Department of Energy Head Touts Gas, Efficiency in Pittsburgh

  • Sec. Moniz quizzes Nana Wilberforce, PNC's Energy Director, about the building's efficiency features. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

  • U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz (yellow hat) gets a tour of the Tower at PNC Plaza. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

July 25, 2014

Ernest Moniz stepped onto a crowded construction elevator on a hot day in Downtown Pittsburgh this week, hoping to get a peak at the future of energy.

Moniz, the Department of Energy Secretary, was touring the Tower at PNC Plaza, a LEED Platinum office building PNC bank is building that will incorporate a sophisticated ventialtion system and plenty of natural light to drastically reduce energy needs.

“This facility—I think it’s part of seeing the future,” said Moniz.

On the 33rd floor, Moniz quizzed PNC Bank's energy manager, Nana Wilberforce, about the tower’s use of a “double skin” and “solar chimney” systems that will cut energy use by 40 percent at the building. 

Moniz, an MIT physicist, said buildings account for 40 percent of overall energy use and 70 percent of electricity in the U.S. As President Obama’s point man on energy, Moniz said the project embodied what the country needs to do more of in the future.

“What we can do on the (elecricity) demand side, to reduce energy requirements—is one of the biggest tools we’ve got to combat climate change, to combat pollution but also to save some money,” Moniz said.

Moniz was in Pittsburgh as part of his department’s Quadrennial Energy Review. It’s part of the President’s Climate Action Plan. The review will guide the energy department’s policies as it tries to not only curb climate-damaging emissions, but also provide the country with a steady supply of energy.

Pittsburgh was the choice for Moniz to attend in person because of its prominence as a natural gas hub.

Thanks to drilling in the Marcellus shale, gas production has surged in the region, leading to its increasing use in electricity generation. Moniz said that’s a good thing for climate change.

“We’ve always talked about gas as being very important in the transition from where we are today to a very low carbon economy of the future. Over the last six or seven years gas has played a role in reducing our CO2 emissions through market forces.”

That’s because gas has taken the place of coal, which produces higher amounts of carbon dioxide. But natural gas, when it leaks, is a powerful greenhouse gas. So Moniz said reining in those leaks is key. The EPA currently estimates that about 1.5 percent of natural gas leaks out before it gets to an end user.

“The Holy Grail would be 1 percent of methane emissions from end to end,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Moniz had appeared on a panel at Carnegie Mellon University, where he spoke on the nation’s shortcomings in the storage of natural gas, which led to price spikes during last winter’s Polar Vortex.

Moniz will be holding other visits around the country this year. His next stop will be in another drilling hotzone. In August he’ll travel to Bismarck, North Dakota.