Coming Clean: Why We Aren't a Green City ... Yet
Pittsburgh is no longer a smoky city, but that doesn’t mean it has cleaned up its act. Pittsburgh's air quality still ranks among the worst in the nation. What steps are being taken to reduce Pittsburgh's ongoing dependence on fossil fuels?
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Produced in partnership with PublicSource, a nonprofit media organization delivering in-depth and investigative reporting to serve the Pittsburgh region at publicsource.org.
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?
The Twin Ridges Wind Farm is located on the Big Savage Ridge area near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.
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 when measured 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.
The biggest environmental challenge of the present is climate change, according to scientists at the United Nations. 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 use 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 industrial counterparts of the past. “It is going to get us further than comparing us to Cleveland. 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. 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.
Solar panels at Jane Miller & Mike Kissel’s home
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.
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? Should it 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. 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.
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.