US president Donald Trump thrust Pittsburgh into a global maelstrom in early 2017 when he made reference to the Pennsylvania city when withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord. Explaining his decision, Mr Trump said: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

The comment was met with in outrage from Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto, who remarked in an interview with CNN: “We were that city that China is like today, where the smoke filled the air so much that the streetlights would stay on 24 hours.”


That stands in stark contrast with the situation in Pittsburgh today. Indeed, Pittsburgh was the first city in the US to pass its own clean air act, before the formation of the US’s Environmental Protection Agency. Realising in the 1980s and 1990s that the city’s economic future would not be based solely on heavy industry, city leaders sought to build a new economy based on energy. Pittsburgh has since become a poster child for the Paris Accord by showing clean tech makes good economic sense for the US. Mr Peduto even issued an executive order in response to Mr Trump's statement, pledging that Pittsburgh will follow through on Paris Accord carbon reduction goals.

Today, Pittsburgh continues to set a new paradigm for energy by developing an economy based on combining traditional and alternative energy resources. The goal is to make it a model for cities and regions regarding how they think about energy. “In the end, we believe the bottom-up, not top-down approach, relative to energy, is what’s going to carry the day,” says Philip Cynar, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.

Historical context

Pittsburgh has a long history in energy innovation, beginning in the 1850s when the city became the US's key location for the production of petroleum. Up until the oil boom in Texas in the early 1900s, wells in and around Pittsburgh produced half of the world’s oil. Research into the use of electricity being done at the University of Pittsburgh and Westinghouse Electric helped to push energy development and led to Westinghouse developing the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant in Pittsburgh. Today, half of the world’s nuclear reactors are based on locally developed technology.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pittsburgh became an early leader in the US's green building movement, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. Pittsburgh is the number one exporter of coal, metal ore and other non-metallic minerals in the US. Most recently, natural gas was discovered in the shale of the Marcellus Formation, which is believed to be the second largest natural gas reserve in the world and covers vast swathes of the US's north-east.

“That has lead to a whole new energy boom,” says Bill Flanagan, chief corporate relations officer at the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. “As a result, companies from around the world and across the country have begun to invest here to bring the natural gas to the surface and to market. We are now beginning to see increased interest in the global petro-chemical industry.”

Economic development

Royal Dutch Shell began construction in December 2017 on a $6bn plant 50 kilometres north-west of Pittsburgh that will comprise of an ethylene cracker with polyethylene derivatives unit. “The investment exemplifies the type of investment that leaders are seeking to create a manufacturing renaissance for the region,” says Mr Flanagan.

The investment is expected to transform Pennsylvania’s shale gas industry and produce a raw material used in a variety of chemical and plastic products. Shell stated in a press release that the location is ideal because more than 70% of North American polyethylene customers live within a 1100-kilometre radius of Pittsburgh.

“Locating the facility close to both supply and markets will reduce economic and environmental transportation costs and provide regional plastic manufacturers with more flexibility, shorter supply chains and enhanced supply dependability,” said Shell in a press release.

To land the deal, the state of Pennsylvania offered $1.65bn in tax credits over 25 years. “We’ve had this rich history and in some ways are we coming full circle now,” says Mr Flanagan.

Besides the Marcellus Formation, Pennsylvania is a hotbed of innovation. In the past five years, the region has attracted $200m in venture capital, and some 360 energy-related patents have been awarded. The region is also home to two national energy R&D centres that carried out more than $1bn-worth of research annually at the University of Pittsburgh and the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which is part of the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy.

“This is beginning to fuel a resurgence in manufacturing,” says Mr Flanagan.

Academic achievements

The University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Energy is working with the City of Pittsburgh and key technology partners to deliver new electrical system designs. This includes looking at the so-called Grid of Microgrids and digging deeper into the role of district energy programmes to unite adaptation and mitigation goals.

“We recently received $26.5m in new grants for energy-related research,” says Katrina Kelly, manager of strategy at the Center for Energy. “We partner with industry people to identify how to support Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania in taking advantage of resources in a way that is environmentally friendly, economically affordable and accessible to all community members.”

The Energy Grid Research and Infrastructure Development Institute, launched in 2016, is based in new research and incubator space at the University of Pittsburgh’s Energy Innovation Center. The laboratory includes the Electric Power Technologies Laboratory, the Next Generation Energy Conversion and Storage Technologies Laboratory, the High-Temperature Corrosion Testing Laboratory and the Pitt Energy Incubator Laboratories.

“It focuses on energy research, and how we can better understand new technologies and develop products,” says Ms Kelly. This includes downstream projects that encompass wind, solar, hydro and even driverless technologies. Companies working in these sectors in Pittsburgh include Uber, the Pitt Ohio trucking company and WindStax Energy, a producer of large vertical wind turbines and microgrids.

Advantage Pittsburgh

Pitt Ohio is using microgrid technology such as wind turbines, LED lights, natural gas-powered tractors and solar energy to save energy and charge batteries for electric forklifts. With a focus on sustainability, Pitt Ohio created the region’s first LEED-certified trucking terminal. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of companies looking to see how they can work across all the energy sectors,” says Ms Kelly.

Pittsburgh’s lengthy history in energy and material science, grounded in a knowledge of how materials work, gives the region a unique advantage.

 “The whole green building phenomenon that we stumbled into in the late 1990s has turned out to be a strong economic advantage for the region because it related to Pittsburgh’s core strengths,” says Mr Flanagan. “The other piece is our 50-year history in information science and digital technology, especially that which comes out of Carnegie Mellon University. This ability to marry IT to material science with the understanding of how energy works gives the Pittsburgh region the strength to galvanise a lot of activity.”