Ray of light: Pittsburgh named a Solar America City

In recognition of the city’s commitment to adopting solar energy at the local level, Pittsburgh has been named a Solar America City by the United States Department of Energy (DOE).

According to the DOE’s State Energy Program, the Solar America program’s mission is to “accelerate solar adoption in electricity load centers by supporting innovative efforts with financial and technical assistance.”

A Carnegie Mellon press release stated that Pittsburgh’s proposal to build a sustainable infrastructure arose from the collaboration of Carnegie Mellon, the Green Building Alliance (GBA), Duquesne Light, and city officials.

Stephen Lee, one of the members on the committee representing Pittsburgh and a professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon, was contacted two years ago to help write the city’s Solar America proposal.

“It is great that Pittsburgh, which had the reputation of being a smoky city, is one of the 13 cities that got the Solar America award. It is an amazing marketing success for Pittsburgh,” Lee said. “It will build momentum to continue the transformation of Pittsburgh from a smoky city to a green city and to generate a nucleus of people in the city who are willing to work on solar projects. I think it is a great idea.”

As a recipient of the award, Pittsburgh is expected to evolve a more comprehensive and city wide approach to solar technology that facilitates mainstream adoption of solar energy through a variety of approaches.

Eamon Geary, a Solar America City Task Force representative, said that the award “will help Pittsburgh create a plan to incorporate solar technology into the city’s infrastructure.”

According to Lee, the DOE would probably not give the award to a city that has no research institution and no infrastructure.
“They felt that here there is a great confluence of research universities, technical expertise, companies that build solar products, companies that make green products, and so on,” Lee said.

Geary said that Pittsburgh was chosen to become one of the Solar America Cities because it can help serve as a model for other cities on account of its size, electricity demand, geography, population, and commitment.

Each winning city is eligible for a maximum of $200,000 from the DOE. The cities are also provided with technical assistance that will amount to $2 million in 2007 and $600,000 in 2008.

According to Lee, the award is “seed money” that could lead to a greater plan for Pittsburgh.

Regarding the funds, Lee said, “You can use the $200,000 of cash for capital purposes — you cannot buy solar panels with it, you cannot buy a building — but you can plan a building, you can hire a Solar America coordinator to be a staff person, call meetings, hire consultants, and do planning. It is a completely different scenario from what I had imagined.

“Success of any of the programs is like a seed — you plant a seed and it grows into a tree. This is seed money to get a group of people together to plan and chart what their future can be.”

According to the DOE’s website, technical assistance is provided by the DOE, its national laboratories, and experts in areas such as city planning, technology selection, project financing, building codes, architecture, and community outreach communications.

“This is an award not to a research institution where you will fund a professor and a team of Ph.D. students to create something new. It is very difficult to use federal funds to buy hardware, buy photovoltaic panels, and construct buildings,” Lee said.

He added, “This is an award to a city to provide soft support.”

“We are getting a decent amount of help from the Carnegie Mellon University. We have a couple of representatives from the student body. It is nice to see so many students involved,” Geary said.

As an initial step to adopting solar energy, Lee suggested that the city obtain energy from solar panels on the roofs of parking garages. He also suggested the city charge car-sharing program vehicles with solar cells, making them free to use.

The utilization of the resources available remains an issue of local concern. Consequently, the city has created a task force, or steering committee, that is in charge of these funds. The committee consists of people who were involved in putting together the original proposal. Geary said that it meets once a month and is a fairly connected task force. Members work for eight to 10 hours a month to make it possible for Pittsburgh to really take advantage of the award.

Lee said, “[The award] is money to bring together a group of people — academic [experts], government officials, private citizens, nonprofit organizations — to the table to ask: ‘We represent the city of Pittsburgh; What can we do to make Pittsburgh the solar city?’ ”