Photo Illustration by Sam Woolley/GMG, photos via Shutterstock

PITTSBURGH—Transitioning to clean energy, particularly in a city built on steel and surrounded by defunct coal mines, is always politically tricky. But Pittsburgh is trying to create its own equitable, bipartisan approach to what’s traditionally been a far-left ideal: decarbonization and emissions reductions.

Pittsburgh’s mayor, Bill Peduto, pledged all city-owned buildings will be 100% renewable by 2030. But, as Pittsburgh researchers are learning, the transition means facing many hard truths that don’t gel with what we think we know about environmentalism: solar power can actually have regressive impacts on low income communities, natural gas usage may actually be key in decarbonizing, and even the most advanced battery storage tech can’t supplant the city’s dumb luck of not being particularly windy or sunny. It’s not easy pushing clean energy in a red state. Nor is it impossible.

The steel worker’s solar policy

In 2016, the University of Pittsburgh launched the Energy GRID (Grid Research and Infrastructure Development) Institute, a research and development initiative showcasing breakthroughs in sustainability and resilience technologies to business owners and utilities. Gizmodo spoke to GRID’s director, Dr. Gregory Reed, and his colleagues about the difficulties they’ve had to face as they push for equitable renewable energy policy. Smaller towns throughout the city, originally built to house steel workers, have seen their population drop by as much as a third in recent decades.

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“They always say this when they draw the political maps. They say you’ve got Philadelphia, you’ve got Pittsburgh, and Alabama in between,” Dr. Reed, told Gizmodo. “It’s very true. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains. Most of Pennsylvania is like that.”

While climate change is now the core issue that defines the environmental left and divides it from Trump’s radical anti-regulation right, it was scantly mentioned at all on the 2016 campaign trail. Instead, the environmental conversation during the election centered around relief for out of work miners and steelworkers in places like Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It’s no secret why Trump handily won the Rust Belt and Coal Country, but lost Pittsburgh and Philadelphia: he promised to bring back manufacturing jobs. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile supported retraining miners to renewable energy jobs. It didn’t fly.

There’s clear opportunity for clean energy to economically transform the entire state, red and blue towns alike. Clean energy is the biggest jobs creator in Pennsylvania. 66,000 jobs comes from the industry, according to a 2016 report from BW Research, mostly in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and mostly from updating buildings for energy efficiency. Bridging the ideological gaps, often running along class and political lines, means openly addressing the way environmentalism, as its been practiced in this country, fails those people living in the “Alabama” of their state. Reed offered one startling example: solar panels.

Where the sun shines

Solar panels dot rooftops and community centers throughout the city, but remain out of reach for many residents: in many cases, only homeowners can install solar panels, not renters. Mayor Peduto’s commitment to clean energy may abet solar’s popularity among the middle class, but as Dr. Reed explained, this can have a regressive impact on low-income communities.

“Who’s been able to afford [solar panels], even with the incentives, is a higher income sector,” Reed said. “So when there’s less participants in [utility] demand, those who are left end up having to pay more.” This essentially leaves our folks in poor, rural parts of the state. In Pittsburgh, half of low-income households spend twice as much of their income on energy bills as higher earning households. Solar energy isn’t necessarily an escape for them.

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The cost of maintaining the grid for utilities is stable, but the number of customers is variable. As they leave for solar, companies may squeeze those who can’t afford to leave the grid harder. As Katrina Kelly, strategy manager for GRID explains, the misconceptions around solar panels are numerous.

“You can’t put a million gadgets on a building and expect it to become more efficient,” she explains. “You have to change how you’re using energy overall. It has to go beyond energy efficiency—you need to create new technologies, you need to invest in things that are gonna be able to really make a dramatic change.”

Solar panel installation may bring cities closer to their CO2 reduction goals, but they’re not a decarbonization panacea and economically speaking, they’re subsidized in ways that promote inequality. 37,000 homes in Pennsylvania have solar panels installed, but that’s restricted largely to homeowners and people who can pass credit checks for loans. No one said the transition will be easy, but if the new energy portfolio continues to push higher energy burdens on the poor over the rich, then really what transitioned?

Renewable energy has many success stories throughout the US, including Trump country, from California and Hawaii to Texas and North Dakota. Clean energy is a robust enough economic engine to flourish even in red states that traditionally oppose environmental regulation, but that’s largely because the geographic availability of power sources draws the eye of power companies and tax subsidies, which may or may not exist based on the political climate, attract homeowners.

“It’s not that we don’t want to do what everyone else has done. It’s that we literally, physically can’t. We have 301 days of rain in Pittsburgh a year,” Kelly tells me. “It’s not going to be a solar capital. We need battery storage to get up to a higher scale if we want to be 100% renewable.”

Battery power

Battery storage is essential. Grids reliant on renewable energy still need power from solar panels at night and from wind turbines when it’s not windy. With storage, grids could feasibly store the energy from when renewable energy sources are productive, then use them when they aren’t.

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“We don’t have affordable storage solutions,” Dr. Reed says. “And those are not that close on the horizon. They are much further out than even battery technologists will tell you.”

As an alternative, a June report in Harvard Business Review lauds the cities’ four microgrids circling the downtown area. Microgrids are a small collection of buildings (or a single facility) that can disconnect from the central grid and, at least short term, power themselves, and, the city hopes, eventually transfer power between each other. Powering a small collection of buildings (Pittsburgh’s microgrids are centered around the city’s universities and hospitals with about 30 buildings in each grid) is more feasible than a city of 300,000 at once. In a presentation this spring, GRID called this proposed energy transference infrastructure a “grid of microgrids.” Pittsburgh currently has plans for three more, powered by everything from steam to sunlight.

“I don’t think 2035 is too far out at all to see some of these things through,” Reed said.

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Microgrids may operate on a smaller scale than what some people imagine for a city-wide transition, but they support renewables, decentralize the grid and are an independent back-up in case of an emergency.

Microgrids offer a chance to be proactive as battery technology evolves. Elon Musk’s Solar City is making strides in utility-scale renewable storage, while the Department of Energy calculates the industry’s progress in making utility-scale storage a financial reality. 

In the meantime, Dr. Reed has a surprising solution—gas.

The 100% perfect world

“The way we look at this is natural gas is actually enabling renewable development,” Dr. Reed explains. “Because it provides that baseload to give you the right mix of being stable and distributable and economic as you add more renewables to the system.”

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Reed’s reasoning here corresponds to the dominant (though certainly not uncontested) school of thought on renewables. Throughout the US, most power plants operate with a “baseload” dynamic—the majority of the power comes from a fossil fuel burning plant that supplying the minimum amount of energy necessary to keep the lights on 24/7. Renewables operate best on a different kind of grid: peaking.

“The one thing we don’t have solutions for are intermittency and variability,” Reed says.

When clouds roll in blocking the sun for a short time (intermittency), you need a grid that can use traditional sources to pick up the slack. When the sun is shining brighter than expected with no clouds in sight, you need a grid that makes use of the extra power it’s generating or it’ll be wasted (variability). Even with storage solutions, that’s difficult. Pennsylvania is the country’s second largest natural gas producer and sees opportunity there as renewables become a larger part of the city and the state’s energy portfolio and fossil fuel diminishes.

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“When you look at what’s replaced coal in the last 5 to 10 years, natural gas has taken up a big share of that,” Reed said. “It’s a fossil fuel, but [with] much as 50 percent emissions reduction. That doesn’t get us completely to a renewable solution, but it’s part of that move in the right directions and that transition is having an impact.”

Prioritizing a carbon-based fuel as key to the transition away from fossil fuels may seem like an odious compromise. But if the long term goal is a completely clean grid, most experts agree the solution is a diverse energy grid that, over time, relies less and less on fossil fuels.

Who wins in these hybridized solutions?

We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it

The Paris Agreement was itself a series of policy compromises, with environmentalists arguing the document wasn’t stringent enough to prevent Earth from warming two degree Celsius before 2100. Still, Trump’s EPA head called the measure radical and warned of rolling blackouts and layoffs if the US began heavily regulating carbon emissions.

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All American environmental campaigns, particularly in an era of historic federal hostility, will have to make compromises in order to eke out even small progress. And for most of them, the push and pull of progress and compromise will look like Pittsburgh. Red-leaning historically, but with strong natural resources, economic opportunities, and a still hesitant private sector and workforce in need of relief faster than renewables can deliver. Pittsburgh may be able to offer guidance.

“If we can begin to help set out a plan and show other cities around the country,” Kelly begins, “‘Hey, this is at least how we’re trying to do it’ in a manner where everyone wins, then maybe we can help the parts of the country that feel maybe they’ve been left behind in those traditional discussions feel motivated to move towards a more sustainable means of development.”

This article was made with funding from Participant Media, the creator of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.”