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Images provided by Rich Fitzgerald.

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What’s It Like For Communities Slowly Transitioning To Renewables?

In this interview with Pennsylvania County Executive, Rich Fitzgerald (D), we discuss regional progress toward shifting the full energy landscape away from fossil fuels.

Transitioning to renewables holds great promise. In 2020, even with the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, clean energy demand in the US proved resilient as renewables and storage recorded declining costs and rising capacity and usage factors. The Biden/Harris administration is executing a platform that includes rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, investing $2 trillion in clean energy, and fully decarbonizing the power sector by 2035 — with the larger goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

From international bodies to investment houses to town halls, focus has been increasingly directed toward deploying clean energy, following reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that countries must drastically cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions within the next decade to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C (2.7°F).

But the transition on the ground from fossil fuel dependence is necessarily slow, methodical, and sometimes arduous. In many areas across the US where local economies are reliant on the mining and drilling, economic hardship and unemployment during the pandemic were higher than the national average. The size of oil and gas jobs labor force fell to a multi-decade low in 2020 after having been as high as 600,000 jobs just a few years ago. Sometimes referred to as a “just transition,” basic economic development in these regions sees clean energy as part of the answer but not the entire — and not immediate — answer.

We at CleanTechnica had the chance to interview a community leader who’s deeply involved in making sure that longtime fossil-fuel driven economies aren’t left behind. We wanted to know what’s happening to support areas like soon-to-be former coal mining and power plant towns and their local economies. We knew that interagency working groups and coordinated follow-through with local representatives can be key to moving politicians and stakeholders past dead-end jobs debates.

We also knew that, as cleantech advocates, we’d hear some answers that we might not like.

Rich Fitzgerald (D) has served as County Executive in Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, since 2012. In that role, he focuses on helping to grow the Allegheny County’s economy. His goal is to create jobs, strengthen the county’s finances, make government more efficient, and improve the quality of life. In Allegheny County, Fitzgerald calls himself “a convener –” someone who brings together people from various walks of life and facets of government, people who represent labor and management, foundations, small businesses, and nonprofits.

Coalition of Leaders Promoting Alternative Fuel Source

Fitzgerald is among other local leaders across Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Western Virginia who are emerging as a coalition. Renewable Works for PA, a group of businesses and renewable energy advocates who support a swift increase in the state’s renewable energy goals, is making their voices heard in the quest toward transitioning to renewables. Such a move, they say, will further spur economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic and create tens of thousands of family-sustaining jobs for Pennsylvanians — all without state revenues. We wondered if this kind of effort paralleled Fitzgerald’s own advocacy.

CleanTechnica: Do you agree with the positions of Renewable Works for PA? Are their goals comparable to the kind you are promoting? Tell us about you’re doing to bring together disparate groups to promote alternative fuel sources. What advice do you have for other consensus-builders?

Fitzgerald: There are several of us throughout the region — local leaders, mayors, state delegates, Congressional representatives — in communication on how we can promote this region of the US as a template for a clean energy future. Is it a formal coalition? No, but we all recognize a need to prepare for a future that is not reliant on fossil fuels.

In fact, President Biden is expected to be presenting his $3 trillion proposal for infrastructure to Congress, and he is looking to gain bipartisan support. Included in it is a robust push for clean, US made electricity and energy sources. We are prepared to rise to that challenge here in Allegheny County by focusing on the gains, the positive outcomes, such as job creation and ensuring no populations are left behind without proper broadband connectivity.

We hope critics of his plan can see that this is an investment in the future of our country, regardless of how your constituents voted.

Jobs via Clean Investments to Assist Transitioning to Renewables

Clean air investment in Pennsylvania could create approximately 250k jobs annually, according to a January, 2021 report. The authors argue that “we cannot forget that we have truly limited time to take decisive action around climate change… A robust climate stabilization project for Pennsylvania will also serve as a major engine of economic recovery and expanding opportunities throughout the state.”

transitioning to renewables

CleanTechnica: What kinds of jobs have opened already due to clean air investments? What is the forecast like for additional job creation in the next 5, 10, or 20 years?

Fitzgerald: The combination of investments in clean energy, manufacturing/infrastructure, and land restoration/agriculture have created and will continue to create new jobs. We also know that there are several smaller-scale jobs, such as solar installations, geothermal, and wind stack that will be created when we invest in clean air.

In Allegheny County, our biggest opportunity in the near-term is our hydro-investment. Our 35-year power purchase agreement to purchase renewable energy generated by a 17.8 MW low-impact hydropower facility on the Ohio River will offset roughly equal to 2.6 billion miles driven in a typical passenger vehicle over the life of the 35-year agreement. It won’t be permanent, but we will create a number of jobs during construction.

Also, just this week, Pennsylvania announced a new solar project that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lock in energy pricing for 15 years. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced that the state will build 7 new solar arrays and create more than 400 construction jobs – creating enough electricity to cover half of what is used by the state government by 2023. I believe this is the largest solar commitment any state in the US has ever made. We are making similar investments locally, working to create two “Net Zero Parks.” This year, two Allegheny County parks will have photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays installed and will generate about 380,000 kWh each year and reduce carbon emissions by 269 metric tons.

We have made an investment in our airport – Pittsburgh International Airport – incorporating 9,390 solar panels to help power the airport. We are waiting to see what the federal government is going to invest, and then we’re certainly prepared to do a local match, with a percentage towards green jobs/solutions.

Meeting Air Quality Standards: A Result of Transitioning to Renewables

Last month, for the first time in its history, all 8 air quality monitors in Allegheny County met federal air quality standards.

CleanTechnica: How did that accomplishment come about? What series of changes needed to take place to get to where you are with air quality today, and what do you foresee for additional changes in the upcoming years?

Fitzgerald: This accomplishment is a result of a long series of events. The county, home to Pittsburgh, was once a major hub for steel-making and other heavy industry. Our county had long endured a reputation for poor air quality, but we’ve been working to get better and better every year.

There are 8 air-quality monitors spread throughout the county, 7 of which have been in compliance with federal standards for years. The eighth, located across from US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works coal-processing plant, was the problem child. We approached the issue through a mix of enforcement actions, including more than $1 million in fines for air pollution and permit violations last year. That, coupled with mandated improvements at the plant, helped reduce contaminants enough for the monitor to comply with federal air quality standards.

We want to continue to improve air quality. Allegheny County, in partnership with the Allegheny County Conservation District, Allegheny County Parks Foundation, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and Tree Pittsburgh has planted over 6,935 trees in county parks since 2012, as well as shrubs and herbaceous perennials. More than 2,600 trees were planted in 2020 alone. Annually, each planted tree will absorb about 50 pounds of carbon dioxide (or the amount emitted from 55.6 miles).

“Bridge Fuel” or Delay in Transitioning to Renewables?

Some proponents of fossil fuels agree that natural gas is not a permanent solution to ending our addiction to imported oil. Rather, they say, it is a “bridge fuel” to slash our oil dependence while buying us time in transitioning to renewables and developing new technologies that will ultimately replace fossil transportation fuels.

But methane gas, commonly referred to as “natural gas,” can produce the same amount or more greenhouse gas emissions as other fossil fuels. The gas contributes to global warming before ever reaching the point of combustion. Transporting and processing natural gas leaks methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas, directly into the atmosphere. Methane makes up 85 to 95% of the natural gas customers receive, and it is 34 to 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Fitzgerald says he believes the key will be alternative fuel sources, while not necessarily shutting down fossil fuel — for example, utilizing natural gas in the region (‘bridge fuel’).

CleanTechnica: How is Allegheny County handling these opposing points of view about natural gas in the transition to renewable? What are you doing to lead the way toward a renewable tomorrow?

Fitzgerald: We are very supportive of PA Gov Tom Wolf’s methane reduction strategy in both production and transmission of natural gasses and happy to see that President Biden has re-instituted the regulations requiring companies to detect and repair leaks (after Trump lifted regulations). I agree with the categorization of natural gasses as a bridge fuel, moving towards 2035 as a vision for net zero emissions and 2050 as the target to be off of fossil fuels completely. I see this timeline as reasonable and doable, with practical goals we can achieve.

Hydropower: Revisiting Past Practices with New Visions

On January 28, 2021, Allegheny County entered into a power purchase agreement with Rye Development to purchase 7.4 MW of renewable electricity from a new low-impact, run-of-river hydroelectric facility to be located on the Ohio River. Emsworth Locks and Dams is one of six major river facilities on the Ohio River in the Pittsburgh Engineer District. This facility stands at the head of the Ohio River navigation system and forms a 24-mile pool on the three rivers around the city of Pittsburgh. The 35-year agreement and financial investment makes possible the development and financing of new renewable energy capacity in the county. The energy purchased by this agreement and its associated Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) will cover over 90% of the county’s annual load. Combined with the county’s continued enhanced energy efficiency measures, transitioning to renewables can become a reality through local sources.

transitioning to renewables

Rendering of hydropower facility at the Emsworth Main Channel Dam

Still being built, the hydropower facility will be located at the existing Emsworth Main Channel Dam on the Ohio River. A run-of-river hydropower dam was selected in part for its use of the existing flow of the river, minimizing environmental impact compared to traditional reservoir dams.

CleanTechnica: You’ve been quoted as saying that the 17.8 MW low-impact hydropower facility on the Ohio River is a symbol of the possibilities for renewable energy in the region. Tell us more. Also, please describe the environmental emphases that are part of the greater planning for the hydropower facility. 

Fitzgerald: The hydropower facility is something we’ve been working on for a number of years, following the lead of the University of Pittsburgh, which decided to create a hydropower plant on the Allegheny River in 2018. Construction on the facility is expected to begin this year, with the plant scheduled to come online sometime in 2023. The facility, which will not be operated by the county, will stand roughly two stories above the water. Once completed, it should last for up to a century, and will not impact recreational use of the river.

The county currently uses around 50,000 megawatt hours per year for buildings and operations, including park facilities, office space, and a jail. Switching to hydroelectric power will offset emissions equivalent to the electrical consumption of more than 3,400 households each year. After 35 years, the agreement will offset more than 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, roughly the same as 2.6 billion miles driven by an average car. That environmental impact is significant and will be used to power everything from county office buildings to jails, etc.

Environmental Issues & Hydropower

As part of a 2006 study about this dam, multiple environmental issues were raised: water pollution from municipalities and industries; acid mine drainage; instream extraction of sand and gravel; construction and operation of high-lift locks and dams; disruptions to mussel beds due to barge fleeting areas, queuing, disposal of dredged materials, and conversion of habitat for agriculture, residential, commercial, and industrial uses. Habitat conversions were expected to continue in the future as development in or adjacent to the river continues to occur.  As part of the construction process, the Rye development company will be pursuing certification of the project from the Low Impact Hydro Institute (LIHI) to ensure that the local river ecosystem is protected. Certified Low Impact hydropower projects (facilities) meet 8 specific science-based environmental, cultural and recreational criteria.

CleanTechnica: How can the reconstruction process alleviate some of these original environmental impacts?

Fitzgerald: We are looking to shift the entire energy landscape over time.

The county has been an active part of the Green Building Alliance, a green building movement that continues to strengthen our collective ecosystem. The program engages changemakers across diverse sectors, connecting government, design, and construction to transform the market forces driving building decisions. For example, PNC Bank (headquartered in Pittsburgh) was an early adopter of LEED certification for both branch and office environments, and they continue to design and retrofit buildings to maximize energy efficiency. They have more “green” square footage than any bank in the country, and they continue to improve the carbon footprint in their facilities. The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon – universities in our county – are also working to improve the environmental impact of the city.

We recently moved into Net-Zero emissions in two out of our nine county parks, and have invested in sustainable initiatives in the other parks, such as providing solar lighting to light one of our most frequented jogging paths that also allows for residents to use it for longer periods of time.

Additionally, we transitioned county fleet vehicles to more alternative fuels, such as compressed natural gas (CNG), dual fuel propane, and both hybrid-electric and all-electric plug-in vehicles. Hybrid electric vehicles used by Public Works produce 72% less CO2 than conventional vehicles. In early 2020, the county purchased four all-electric Chevy Bolts, using grant funding through the state’s Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant. These electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions, and so do not release CO2 into the atmosphere like traditional gasoline vehicles.

Other Allegheny County Renewable Energy Projects

The hydropower facility builds on other efforts toward transitioning to renewables. The county has invested in clean energy including the Airport Authority’s gas/solar microgrid, Community College of Allegheny County’s solar panels, and the Port Authority’s ongoing move to electric buses.

CleanTechnica: Please tell us about how these projects are changing the energy landscape in Allegheny County. Also, what other clean energy projects are in the planning stages?

Fitzgerald: In Allegheny County we aim to lead by example. We hope to demonstrate the many benefits of our sustainable energy projects. For example, how are parks becoming zero-emissions, use of solar (beyond parks and extending to universities, airport, transit). All of these things together create a tapestry for improved environmental and air quality.

Images provided by Rich Fitzgerald.


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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. As part of her portfolio divestment, she purchased 5 shares of Tesla stock. Please follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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