On Dec. 11, 2014, nearly 500 individuals gathered in downtown Pittsburgh to plan for the region’s energy future. The “Energy for the Power of 32” conference brought together scientists, utility companies, policy makers, and environmentalists from the 32 counties surrounding Pittsburgh, representing four states. PEC joined 19 other organizations to plan and present this event.
The highlight of the event was the presentation of the region’s first energy baseline. In PEC’s climate work, we have completed multiple greenhouse gas inventories. These inventories identify the largest sources of emissions, and thus are a useful tool for decision makers determining what mitigation strategies make sense. In other words—where’s the biggest bang for your buck?
Similarly, the energy baseline helps us to identify what energy is being produced, exported, consumed, and wasted in the region. Not surprisingly, our region continues to be a powerhouse of energy production. In fact, if it were a state, it would rank seventh in the nation in terms of production and 24th in terms of energy consumption. But perhaps most revealing was the amount of energy that is wasted.
Wasted energy in our region would be enough to power 14.8 million homes for a year, at a value of $13 billion. While a portion of this lost energy is the result of inefficiencies in our buildings (keep changing out your light bulbs, everyone!), the majority comes from larger, systematic issues. Coal (and to a lesser extent, natural gas) combustion at large, central generating plants produces great amounts of heat as a by-product, but because these plants are located in remote locations, the heat cannot be used and is lost. Additionally, an estimated six percent of generated electricity is lost through the inefficient process of transmission and distribution.
Critics of renewable generation question how renewables could ever produce enough to replace conventional generating sources. Considering the amount of energy currently wasted presents a more reliable baseline of the amount of alternative energy sources needed.
Expert speakers from around the country presented a myriad of options for our region. Robyn Beavers of NRG spoke to the potential for distributed generation; Dr. Greg Reed of the University of Pittsburgh discussed greater use of DC power, replacing AC which is inefficient to move over large distances. Microgrids and co-generation plants present an additional opportunity.
A local example is the co-generation plant at Duquesne University, which produces 85 percent of the power used to light, heat, and cool campus facilities in an extremely efficient natural gas fired process. Additionally, critical services are connected to the co-gen plant so that they remain powered during grid outages.
Clearly, our region will need to continue to use a mix of energy sources for years, but creating a strategy as a region will allow us to transition our energy future while simultaneously growing the economy and reducing human health risks. The challenge will be determining how to create this strategy in a way that is equitable and transparent, that engages true decision makers, and that balances the concerns of rural and urban communities.
Special thanks to the staff of Sustainable Pittsburgh for doing much of the heavy lifting to make this event happen, as well as the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation for their support.