Monday, July 20, 2009

City's Green Stimulus Endeavor On Track *

Lindsay Baxter works in one of the coolest, sunniest and most comfortable portions of the City-County Building -- sixth floor, south side. She says that's not the result of her effort as the city's Sustainability Coordinator -- just luck.

The Mayor's 311 center will soon be moving in down the hall, possibly to take advantage of the proximity to Public Works. It'll come in somewhat handy for Baxter as well, since she says she receives a fair number of 311 references from residents inquiring how best to shrink their utility bills, and whether and how to put solar panels on their homes.

Apparently, some people really live like this. Where one might Google, others just call 311 for random things.


My questions for the city's Sustainability Coordinator had more to do with the quest for federal stimulus dollars to green-up the City-County Building. She said that the formal plan for using a $3.4 million Energy Efficiency & Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) was submitted to the federal Department of Energy toward the end of June -- a week before the deadline of June 25. Then the feds pushed the deadline back another month and a half.

The next steps the City could take on its own were to complete the RFP for an energy audit on the building. A week ago that was "pretty much done". Finally, the Budget Office would have to prepare an account to receive the stimulus funds.

Since last week those steps have been competed. All we're waiting on is President Obama, and the RFP can be zoom out. Baxter expects a couple month turnaround on receiving and selecting an audit proposal, and then another 1-3 months to perform it.

Of the $3.4 million, only an approximate $150,000 is expected to be spent on the audit, leaving the rest for the actual heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) retrofits recommended therein. State grants and private grants are are already being sought to make up the difference -- it's potentially a big project. Baxter conceded that the "plan" submitted to the government basically consisted of 1) perform audit and 2) do what it says, but there was a lot in there about how much could be saved, in terms of dollars and energy, on the different kinds of improvements possible on the massive dinosaur/frankenstein structure.

"We want people to know it's not just for saving energy", Baxter added of the green-up. "We want to make it a better building" for the people who work there. In response to a little grumbling that the initiative seems symbolic more than anything, Baxter pointed out that it's the city's largest building, the oldest, and the one to which citizens have the most access.

The types of improvements contemplated sounded decidedly not cutting-edge: double-pane efficient windows, light sensors, newer insulation and heating pipes, and putting the entire building on a unified heating and cooling system. There was nothing mentioned about about biomass, solar power, or switchgrass -- nothing as stimulating as what goes on at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for example.

"The idea is to nail down the basic stuff", explained Baxter. "Then we can build off that."

There are other projects afoot. The City-County Building will utilize a non-competitive block grant, so Baxter can say the City "almost definitely" has the money and so can discuss it a lot with the press. Other more competitive grants are out there and projects are being pursued, but Baxter was careful to stress that none of these are done deals.

The state has a certain number of "Penvest" grants, a state authority for drinking water and waste water available for green infrastructure projects. The City is looking into throwing a green roof atop the City-County Building as well, much Highmark announced for its skyscraper, and Dan Onorato announced recently for the County Office Building.

I was never really certain what a green roof was -- was it grass mowed flat like a golf course, or a whole exotic jungle utopia? Baxter said plants are "strategically chosen" to capture storm water -- in addition to saving energy in the building underneath, a green roof can double the lifespan of said roof. One other neat thing about doing so on the City-County Building would be the number of other buildings Downtown buildings which could overlook it and learn what the concept is all about.

The Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority (PEDA) is offering funds which may be applied to a local geothermal pump. The City applied for this one in May, and is still waiting to hear back. It could cause an identified police station to save as much as 50% on energy costs.

Then there are the solar panels, to be purchased by the City and the installation of which is being sought through PA Conservation Works DOE Solar America Cities. Although photovoltaic panels, of the kind that produce raw energy and power speakers, are "exceptionally expensive", solarthermal panels of the type that are used in solar hot water heaters have a quicker payback period. There's a firehouse in line for this one. *-UPDATE: Bids being accepted.

There seem to be even more competitive projects that the City doesn't feel it can quite throw down and get people jazzed up about, but Baxter says, "I just hope people realize we're going after as much of the stimulus money as we can".

Finally, I had to ask whether or not Mayor Ravenstahl's windmills are coming along.

"Yes, definitely!" said Baxter. "We're definitely interested in urban wind."

The type of wind turbines being pursued are not the giant, three-spoke windmills that are utilized in full-blown power plants, but smaller helical turbines (pictured) of the type used for distributive energy. London is one city that is on the leading edge of the curve on these.

"I just reached out to Planning this morning, in fact", volunteered Baxter, "to ask what types of permits would be needed for something like that."

There was no question that there would be challenges -- coordinating with Duquesne Light might be even trickier than zoning and permitting -- not to mention discovering whether and where these turbines would work best. But that's why there is a feasibility study for urban wind on the Sustainability Coordinator's long-term agenda.

"I think [the Mayor's] interested in anything that's new and innovative he can try."


  1. There's a green roof on CMU's Hamerschlag Hall which is very easily accessible (as in you don't even have to go inside the building to get to it). I recommend checking it out to see the kind of plants that a green roof typically has.

  2. I tell people I put in a green roof as a cover for having not cleaned my gutters in so long that there are plants in there.