Can Pittsburgh Save The Planet?

Energy experts from around the world will gather here in September to accelerate clean technology. Can they keep the planet from warming past its breaking point?
Hazelwoodgreen4 Beard

THIS IS ONE OF THE LARGEST ROOFTOP SOLAR PANELS IN THE COUNTRY. IT IS AT MILL 19 AT HAZELWOOD GREEN.

Visiting Pittsburgh in 1930, R.L. Duffus could hardly contain his disgust. “Quiet valleys have been inundated with slag, defaced with refuse, marred by hideous buildings,” the journalist wrote for Harper’s. “Life for the majority of the population has been rendered unspeakably pinched and dingy.” In a further twist of the knife, the Harper’s headline wondered: “Is Pittsburgh Civilized?”

It’s a past the region has tried its best to shed. On the site of Pittsburgh’s last steel mill now stands Hazelwood Green, home to one of the largest rooftop solar panels in the country. Allegheny County’s last coal-fired power plant closed earlier this year; its new owners hope to redevelop it as a hub for renewable energy. Meanwhile, hundreds of “hideous buildings” have joined the Pittsburgh 2030 District, a network of buildings that have already cut carbon emissions by 38% and energy use by more than a third.

Transformations such as these have caught world leaders’ attention.

“[Pittsburgh] has risen from the ashes like a phoenix,” says Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Secretary of Energy. Nearly a century after it disgusted Duffus, “other countries want to learn: What was it that Pittsburgh did that made it successful?”

They’ll soon have a chance to find out. From Sept. 21-23, Pittsburgh will host the Global Clean Energy Action Forum, a summit expected to bring thousands of researchers, business leaders and government officials from more than 30 countries to Downtown’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Hosted by the Department of Energy in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, the forum is a follow-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow, Scotland last year. Leaders will gather in Pittsburgh to make good on their Glasgow commitments, aiming to slash emissions, expand the use of clean energy and keep the planet from warming past its breaking point.

The clock is ticking. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at their current rate, the region’s climate could resemble Knoxville, Tennessee’s by mid-century, according to Ray Najjar, a Penn State scientist. By 2080, it could resemble that of Jonesboro, Arkansas — a place 10 degrees warmer in the summer and 45% wetter in the winter. (It’s warm enough in Jonesboro to grow several types of palm trees.) Along the way, Pittsburgh can expect more flooding, more landslides and more stress on infrastructure that lately has shown affinity for falling apart.

Low-lying nations and vulnerable coasts likely will fare even worse. From fierce storms and flooded cities to dead crops and dying species, preventing climate catastrophes will hinge, scientists say, on a singular goal: halving emissions by 2030 and reaching “net zero” — that is, emitting only as much greenhouse gas as the world can remove — by 2050.

As the planet pins its climate hopes to what happens Downtown, the region faces a choice, local leaders say. Will it leverage its innovation capacity, manufacturing expertise and human potential to help limit the world’s warming? Or will it double down on fossil fuels, letting temperatures — and the costs to civilization — continue to climb?

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm Tours Solar Facility

U.S. SECRETARY OF ENERGY JENNIFER GRANHOLM ON JUNE 28 TOURED A FORMER BETHLEHEM STEEL PLANT IN LEETSDALE THAT HAS BEEN REPURPOSED TO PRODUCE SOLAR EQUIPMENT FOR NEXTRACKER LLC. SHE’S WALKING WITH NEXTRACKER CEO DAN SHUGAR | PHOTO BY RYAN RYDZEWSKI

‘The War of Our Lifetimes’

It’s a steamy summer morning in Leetsdale, just northwest of Downtown. At Marroni’s Lounge, the roadside marquee hints at the national mood: “BEER IS NOW CHEAPER THAN GAS,” it says. “DRINK DON’T DRIVE.”

Across the street, the secretary of energy stands in a reopened steel facility, telling a crowd of business leaders, steelworkers and local politicians exactly what’s at stake. The plant that once built landing craft for World War II has been conscripted once again, says Granholm — this time, for “the war of our lifetimes, which is the war against climate change and the war to be energy independent and secure.”

Granholm and other leaders hope to find arms for that war in Pittsburgh, where a burgeoning clean-technology sector promises to slash emissions and help wean the world off fossil fuels. The former Bethlehem Steel plant in Leetsdale now builds parts for “trackers,” which help solar panels rotate to follow the sun. Behind the facility, locks and dams on the Ohio River will soon be retrofitted to produce hydroelectric power. WindStax Energy, a manufacturer based in Plum, builds the largest vertical wind turbines in the country, while Carnegie Mellon’s Scott Institute for Energy Innovation supports dozens of breakthrough startups.

Companies like these are “boots on the ground, trying to contribute to the clean energy mix,” says Kwaku Jyamfi, CEO of Farm to Flame Energy. The Duquesne-based startup builds carbon-neutral generators powered by cheap, renewable energy: “Basically, we burn biomass waste,” Jyamfi explains. Using a smokeless combustion process that Jyamfi and his co-founder, Will McKnight, refined as graduate students at Carnegie Mellon, Farm to Flame’s generators power homes and even commercial buildings with sawdust, cornstalks and the otherwise-useless byproducts of landscaping and agriculture.

Such mashups of entrepreneurship, innovation and manufacturing prowess make Pittsburgh the perfect place for the Global Clean Energy Action Forum, organizers say. A joint convening of the Clean Energy Ministerial and Mission Innovation — two international efforts to adopt clean energy policies and accelerate the production of clean power — the forum’s plenary talks, technology showcases and side events aim to equip attendees with tools for combatting the climate crisis. Hosting the forum where so many of those tools are being built and developed “feels like a match made in heaven,” says Dan Dorner, head of the Paris-based Clean Energy Ministerial.

Joylette Sep22

JOYLETTE PORTLOCK
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF SUSTAINABLE PITTSBURGH | PHOTO BY TYLER SING

The event comes at a crucial moment for the region’s clean-energy sector. “Now is when we make the choices that create what our possible futures are,” says Joylette Portlock, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh. “It doesn’t have to be an either-or between good health and economic prosperity. Innovation and increased opportunity can co-exist, including for those who’ve been traditionally left out or left behind, if we’re doing this right.”

Companies such as Farm to Flame could be proof. The startup plans to double its workforce in Allegheny County over the next year, hiring employees from opportunity zones and providing quality jobs, says Jyamfi. Eventually, the company aims to build biofuel processing hubs all around the world, tapping what Granholm calls “a $23 trillion global opportunity” in clean-energy transitions.

“As much as we’ve done with artificial intelligence and robotics, life sciences and clean technology have the potential to exceed it in the next 10 years,” says former Mayor Bill Peduto, whose climate advocacy earned a shout-out from Granholm when she announced the forum last year.

What’s needed now, he adds, “is the commitment from the corporate community and the [economic] development community to invest heavily in clean technology — and to not let the fracking industry overstep or overshadow it.”

Eic Turbine5

WINDSTAX ENERGY, A MANUFACTURER BASED IN THE PLUM INDUSTRIAL PARK, BUILDS THE LARGEST VERTICAL WIND TURBINES IN THE COUNTRY.

Clean Energy Future, Petrochemical Past

When forum attendees arrive in the region, many will land at Pittsburgh International, the world’s first airport electrified by a hybrid microgrid: an on-site sea of solar panels and five natural gas-fueled generators. Touted as a more efficient, sustainable source of energy, the microgrid is also something else: a fitting welcome to a region with one foot in a clean-energy future and another in a petrochemical past.

Nascent clean-tech startups aside, the story of energy in Pittsburgh has long been one of extraction, from coal to the natural gas that, for more than a decade, has been drawn from the ground by means of hydraulic fracturing. In some ways, fracking has been a boon: Between 2005 and 2016, Pennsylvania ranked second in the nation when it came to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, an achievement largely made possible by generating electricity from natural gas instead of coal, notes a report by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Fracking has also brought jobs to the region, while revenue from gas leases has helped keep farmers, cash-strapped municipalities, and even the airport afloat. Though it’s been banned within city limits since 2010, “No city has benefited more from [fracking] than the city of Pittsburgh,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald during a 2019 KDKA radio interview. “No region has benefited more. Not just our county — the entire region.”

But as visitors travel from the airport to the city, they’ll see signs that those benefits have peaked. Recent spikes notwithstanding, falling natural gas prices have led more than a dozen producers to file for bankruptcy. Several oil and gas companies have left the region entirely, selling assets at a massive loss and taking with them the promise of bustling regional headquarters in Coraopolis, Robinson and beyond.

“Projections by the American Petroleum Institute said the natural gas boom would create 450,000 new jobs between Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia,” says Sean O’Leary, senior researcher for the nonpartisan Ohio River Valley Institute. “It didn’t.” The real number, he says, was closer to 5,000.

Meanwhile, thousands of studies have found fracking to be harmful to human health and a major contributor to air pollution — this in a region where air quality consistently ranks among the worst in the nation. A 2019 study by scientists from Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere found that between 2004 and 2016, fracking-related pollution cost the area $23 billion and had been linked to as many as 4,600 premature deaths. That pollution also contributes to climate change: the same study put the cost of fracking’s climate impact at $34 billion.

That’s why, as world leaders arrive at the convention center, it’s likely that “fracking” will be low on their list of frequently heard words. In its place, some environmentalists worry, they’ll hear something cleaner, greener and more suggestive of chemical elegance: Hydrogen.

Jyamfi Kwaku10

KWAKU JYAMFI, CEO OF FARM TO FLAME ENERGY, STANDS IN HIS COMPANY’S PRODUCTION FACILITY IN DUQUESNE WHERE SAWDUST AND OTHER BIOWASTE ARE PULVERIZED FINER THAN FLOUR TO BECOME FUEL. “WE BURN IT SMOKELESS, ODORLESS TO GENERATE ELECTRICITY AT HALF THE COST OF DIESEL AND CARBON-NEUTRAL.” HE SAYS.

Hopes for Hydrogen

The most abundant element in the universe has long been eyed as a potential replacement for fossil fuels. When combusted, hydrogen emits water rather than carbon dioxide — a clean-energy miracle. But despite its abundance, the element doesn’t exist on its own. It has to be extracted, and so far, extraction has proven dirty, expensive and inefficient.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed last year aims to change that, authorizing — among other climate projects — the construction of four “clean hydrogen” hubs in regions across the country.

Though the sites have yet to be chosen, Pittsburgh is widely considered a candidate. The region checks several essential boxes: At least two of the hubs need proximity to natural gas deposits (check). At least one requires nearby fossil fuel companies (check). That hub will be charged with creating “blue hydrogen,” a fuel produced mainly by natural gas. And because that process emits carbon dioxide, making hydrogen “blue” requires capturing and storing those emissions — ideally, in deep, underground rock layers (check).

In theory, blue hydrogen could position Pittsburgh’s fossil fuel companies as producers of clean energy. Politicians from both parties have championed the idea in Pittsburgh, as have C-suite executives from Shell Polymers, EQT and other corporations.

But environmentalists aren’t so sure. The carbon capture technology needed to produce blue hydrogen, they say, is nowhere near ready for prime time. (Worldwide, just a handful of blue hydrogen plants are up and running successfully.) Meanwhile, a landmark study published last year found that blue hydrogen may be worse for the climate than coal or natural gas, due largely to the methane its production releases. Even in a best-case scenario, “We see no way that blue hydrogen can be considered ‘green,’” the authors wrote.

Asked about a potential blue hydrogen hub during a June roundtable with local leaders, Secretary Granholm was noncommittal. But the topic will almost certainly surface at the Global Clean Energy Action Forum, environmentalists say. Staking the region’s future on a concept that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, they argue, would only perpetuate the region’s fossil fuel industry — and slow the development of proven, lower-cost renewables such as solar and wind just when they’re needed most.

Cramer Jenna4

JENNA CRAMER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE GREEN BUILDING ALLIANCE, STANDS OUTSIDE HER OFFICES AT THE HIGHLINE ON THE SOUTH SIDE. THE ALLIANCE ADMINISTERS A NETWORK OF PITTSBURGH BUILDINGS WORKING TO REDUCE CARBON EMISSIONS TO EVENTUALLY BE CARBON NEUTRAL.

Building the Next Chapter 

It was raining again in Dormont, and Jason Beery had a problem.

The gutters on his home had been re-lined so many times, he discovered, that they were no longer deep enough to carry water. A leaky window let rain into the house, part of which lacked insulation. And then it happened again. And again. “It seemed like every two weeks, we were having a one-in-50-year rain event,” he recalls.

To Beery, the director of applied research at Pittsburgh’s UrbanKind Institute, the gutters hint at a deeper issue. “This is just one house in Dormont,” he says. “It’s a 110-year-old house, similar to a lot of other houses in the area. We were lucky enough to both afford the house and afford new gutters, but think about all the other houses and properties in Allegheny County. Think about how much work they already need in terms of weatherization and energy efficiency and problems with water in basements and mold.”

He pauses. “We are entirely unprepared for climate change. Entirely, entirely unprepared.”

Nearly every expert interviewed for this story agreed, pointing to the importance of investing in Pittsburgh’s infrastructure and making its buildings more energy efficient and healthy. Doing so, they say, could curb emissions, put Pittsburghers to work and protect them, to some degree, from the effects of a changing climate.

In some ways, Pittsburgh is already a leader in the field. “The amount of times you’d hear Pittsburgh referenced [at last year’s conference in Glasgow], you’d almost think it was a small country,” says Jenna Cramer, executive director of the Green Building Alliance. Founded in 1993, the nonprofit administers the Pittsburgh 2030 District, a network of buildings working to halve carbon emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality a decade after that. Comprising 86 million square feet across the city, it’s the largest such district in North America, and the Alliance advises similar efforts in cities around the world.

When it comes to green buildings, says Cramer, Pittsburgh is like “a very large science museum … you name it, and there’s an example here.”

Indeed, there’s the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory, a “living building” among the greenest in the world. There’s Lucy de Barbaro’s passive house, a Squirrel Hill home so energy efficient that her electric bills are negative. (She can charge a Tesla for free.) And there’s the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where tenants develop better batteries, more efficient electric grids and other clean technologies. “Every square foot is a learning resource,” says Don Evans, president and CEO of Pittsburgh Gateways, the building’s owner and operator. The building’s staff give upwards of 500 tours a year, and they’re eager — with Pittsburgh’s other green buildings — to welcome attendees of the Global Clean Energy Action Forum.

Still, for every cutting-edge building, the region also offers leaky, aging counter examples, say Cramer and others. Jeaneen Zappa, executive director of the Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance, recalls one study of Pittsburgh’s middle-income homes. The efficiency numbers were so bad that researchers at first thought something was wrong with the software algorithm. But the software worked just fine — it turned out that even the study’s well-maintained homes were twice as leaky as the national average.

It’s one more reason why climate change will affect different Pittsburghers in different ways, says Beery. A leaky window is one thing for a homeowner, “but for renters, it’s another. How many landlords are going to invest in their properties to keep them healthy?”

That’s why climate issues have to be looked at holistically, he says: They affect everything from housing to public health to the problems that poor Pittsburghers and Black Pittsburghers disproportionately experience already, including higher rates of cancer and asthma.

Eic Solar4


AT THE ENERGY INNOVATION CENTER IN PITTSBURGH’S HILL DISTRICT, TENANTS DEVELOP BETTER BATTERIES, MORE EFFICIENT ELECTRIC GRIDS AND OTHER CLEAN TECHNOLOGIES. “EVERY SQUARE FOOT IS A LEARNING RESOURCE,” SAYS DON EVANS, PRESIDENT AND CEO OF PITTSBURGH GATEWAYS, THE BUILDING’S OWNER AND OPERATOR.

Jamil Bey, UrbanKind’s president and CEO, explains it like this. “Let’s say you, as a parent, are worried about your daughter’s asthma flaring up much more frequently than it used to,” he says. It’s a problem intensified by warmer, wetter weather and Pittsburgh’s century-old stormwater infrastructure. “We need to invest in that, because the water in your basement is creating more mold spores in your house and bringing in other things that are triggering her asthma. Now your daughter’s teachers are concerned that she’s missing school more frequently, and now she’s falling behind. You or your wife have to stay home to take care of her, and now your job situation is less secure.”

Federal infrastructure funds could offer a chance to make Pittsburgh safer and healthier for all, supporting upgrades to the built environment and training new workers in fields such as energy efficiency and urban forestry. But getting it right will take more than just money, says Bey, who co-chaired Mayor Ed Gainey’s transition team for infrastructure and the environment. “How do we invest in folks here who have been excluded? How do we make up for bad policies from previous decades? What would it look like for us to do that?”

Gainey’s office did not respond to requests for an interview, but environmentalists expressed confidence that the mayor, who has spoken about growing up with severe asthma, will put the Pittsburghers most affected by climate change at the heart of the city’s solutions.

Meanwhile, they hope leaders at the Global Clean Energy Action Forum will do the same. With the forum coming to Pittsburgh, “There’s potential here to build that next chapter — one that takes what we’ve been given and further develops it in sustainable ways that help everybody,” says Portlock. Across racial, economic and geographic lines, “We can do better if we involve everyone.”

It’s an optimism that even R.L. Duffus allowed himself to feel.

Despite his revulsion, “I never visit Pittsburgh without a sense of a splendid vision waiting to be realized,” the journalist wrote. He predicted that one day, power would pass from the hands of heavy industry to those of everyday Pittsburghers — the people once thought “only good enough for the sweat and dirt of the mills.”

And when that day came, wrote Duffus, Pittsburgh would reach its potential — becoming, at long last, the cleaner, kinder place that its planet needs it to be.


A joint convening of the 13th Clean Energy Ministerial and the 7th Mission Innovation ministerial, the first-ever Global Clean Energy Action Forum takes place Sept. 21-23 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Expected to draw officials from governments, businesses, and universities around the world, the forum will include plenary talks, technology demonstrations, a youth component and more. Much of the forum is free and open to the public. To register, visit gceaf.org.


Ryan Rydzewski is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh. His latest book is “When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids.”

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