Our last water talk of the year (and the decade) focused on Greater Pittsburgh’s climate future. At the talk, held at a community gathering space in Homewood, Pittsburgh on November 17, Jordan Fischbach of RAND Corporation and Ian Smith of Energy Independent Solutions offered individual and collective solutions for Greater Pittsburgh and its residents as we face the climate challenges of the future. Jordan introduced us to the big picture of the imminent changes in the climate and discussed RAND’s research projects to help spur innovation to adapt to the climate crisis. Ian offered a specific solution that watershed-area homeowners can take to combat climate change—using solar energy.

Jordan, who is co-director of RAND’s Climate Resilience Center, made it clear that climate change is going to impact our future, and is already impacting our present. He said Pittsburgh’s climate will look more like Kentucky’s in the not-too-far future. In about 30 years, the city will go from an average of 0 days above 95 degrees Fahrenheit per year to about 20 days per year. As another effect of climate change, major storm events are already proliferating, especially in the Northeastern US (including Pennsylvania).

One of Jordan’s recent studies concerned Greater Pittsburgh’s climate future, with specific focus on stormwater management. The two-pronged project featured an analysis of many simulations of Pittsburgh’s possible future climate and community engagement with local stakeholders. The project’s goals included learning what stormwater management solutions might be the most palatable for a wide variety of possible futures. (Learn more about Jordan’s past study here.)

This fall, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) signed a new consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency. Jordan applied his knowledge from his research to analyze the consent decree. While he noticed there were some good elements to the deal, like expanding the ALCOSAN water treatment plant, he was troubled by the focus on building underground reservoirs for water and the estimates of flow that the decree was based on. (Read more about the consent decree at WESA.)

The consent decree uses a baseline year as a predictor of future years’ weather, a practice that can easily be called into question given predictions of rapid future climate change. Moreover, the baseline year ALCOSAN and the EPA chose is 2003—not only 16 years ago, but also a lighter year for rainfall than almost any of the 9 years afterwards. Meanwhile, Jordan said 2018 and 2019 have been two of the heaviest rainfall years on record for the region.

According to WESA, the inclusion of Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) in the new consent decree was “the major win” of the decree. However, the plan doesn’t go far enough in this regard. Our fellow Pennsylvanians in Philadelphia have already implemented their own initiative to greatly expand GSI. (Read more about Philadelphia’s GSI initiative here.)

We think this consent decree is a chance for Pittsburgh to follow Philadelphia by greatly expanding our use of green infrastructure. GSI can help us manage stormwater and build a more sustainable and beautiful Pittsburgh. The current consent decree is a start, but it could and should go much further. 

Allegheny County residents can raise their voices about expanding the role of GSI in the consent decree during the decree’s public comment period, which lasts until December 2. Visit bit.ly/alcosan to send a message to the EPA—you can use the default message on that page or write one of your own.Jordan is currently running a project that focuses on GSI in the Negley Run watershed, one of our nearby watersheds in the East End of Pittsburgh. The new study includes some steps that are similar to Jordan’s previous research. His team of researchers are running what he called an “uncertainty analysis” including more simulations of future storm and flooding conditions, and they are planning further community engagement. They are using their research to analyze the costs and benefits of stormwater projects that could be implemented in the Negley Run watershed, with a specific focus on GSI. (Read more about Jordan’s current study here.)

Ian followed Jordan by discussing solar energy. He was able to cover the topic both as an employee of a firm that installs solar panels and as a homeowner in the watershed area with solar panels on his own home. 

Ian told us that homeowners can estimate the potential monthly value of solar energy to their pocketbook. If a homeowner gets all their energy from solar, Ian said their electric bill will come out to about $12. This means that a homeowner’s total electric bill minus this $12 is roughly the value of energy from the electric grid that they currently use. 

Ian said that solar panels tend to pay for themselves within eight to 15 years, depending on the circumstances. A significant tax credit is available for the year of solar panel purchase, but the credit is being phased out, so it may not be valid for purchases made after 2021.

Since solar energy is unlikely to meet all of a homeowner’s energy needs at all times, two types of backup exist. One is a battery backup, and the other is to connect to the regular energy grid as a backup. The latter is called “net metering”, and its major drawback is that solar energy cannot be used if the electric grid goes down. This is generally not a major problem in the watershed area, as Ian said outages are relatively uncommon and of short duration in the area, and net metering users can purchase a small generator for emergencies. Neither option is more costly than the other. 

For low- and moderate-income Pittsburghers who want to install solar panels, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh’s Pittsburgh Home Redevelopment Program (PHRP) offers zero-interest loans for solar panel installments and other home improvements. (To learn more about PHRP and whether you qualify, visit this link.)

Rooftop solar panels are not right for every situation, as Ian acknowledged. For homeowners who plan to remain in place for the long-term, they’re a great solution. For some groups, such as renters or those planning to move, installing solar panels may be untenable or unaffordable. “Community solar” programs, which allow residents of many buildings and homes to use energy from a single solar infrastructure base, are a possible solution to this problem that has been adopted in other states. Pennsylvania currently has pending legislation to allow community solar programs in our state. (Learn more about the pending community solar legislation and about PA’s renewable energy status in general here.)

Installing solar panels on one’s home is an individual action that can help make our region more sustainable, for those who can afford it. Community solar programs help make solar energy a big-picture solution. Individuals can also lobby major organizations like ALCOSAN and the EPA, or even send a message to their local congressperson, to make sure that our voices are heard in support of the large-scale initiatives needed to adapt to climate change. As we head into the 2020s, we will need both individual and collective action to help make sure we have a livable watershed and community to pass down to the generations to come.

Post written by John Lavaccare, Communications Intern

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