Features - April 2016

NETL Shares More History with Pittsburgh by Joining Forces to Create the Clean Energy City of the Future

As Pittsburgh celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2016, a creative new team is working on a vision for “the Clean Energy City of the Future” to transform the way Pittsburgh homes, schools, hospitals, businesses, and even the city’s famed sports arenas receive the energy that powers work, play, health, education, and comfort. Project leaders hope the effort will foster environmental, economic, and job-creation improvements in a city once known for smokestacks and grime, while positioning the city as a national and global leader for clean energy planning.


On a hot afternoon in July 2015 in a ceremony witnessed by U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) Director Grace Bochenek put their signatures to an agreement to make the city a national and global leader in strategic energy modeling and advanced energy technology development, demonstration, and deployment by establishing the Clean Energy City of the Future initiative. Pittsburgh was a natural choice for the effort because of its long heritage of and commitment to industrial innovation and environmental renaissance, and its concentration of energy research expertise.

The team assembled to execute the work is a “who’s who” of Pittsburgh ingenuity and leadership. In addition to Pittsburgh city government, the Energy Department, and NETL, the initiative’s partners include the University of Pittsburgh’s Energy Center, Duquesne Light, Peoples Gas, the Hillman Foundation, Heinz Endowments, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Under this team, a “grid of microgrids” approach, a network that adapts and connects distributed energy resources, is in development.

Distributed energy resources are smaller-scale, modular, electric, and sometimes thermal, energy-generation and storage devices, such as gas turbines, microturbines, wind turbines, PV solar, batteries, fuel cells, and geothermal. Coupling these energy resources with local consumers creates a localized grid called a microgrid that is connected to but can run independently from the larger, centralized power grid to help improve power reliability and quality, increase system efficiency, enhance environmental performance, and provide grid-independence to individual end users. Multiple microgrids can be tied together to create a “grid of microgrids” that can further increase system reliability. If successful in Pittsburgh, the grid of microgrids idea could be adopted elsewhere to improve the nation’s overall power grid—the network of transmission lines, substations, and transformers that deliver electricity from power plants to customers.

Finding new ways to generate and distribute power is critical for cities like Pittsburgh and for the nation. The current electric grid, first built in the 1890s, continues to serve the country well, but it is being stretched to its limits and confronted by climate change and other environmental and operational issues. To move forward, a new kind of power grid is needed that can handle the increasing power quality demands of 21st century consumers, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, readily adopt renewable energy resources, and provide resiliency in the face of future catastrophic events.

Pittsburgh is an ideal proving ground for pioneering the project, because it has a number of existing distributed energy resources that provide power to a range of specific concerns in separate locations. The trick is to organize them to serve as interconnected “energy districts” within Pittsburgh and then create new ones in other locations.

Pittsburgh’s five existing distributed energy systems, which represent a spine for the envisioned future grid of microgrids are the following:


Pittsburgh’s proposed energy districts. Click to enlarge.

  • Pittsburgh Allegheny County Thermal (PACT), established in 1983 to serve 59 buildings downtown including many local government buildings.
  • Duquesne University’s Cogeneration Plant, which began operations in 1997 and produces 85 percent of the electricity used on a 50-acre campus.
  • NRG Pittsburgh site, which began operations in 1999 and provides power to more than 30 buildings on the North Side.
  • Bellefield Boiler Plant, built in 1907 to serve most of Oakland’s major institutions, including Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
  • Carrillo Steam Plant in Oakland, which began operations in 2009 to serve the University of Pittsburgh and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).

The Clean Energy City of the Future concept envisions four new energy districts:

  • Uptown Energy District Eco-Innovation District, which could serve UPMC Mercy, CONSOL Energy Center, Chatham Center, U.S. Steel and additional new developments.
  • Brunot Island power station to serve commercial districts.
  • Larimer Energy District, a 285-acre neighborhood with mixed-use development and 1,728 residents.
  • ALMONO Energy District, a 178-acre riverfront property for mixed-use development.

The team is hoping that the Clean Energy City of the Future project will foster environmental, economic, and job-creation improvements in Pittsburgh and position the city as a national and global leader in clean energy development and implementation. Creating distributed energy systems throughout the city will also assist in achieving several related multi-purpose visions under Pittsburgh’s 2030 Districts® initiative.

The initiative’s overall “to do list” includes—

  • Formulating a strategic plan to assist in the identification and adoption of district energy strategies and to provide guidance for public and private stakeholders on development of district-scale clean energy and grid design.
  • Identifying financial opportunities for the design and construction of district energy systems and renewable energy deployment.
  • Designing a policy plan that supports the development of municipal, utility, and regulatory policy needs for district energy applications and infrastructure modernization
  • Conducting an economic analysis of district-energy solutions with microgrid integration and building performance policies.
  • Accelerating the growth of and access to energy jobs.
  • Creating a technical team to identify and prioritize high-value energy opportunities.
  • Developing a research and development roadmap for rapid demonstration and deployment of new technologies.

The Clean Energy City of the Future project will be promoted at two microgrid conferences this spring: the Infocast Microgrid Markets Summit in Washington, D.C. and the ACI Microgrid Conference in Kansas City, MO.

Starting with the discovery of coal on Mount Washington in the 18th century and the formation of Westinghouse Electric in the late 1800s, Pittsburgh has blazed an energy trail that much of the nation has followed. For more than 100 years, NETL and its earlier incarnations have been a part of Pittsburgh’s energy history. The laboratory and its researchers are honored to participate in the Clean Energy City of the Future effort as it enhances Pittsburgh’s status as a great American city and advances new answers to the questions facing the nation’s electrical grid challenges.