Solar in the City: Renewable Energy in Urban Spaces

Look up in the Pittsburgh sky, and chances are, you'll see an over cast of clouds. This is not the place with a reputation for using solar energy. However, the city has been venturing into the possibility of solar. The Allegheny Front's Ashley Murray found one project in an unlikely place.

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INTRO: Look up in the Pittsburgh sky, and chances are, you'll see an over cast of clouds. This is not the place with a reputation for using solar energy. However, the city has been venturing into the possibility of solar. The Allegheny Front's Ashley Murray found one project in an unlikely place...

(NAT SOUND OF SIRENS, FIREHOUSE RADIO)

MURRAY: At Fire House Truck 34 in the Woods Run neighborhood of Pittsburgh, someone is always on duty,

(CONVERSATION BETWEEN SLOSS AND FIREMAN: SLOSS: Smells like somebody's cookin' in here. CAPT. DAVE O'LEARY: They've got their slow cooker on...)

MURRAY: That's Jim Sloss talking to Dave O'Leary, one of the captains of the fire crew. Sloss is the city's Energy and Utilities Manager.

SLOSS: So these are firemen's bunk rooms. There are four rooms, they just have a single bed in them. There are different crews, daylight crew, nighttime crew.

MURRAY: which means someone will need to take a shower, cook a meal, wash the dishes,Ö just like you would do at home.

(NAT SOUND SLOSS RUNNING THE WATER AS HE TALKS)

SLOSS: So basically our hot water is being heated through our solar thermal panels. It heats up pretty quick.

MURRAY: Fire House Truck 34 is one of two firehouses in the city that uses solar thermal systems. Sloss said that there will be four more systems by the end of summer. And a photovoltaic, or PV, installation -- which is a system that converts solar to electricity -- sits atop a building where city plumbers, carpenters, and electricians work.

So...why solar? In 2007, the Department of Energy named Pittsburgh a Solar America City and invested about 450-thousand dollars for siting, installation, and training. The state also chipped in for purchasing equipment, as did the city's Green Trust Fund. There are now 25 Solar America Cities, from other cloudy cities like Seattle and Portland to places like San Antonio and Orlando. Hanna Muller, Solar America Communities Program Director at the DOE, said the point of the project was not to choose only typical solar energy hot spots.

MULLER: We wanted that geographic diversity. But, we also wanted diversity in the maturity of the solar market. So cities like San Francisco have been working on solar initiatives for decades, where as cities like Pittsburgh were pretty much starting from scratch.

MURRAY: Muller also said that much of the goal for the Solar America Cities grant is to standardize the process of solar installation.

MULLER: A lot of things we've been doing, quite frankly, aren't very sexy. They're things like streamlining the permitting process...

MURRAY: However, Sloss said the permitting process has been smooth sailing for the city. It's more of a regional problem explains Evan Endres, project coordinator for the Pittsburgh office of Penn Future.

ENDRES: As far as solar goes in Western PA, we're a little bit behind in the state especially compared to Eastern PA, and there's a number of reasons for that.

MURRAY: Some of those reasons are access to already established solar markets in Philadelphia, Maryland, and Delaware, and better electricity rates, allowing for more attractive paybacks.

ENDRES: Where we need help from the city and county is actually with the municipalities with their zoning and ordinances. That's where they could help the situation the best because we have a situation in this region where permitting fees and unnecessary inspections are actually a hindrance to some installations.

MURRAY: Since permitting and inspections aren't the issue for the city limits, the question is whether solar will be a money saver for the city. With the Marcellus drilling industry booming, natural gas prices have dipped. But, Sloss says the installation saved the city 1200-dollars last year.

SLOSS: So, it's a pretty fair savings. We're looking at roughly less than 10 years payback for the solar cell, with the life of the solar panels at about 20 years. If the price of natural gas increases over the next couple of years, the payback time will be less.

MURRAY: As for the system supplying electricity, Sloss said the savings haven't been evaluated yet, and soon, the city will be facing what to do once the Solar America cities grant is up.

SLOSS: One idea is taking the savings from these facilities and rolling that into a trust fund and every time we hit a certain dollar amount, we do another installation.

MURRAY: As for the DOE, they're beginning a new grant that would include entire regions rather than just cities in an effort to better standardize the solar installation process.

MULLER: We're looking for large metro areas so any major city or a coalition of local governments or even a whole state could apply. We hope Pittsburgh will put together a strong team and participate in that challenge.

MURRAY: But for now, the city's fire stations will continue to use their solar energy. For the Allegheny Front, I'm Ashley Murray.