Pittsburgh Paves the Way for a Zero-Energy City

This blog was originally posted by Rocky Mountain Institute on October 15, 2019 and written by Matt Jungclaus and Laurie Stone.

Today, the City of Pittsburgh passed an important ordinance to help it reach its climate goals. All new and existing city facilities must be built or retrofit to net-zero energy (NZE) ready—an advanced level of building performance in which a building is designed to achieve net zero energy levels of efficiency (will produce as much energy as it consumes), and is prepared to have renewable energy installed on-site. This legislation helps the city lead by example, paving the way for more policy to help the private market move toward a low-carbon future. This is crucial to help the city meets its ambitious climate goals.

Legacy Project to Policy Action

In April 2018, Pittsburgh hosted the Getting to Zero Forum, a solutions-focused event dedicated to zero-energy and zero-carbon buildings, sponsored by the New Buildings Institute (NBI) and Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). As part of the forum, RMI and NBI worked on a legacy project analyzing the feasibility of achieving net-zero energy in Pittsburgh’s municipal buildings.

This work led RMI to take a deeper look at the city’s facilities, procurement methods, and policies that could further enable net-zero energy in the short-term through a generous grant from the Heinz Endowments. RMI’s work included a design charrette for several of the city’s buildings that are likely to be upgraded to achieve net-zero energy ready in the coming years, as well as a budgeting and procurement meeting focused on giving the city the financial tools that it needs to achieve its goals. While these efforts are moving forward, RMI and the City realized that policy was really what was needed to cause faster action.

The Importance of Net-Zero Energy Ready Buildings to Meet Climate Targets

RMI and the City of Pittsburgh determined that a net-zero energy ready policy for its municipal buildings was necessary for the city to state its clean energy intentions, achieve its goals, and uphold its commitment to the Paris Climate Accord. An NZE-ready standard (as opposed to an NZE standard) focuses on building energy performance—going beyond the city’s old standard of LEED Silver—while allowing buildings that do not have space for large on-site renewable energy systems to contribute to the city’s energy use reduction targets. These buildings would then be supplemented by local, off-site renewable energy that is additive to the grid (rather than offsets from far-flung renewable energy installations). An NZE-ready approach not only decreases carbon emissions, but also makes buildings healthier, more productive spaces, that save building operational costs, ultimately driving lower taxpayer costs.

Pittsburgh, like many cities across the United States, is committed to the Paris Climate Accord. Under the city’s Climate Action Plan 3.0, approved in May 2018, the city aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from a 2003 baseline by 80 percent by 2050. The City is committed to reducing overall energy consumption from its municipal buildings 50 percent by 2030; thus this new ordinance is the key to achieving the City’s 2030 goals. Pittsburgh is also part of the American Cities Climate Challenge, a group of 25 ambitious cities that are significantly deepening and accelerating their efforts to tackle climate change and promote a sustainable future for their residents. RMI is helping these cities by providing tools, resources and technical assistance through the Renewables Accelerator.

By taking action toward making its own buildings more efficient, the City can eventually tackle the energy consumption of privately owned buildings. “Pittsburgh is taking real steps to meet its energy goals, and moving to net-zero construction will be one of the most meaningful and impactful actions we’ve ever taken. It is not only the right move for the planet but for the city’s budget too,” Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto said in a recent press release.

Turning Policy Into Action

RMI is working with Pittsburgh to move its plans for efficient buildings into action by providing language to improve the city’s requests for proposals (RFPs) to include energy efficiency. Now all of the city’s RFPs include language on net zero energy. We are also helping the city retrofit buildings through a zero-over-time approach. Zero over time focuses on cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy by prioritizing projects that pay back quickly in the short term, while aligning larger energy efficiency projects with major building life-cycle events, like equipment upgrades.

Game-Changing Legislation

Pittsburgh’s new NZE policy has far-reaching impacts. For one, it shows other cities that the new gold standard in efficient buildings is net zero energy. And that it’s not only California and New York that are pushing the envelope, but that more cities around the country can adopt these policies. While this is a visionary and leading-edge city policy, it’s not the only thing the City will be doing to make buildings more efficient, it also opens the door for the city to unlock more opportunities to decarbonize privately owned buildings, as the city can’t push the private market until it leads by example. Pittsburgh is taking the first of many steps to reaffirm its commitment to the Paris Agreement, serve as a shining example for other cities, and move toward a low-carbon future.