What's working in the energy-conserving Pittsburgh 2030 District? | Green Light | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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What's working in the energy-conserving Pittsburgh 2030 District?

"Most building owners don't know how their buildings are performing."

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The Pittsburgh 2030 District is among the city's more ambitious green initiatives. This Green Building Alliance project has a quantifiable goal: getting participating buildings to reduce their energy and water usage by 50 percent by 2030. As importantly, the goal actually acknowledges the scope of larger environmental challenges. Scientists say that preventing the worst effects of climate change, for instance, requires cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Unlike the many less-rigorous green initiatives, the 2030 District's conservation goals, if achieved, would actually put at least some of us on track to do that.

Recently, Pittsburgh's District — one of 10 in North America — announced that it was indeed on track: Through 2014, energy use in 436 participating buildings Downtown and in Oakland was 6.3 percent below national baseline numbers for similar buildings. That bodes well for meeting the interim goal of 10 percent by 2015, said District Director Anna Siefken. And water usage is already down 10 percent from the District's locally compiled baseline.

What's working? Siefken says the three-year-old District combines appeals to pragmatism with awareness-building and peer networking. Buildings account for 40 percent of U.S. energy use. But while some of the 85 participating building owners (who include some of the city's largest landlords) are motivated by environmental concerns, she says, the District makes its case solely on the bottom line: conserving energy and water saves money. However, she says, "Most building owners don't know how their buildings are performing": They assume utility costs are fixed. So simply informing them about new techniques, technologies and resources to phase in over time (as old boilers wear out, say) helps a lot. And the District holds monthly meetings where building owners share their challenges and success stories with one another.

One such story: The Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center recently replaced its kitchen ventilation system — which previously ran full-blast 24/7 — with one that automatically runs only as needed. The electricity savings is projected to be $15,000 a year, says hotel general manger Coleman Hughes. He adds, "If you do a lot of little things right, you can see the efficiencies begin to pay off."

Another participating structure making incremental changes is Downtown's City-County Building. City of Pittsburgh Sustainability Manager Grant Ervin says the CCB has been doing things like improving its HVAC system, upgrading its lights to LEDs and replacing employees' energy-sucking individual hard-drives with a virtual network. The building, which the city co-owns with Allegheny County, also now has sensor-equipped "smart-jacket" insulators on its basement steam-valve traps, which county sustainability manager Cathy Hrabovsky says is expected to save $106,000 a year. And the county has a green-behavior program that urges employees to turn off unneeded lights, use communal rather than personal printers and adopt other energy-saving habits.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its age, the City-County Building is among the highest-performing large buildings in the 2030 District, with energy use 47 percent below the national baseline for office buildings. But environmentally, there's an asterisk. When the CCB joined the 2030 District, its energy usage was already well below average. That's largely, says Ervin, because the building's thick stone walls retain heat well, and its wealth of working windows provide ventilation and natural light. (Many newer buildings suck energy because they are poorly insulated and their windows don't open; as Ervin says, "design matters.")

Climate change, however, doesn't know from baselines. It cares how fast we're reducing our energy use. By that standard, the CCB still did quite well, cutting usage 7.7 percent from 2013.

Can the CCB — and other 2030 District structures — keep improving? The example of Conservation Consultants, Inc. says yes. CCI's South Side office building recently came in second (out of 5,500 commercial buildings) in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Battle of the Buildings competition. CCI cut its energy use by a mind-boggling 61 percent from 2013.

Granted, this energy-auditing nonprofit's building was renovated with conservation in mind. But not recently. That means that most of that 61 percent happened because occupants behaved differently, keeping the A/C off, the thermostat down, the lights doused when daylight would do. Says building manager Indigo Raffel, "People are really surprised at the little bit of energy we use."

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