Near Allegheny Center Mall there is a scary-looking building with Three Mile Island-like cooling towers and brightly painted pipes inside. What goes on inside there? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Near Allegheny Center Mall there is a scary-looking building with Three Mile Island-like cooling towers and brightly painted pipes inside. What goes on inside there?

Question submitted by: Scott Greer, Wildwood, Pa.

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"Scary-looking"?

Well, I know people who get uneasy around Chia Pets -- and by "people" I mean, well, me -- so I guess I'm in no position to judge your phobia. But brace yourself: If you are disturbed by this North Side facility, be aware that there are two others like it in Pittsburgh. Each provides what is known as "district energy": steam produced at a central location, then distributed to clients in the surrounding area.

Along with this plant, located on South Commons Street just outside Allegheny Center, there's the Downtown plant of Pittsburgh Allegheny County Thermal, whose smokestack is visible from PNC Park. The other district-energy facility is located in the ravine between the Carnegie Museum and CMU.

This last plant, a coal-fired facility, was commemorated as the "Cloud Factory" in Michael Chabon's book The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Though it lacks the literary pedigree of the Oakland plant, the North Side facility has been a source of speculation for many years as well.

Says the North Side plant's general manager, Tim Merrill, "I can't tell you how many times I've had people say to me, 'I used to walk by here on the way to Three Rivers Stadium with my father, wondering what was going on in there.'"

Merrill's employers have hung a large banner to explain the answer: "We heat and cool the North Side," it boasts. But in case that doesn't allay your fears, what goes on in there is this: Three boilers, powered by natural gas, turn water into steam for use in heating. The steam is then provided via pipeline to clients all around the North Side. These range from Allegheny General Hospital to The Andy Warhol Museum. Nor is it an accident that the pipes themselves are as brightly colored as a Warhol silkscreen.

Built in the 1960s by Equitable Gas, the structure was "designed to show off that equipment," Merrill says. "That's why the big glass windows were there." It's sobering to think that heating and cooling might have been spectator sports back in the 1960s. Then again, they were probably more entertaining to watch than Steelers games were in those days.

The North Side plant is now owned by NRG (get it? NRG? energy?) Thermal, a subsidiary of a New Jersey-based firm with power operations across the country. The paint scheme, however, remains the same. "Urban art, we call it," Merrill says.

Steam, not surprisingly, is conducted through the pipes and equipment painted bright orange-red. The facility also produces chilled water -- which sounds fancier than it is -- for use in air-conditioning. Those pipes are (take a guess) blue. Finally, there is "condensate water," which is a byproduct of the cooling process. That is channeled in green pipes to the large cooling towers outside.

I am happy to report that there is no atomic energy involved anywhere in the process. Any similarities to Three Mile Island are entirely coincidental.

The NRG plant is comparatively small, as these things go. Its network of pipes only serves the North Side, and it produces 300,000 "mpounds" of steam each year. (An mpound is 1,000 pounds -- keep that in mind next time you play Scrabble.) New York City's Consolidated Edison, by contrast, produces 30 million mpounds, Merrill says. Still, the North Side plant is large enough to have provided healing and cooling to Three Rivers Stadium. When the new stadiums were built, the Rooneys did so on their own steam, so to speak: Heinz Field runs on its own plant. (A fact that was apparently a bit painful for Merrill to talk much about, given the awkward silence that followed my question about it.) PNC Park, however, does rely on the plant; as one look at the Pirates' starting lineup in recent years might suggest, the Pirates haven't been able to generate enough heat on their own.

So if anything, you ought to be grateful for that plant. Imagine the Pirates with even less power than they have now. That, my friend, is scary.

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