Sustainability and resiliency are becoming embedded in Pittsburgh’s municipal operations
Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer and assistant director, Department of City Planning, is proud of his team’s achievements. One of those successes was reaching the city’s 100-percent renewable electricity target in 2020. Ervin’s team met that target by purchasing renewable energy credits. “But along the way—and this is kind of a continuous improvement—we learned the different ways that we could procure electricity. Besides buying in the retail market, we can also purchase it in the wholesale market,” Ervin says.
Over the course of late 2020, and early 2021, Ervin’s team has created a wholesale sub-account within PJM Interconnection, which is the city’s local grid operator. That process will allow Pittsburgh to not only procure renewable electricity, but also to complete the buy locally. “The city’s clean energy program has yielded a number of benefits that go beyond just simply purchasing renewable energy credits. In addition, we are also looking at actually sourcing our renewable electricity locally,” Ervin explains.
Also on the sustainability front, Pittsburgh is aiming to reach a zero-waste target. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, because of remote work, the city administration has seen a reduction in paper consumption. “So, we are now in the process of institutionalizing and building out policy as well as technical solutions that will allow us to continue to reduce paper consumption through digitizing signatures and other means. This will also allow us to save hundreds of thousands of dollars for taxpayers over the course of the implementation of the program,” Ervin says.
Ervin adds that Pittsburgh has relied on cooperative contracts for some of the city’s sustainability initiatives. “Our sustainable procurement team has recognized opportunities to enhance the sustainability of our general office supplies purchases. So we’ve leveraged a number of cooperative contracts that we have with Office Depot and other firms.”
Ervin says Pittsburgh administrators have also leaned on cooperative contracts to purchase electric vehicles. “Those contracts have been primary tools that we have utilized to help create what is the largest municipal electric vehicle (EV) fleet in western Pennsylvania.” Usage of EVs cuts across a lot of city departments in the Steel City. “But our first focus has been on our Permits, Licenses and Inspections group. These include our building inspectors, so the group has 40 vehicles with permits personnel and inspectors traveling around the city. They are visiting different construction sites. By the end of 2021 we’ll have about half of the Permits, Licenses and Inspections fleet converted to electric vehicles.” Ervin says his team is also looking at converting the city’s garbage and refuse truck fleets into EV power. “We have made a lot of strides with other city departments on EV adoption,” Ervin explains.
Pittsburgh is incorporating sustainable development goals (SDGs) in the normal course of city budgeting and procurement practices. Ervin says the city’s SDGs have enabled his team to work across key parts of city government. “Sustainability is often viewed as an environmental initiative, but it’s much more than that. It’s also incorporating aspects of social equity as well as economic opportunity and so the SDGs have been a framework that we have used that allows us to engage multiple city departments in various sustainability initiatives.” SDG No. 7 is Affordable & Clean Energy while SDG No. 11 is Sustainable Cities & Communities.
City officials are using federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) funds to safeguard building occupants from harsh winters and temperature extremes. Ervin says a big focus of Pittsburgh’s building rehabilitation and reinvestment plan are community centers and healthy-active living centers, which are where the city hosts senior citizens and other potentially at-risk residents. “We analyzed where risks exist, and where population and vulnerable communities are positioned, and then invest in those facilities to help the vulnerable to be able to endure both the shocks and stressors and ultimately help build community resiliency.” When there’s an extreme heat wave or cold snap, seniors can take shelter in the activity centers if they don’t have heat or air conditioning in their own homes. The centers also serve as major food distribution hubs.
Ervin says that down the road, he sees closer working relationships between procurement teams and city government resiliency staffers across the United States. He says procurement and budget decisions can lead to successful resiliency and climate initiatives. “Ultimately, the implementation from a municipal government standpoint gets dictated by budgetary and procurement decisions, so it is critical that you allocate your resources in a way that helps address the needs and challenges that your jurisdiction confronts.”
Michael Keating is senior editor for American City & County. Contact him at [email protected]