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Local ‘Clean’ Manufacturers Hint At Tactics Biden Might Use To Move Sector Into Sustainable Future

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Vertical wind turbines generate enough power to light EPIC Metals' factory in Braddock.

Even before details of President Biden’s highly-anticipated infrastructure plan became available, manufacturing was expected to rank among its top priorities. Biden has made no secret about his ambitions to revive the sector, and his decision to travel to Pittsburgh Wednesday to unveil parts of the multi-trillion dollar package underscores that point.

The region is known as a bastion of traditional industry, and Biden’s plan will seek to modernize domestic manufacturing in a bid both to create jobs and fight climate change. In 2018, goods and raw material producers accounted for more than a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some local companies, however, have already been preparing for a low-carbon future, and the changes they’ve adopted suggest how business could take advantage of support for renewable power, energy efficiency, waste reduction, and sustainable products.

For example, Rankin-based EPIC Metals has installed enough solar panels to supply about 60 percent of its energy needs, according to the firm’s president, David Landis. Since 1968, EPIC has made steel roofing panels for commercial structures across the country. Today it employs about 140 people at locations in Rankin, Braddock, and Florida.

Credit An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
David Landis, president of EPIC Metals, stands next to a vertical wind turbine located outside the company's Braddock factory on the Monongahela River.

“We generate more solar energy in Pennsylvania than we do in Florida,” Landis noted. He explained that EPIC has installed far more solar panels at its Pennsylvania facilities. “You just have to have a larger investment, have more solar panels, and you can generate more solar energy in Pennsylvania,” he said.

Federal tax credits have helped to fund that investment by underwriting up to 30 percent of the cost of panel installation, Landis said. He added that the panels lower EPIC’s energy costs by reducing the firm’s reliance on electric utilities. “And the life of these [panels] is longer than 20-some years, so they will for many years continue to pay dividends for the initial investment,” he said.

Landis has deployed a host of other tactics to reduce EPIC’s carbon footprint. For example, he offers employees stipends of up to $2,000 to buy electric vehicles and installs charging stations for the vehicles. In addition, geothermal wells heat and cool the company’s Rankin office, where a pervious pavement parking lot filters contaminants from the rainwater that seeps into the ground.

EPIC also uses three wind turbines – each an upright cylinder about as tall as a two-story home –  to light one of its factories along the Monongahela River.

Standing below the turbines on a mild late-winter day, Landis said, "Right now, it’s beautiful – there’s a nice breeze. But when it’s zero degrees and that wind is blowing at 20 to 30 miles an hour, and you’re shivering to death, you’re saying, ‘Hey, how do we capitalize on that?”

Sustainability pays, with government help

Investing in carbon-cutting programs and infrastructure isn’t always easy.

Catalyst Connection President and CEO Petra Mitchell works with smaller manufacturers in the region, and she said many of them need government incentives, as well as guidance from organizations like hers, before going green.

“It’s really about the [return on investment] for a business – what's that return?” Mitchell said. “In cases where that ROI might not be there, then it would be more of a challenge for a company to make some type of an investment.”

Additionally, she noted, “New energy sources might require some new technology or some new ways of doing things, new business practices and so forth. … [Small businesses] don't necessarily have the resources to really investigate all the changes that are happening in the … energy, infrastructure, waste, environmental resources [sectors], all those kinds of things.”

Ray Yeager, who leads Charleroi-based HVAC products maker DMI Companies, agrees. But while manufacturers often demand a two-to-three-year payback period from their investments, Yeager said for things like solar panels and building upgrades, he’s willing to wait up to 10 years for energy savings to outweigh the cost of investment.

Credit Courtesy of DMI Companies
DMI Companies launched a sustainability program in 2011 and today diverts nearly all of is waste from landfills.

“First, you have to be willing as a company and in the leadership role of a company to say, 'I'm okay with that: I'm still going to get a payback,'” Yeager said.

Still, while his company has solar panels installed to power its offices, DMI factories have yet to make the switch.

“When you have a manufacturing plant like ours, you need energy to make everything. So what we try to do is incremental things related to that,” Yeager said.

He noted, however, that DMI’s products themselves help to lessen carbon emissions because they’re designed to maximize the efficiency of commercial heating, ventilation, and cooling systems. The 450-employee company has factories in Monongahela, California, Oklahoma, and Virginia.

The Monongahela and Virginia facilities have achieved “zero waste to landfill” certifications, meaning almost none of their waste ends up in landfills, a significant source of methane and carbon dioxide emissions.

DMI’s waste-reduction strategy relies on a comprehensive recycling program. At the Monongahela factory, bins stacked with cardboard, plastic, and wood dot the floor. Other businesses pay to take the waste away and repurpose it, and DMI no longer has to spend on garbage removal services, Yeager said.

Credit An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
DMI holds sorted waste outside its Monongahela factory before other businesses come to take it away for future use.

Elsewhere in the factory, a steel punching machine also spits out a stream of scrap metal cut-outs destined for reuse.

“So all of that, except for the finished product, comes down the conveyor and goes out into recycling,” DMI’s head of manufacturing, Don Adams, said, pointing at the machine.

As is common practice in manufacturing, other businesses pay DMI for scrap metal, so the recycling pays for itself.

The environment as business priority

David Taylor, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, noted that while manufacturers are already investing in sustainability, PMA’s members object to aggressive environmental regulations. They worry that such restrictions will undermine their competitiveness.

“There's a certain humility that government should adopt in that you don't know all the answers, that [the] command and control approach is inevitably going to result in unintended consequences,” Taylor said.

PMA partners with the National Association of Manufacturers, https://vimeo.com/522453121">which the Biden Administration has consulted in developing its infrastructure plan.

Jenna Cramer, of the Green Building Alliance, said that while industry has taken steps to promote sustainability, the government sets the tone for how much of a priority the environment should be. And she said policymakers can build on the progress companies have already made by setting tougher emissions standards and by making purchases from clean manufacturers.

“There are different options, whether you want to take an incentive approach or a regulatory approach,” she said. “We have to keep lifting the floor that we're building to. We know that better practices are possible.”

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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