districts in committed square footage (including Seattle, San Francisco, and Toronto) and is growing a net zero, living building climate in the heart of the city.

Here are some of the Pittsburgh’s cleantech highlights:

  • The 2030 District initiative prompted Pittsburgh to become one of 23 cities mandating utility disclosure from nonresidential properties.
  • One of Pittsburgh’s largest city parks now serves as a hub for immersive environmental education for Pittsburgh city school children and as a gathering place for community programs.
  • The new Frick Environmental Center has been built to meet the rigorous cleantech standards of both LEED Platinum and the Living Building Challenge. When certified, it will become the world’s first free and open to the public living building owned by a municipality. The Frick Environmental Center provides families, students, and learners of all ages with a state-of-the-art space for hands-on, experiential environmental education.

The Pittsburgh 2030 Project & the 2016 Progress Report

The Pittsburgh 2030 District is a collaborative, nationally recognized, local community of high-performance buildings that dramatically reduce energy and water consumption, diminish transportation emissions, and improve indoor air quality. As if those goals aren’t enough, the 2030 District is also committed to increasing competitiveness in the business environment and owners’ returns on investments.

The annual report summarizes the Pittsburgh 2030 District’s 2016 progress toward attaining the bold 2030 Challenge goals that are being pursued by participants on behalf of the Pittsburgh region. Working with each participating Property Partner, the Pittsburgh 2030 District establishes property-specific site EUI baselines using EPA’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager and the 2003 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS). Each building’s baseline takes into account the national average EUI for that building use type, including current use(s), operational characteristics, and Pittsburgh’s climate zone.

Partnerships Lead to Cleantech Progress

The Pittsburgh 2030 District is a strategic initiative of Green Building Alliance and currently represents over 72.5% of the total real estate square footage in downcity Pittsburgh. Green Building Alliance wants to help the places where we live, work, learn, and play to be healthy and high-performing. They assist cleantech building contractors and investors to move from questions like, “What is green building, and why should I do it?” to “What will work best for my needs?” and “What is the next level?”

The Pittsburgh 2030 District partners demonstrate that high-performing buildings can be profitable, attract other businesses, elevate real estate valuation, and improve occupants’ health and overall well-being.

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This collaboration works strategically to assure a stable financial and environmental future for Pittsburgh through cleantech resiliency and innovation, while addressing ongoing regional, national, and global challenges. Many of the Pittsburgh 2030 District programs are models for other municipalities and states.


Abandoned Coal Mine Cleantech Cleanup at 460-Acre Pittsburgh Botanic Garden

The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden (PBG) rises from a large section of abandoned mine land. “Mine land” is a term for sites excavated prior to the 1977 federal law that required mining companies to restore land back to its original condition. With mining companies long since departed, the coal mine cleanup efforts on 66 acres of land were a bit complicated. The PBG is just one example in the Pittsburgh area where industry has left ruin but is less defined than a simple brownfield site, said Keith Kaiser, executive director of the PBG.

The solution was federal funding in the amount of $716,000. The land was deep mined through the 1920s and surfaced mined through the 1940s. As the PBG garden officials originally surveyed the landscape, they found features that, at first glance, may have looked like natural issues but were, actually, the effects of mining:

  • 20-foot forest ridges and steep cliffs? Remnants of surface mining in the 1940s when bulldozers and excavators scraped coal off the ground.
  • Holes in the ground and round pits? After 1910-era underground mines collapsed, these impressions in the ground continued as reminders of ways that industry scarred the planet.
  • Is that spring water? Not so fast. Severely polluted acid mine drainage had damaged the surrounding ecology and infiltrated what looked like crystal clear mountain runoff.

Initially, drainage through an underground tank measuring 100 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 5 feet deep had to be rerouted. Then, the tank was filled with limestone rock aggregate, which removes aluminum. Voila! Before garden officials knew it, the water was clean. A walking path of zigzagged wooden planks now is perched atop the tank.

A pond cleantech cleanup was able to take place through sponsorship from the Growing Greener fund, with $250,000 from the state DEP and another $100,000 from the federal Office of Surface Mining. Today the pond is stocked with trout, bass, minnows, and sunfish.

The passive water treatment system is part of a larger picture at PBG that accomplished many objectives:

  • removed acid mine drainage;
  • eliminated dangerous highwalls;
  • filled subsidence holes and vertical mine shafts;
  • disposed of coal refuse piles; and,
  • installed a sludge control system.

Wind Turbines Designed for Urban Environments

Avian-friendly and silent, Pittsburgh’s WindStax turbines on the Rachel Carson Bridge operate in a place where traditional wind turbines cannot be installed. The WindStax turbines are large vertical wind turbines that are non-directional and need little wind to start operating. They can work in wind speeds as low as 5 miles per hour, are portable, and are a good fit for city use.

WindStax also provides linkages to microgrids and batteries to store energy. That means that their ZeroFirst™ technology system allows customers to transition between alternative energy sources, smooth supply and demand cycles, and still have public power as a fallback.

(Want to learn more about wind energy, power, and turbines? Check out this wind power primer from CleanTechnica.)

Treating Water at the Source of Natural Gas Drilling Sites

Shale gas production is increasing at a rapid rate and is expected to become half of the US natural gas supply by 2040, according to a report from the Carnegie Mellon Institute. Its report outlines how shale gas production can affect ground and surface water resources — including water quantity and water quality — during well pad construction, drilling, hydraulic fracturing, completed well operation, and pipeline transmission. Water is used directly in drilling fluids and hydraulic fracturing fluids and indirectly in the supply chain production such as the production of hydraulic fracturing additives and the extraction of sand.

With Pennsylvania at the heart of the shale development boom, Epiphany Water Solutions has developed a process to treat produced water at natural gas drilling sites, reducing the need to transport produced water, which contains high levels of salts as well as trace amounts of metals. Epiphany’s E5H is a well-pad-based water treatment solution that is designed to meet the needs of hydro-fractured shale wells. The hybrid system uses a combination of concentrated solar power and natural gas to run its distillation unit. It utilizes a mechanical vapor re-compression crystallizer distiller to purify the produced water while also removing contaminants from the produced water, yielding a concentrated brine and pure distilled water.

Pittsburgh Green Story reports that the Epiphany distillation process leaves the water cleaner than tap water, so that it can be safely returned to the environment. The crystallized salt and material that remains after distillation can also have beneficial uses, resulting in waste reduction of up to 97% of the original produced water volume. Epiphany’s solution also reduces transportation costs and air emissions.

Geothermal Technology Using Natural Refrigerant

What does the next generation of sustainable geothermal heating and cooling look like? Thar Energy is offering a series of solutions that reduce an environmental footprint through commercial geothermal systems and cleantech. It uses an established natural refrigerant, recycled carbon dioxide (also known as R744), and a simpler, more efficient, direct exchange geothermal design than has been on the market previously.

Reducing borehole diameter is central to limiting upfront installation costs. Those costs have historically hampered the adoption of geothermal technology. The use of recycled carbon dioxide as a refrigerant makes the Thar Energy system quite a sustainable HVAC system. Indeed, because their technology harnesses the power of nature’s most common compounds, carbon dioxide and water, it is environmentally friendly, physiologically compatible, safe. and cost effective. This super critical fluid cleantech has broad applications in solving some of today’s most challenging energy demands.

Former Steel Site Now Part of Sustainable Cleantech Infrastructure

For more than 100 years, Jones & Laughlin Steel Company was considered one of the finest integrated steel mills in operation. The three components of J&L Steel Company — Hazelwood Works, South Side Plant, and Aliquippa Works — ran a total of seven miles along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The neighborhood employed nearly 13,000 people at the height of the steel industry.

Many positions and occupations within that and other steel mills introduced extreme levels of asbestos exposure among the workers. When inhaled, asbestos is a carcinogen that can cause several cancers, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, and colon cancer, as well as asbestos diseases like asbestosis. Bankruptcy led to the dismantling of the steel mills.

The names of Pittsburgh’s three rivers — the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio — have been combined into “Almono” as an environmental symbol of the natural origins of the region prior to the industrial era and the steel mills. A $9.5 million loan is helping to pay for a 1.5-mile “complete street” through the 178-acre Almono property in Hazelwood, according to Donald Smith, president of the Regional Industrial Development Corp. of Southwestern Pennsylvania, the site manager.

This important sustainable redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s last brownfield site came with the help of 15 private entities. Foundation, civic, and community leaders are now collaborating in the redevelopment of the 178-acre urban riverfront brownfield formerly occupied by LTV Steel in Hazelwood. The site has undergone more than a decade of remediation, infrastructure, and planning.

Dennis Yablonsky, chairman of the Power of 32 Site Development Fund and CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, an organization in partnership with the Benedum Foundation, spearheaded the creation of the Site Fund as a follow-up to the regional visioning process.

“This is a signature investment for the fund because of a new standard of sustainability, in the broadest sense, being integrated at Almono – Pittsburgh’s last big brownfield. The fund is excited to have invested in Pittsburgh’s first fully designed complete street, which is emblematic of the forward-thinking, world-class development taking place at Almono. This highly visible development can be a model for incorporating this standard at other sites and projects throughout the greater region.”

The Almono master plan calls for a mixed use development comprising a blend of housing, offices, research and development, light manufacturing, retail, parks, trails, and transportation. Potential tenants include companies like Uber. The Almonon is employing a host of sustainable standards and infrastructure as it moves from brownfield site to urban community center.

Pittsburgh’s Multi-Pronged Approach to Cleantech

Pittsburgh’s early industrial successes were largely due to its strategic location at the confluence of three rivers and the region’s abundance of coal, oil, limestone and sand. Steel mills, factories, and coal mines spewed out tremendous amounts of air and water pollution. The result was smoke and grime that settled with such thickness that streetlights were lit by 3 p.m. and workers changed their sooty shirts after returning to their offices from lunch.

Efforts began in 1946 to clean and revitalize the region’s urban center through smoke control, restoration and redevelopment projects, and brownfield site reclamation.

Pittsburgh Green Story is a collaborative effort led by the Green Building Alliance to share the subsequent story of Pittsburgh’s ongoing story of green revitalization. They are proud to relate how Pittsburgh’s ongoing physical, economic and environmental transformation has propelled a surge in sustainable development, green innovation, and collaboration across multiple sectors – from municipal government, private business, nonprofit agencies, and university-based initiatives to major infrastructure projects, technology manufacturing, and equitable development.

And everyone involved has a lot of which to be proud!


Top photo credit: brdonovan via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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