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Environment & Energy

The Hill District gets federal money to develop a renewable energy plan focused on vacant lots

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Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA
Solar panels in the Hill District? It's not a reality yet, but thanks to a new grant, vacant lots in the area could be repurposed to generate renewable energy for nearby residents.

The Hill District could be a new location for renewable energy creation in Pittsburgh. A grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will help fund projects that will examine how vacant public land could be used for renewable energy generation sites.

The grant comes from the DOE’s Communities Local Energy Action Program (LEAP) pilot program, which is meant to help low-income communities that have disproportionately faced the harmful effects of fossil fuel use.

The Green Building Alliance, the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning, the Energy Innovation Center and Duquesne Light Company will work on the Hill District grant projects.

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The exact amount going to the Hill District has not been announced, but a total of $16 million dollars will be distributed to 22 projects across the country.

The money will help fund technical assistance, such as hiring renewable energy experts to evaluate Hill District lots as potential spots for energy generation.

The GBA and its partners also plan to establish a “neighborhood-scale clean energy plan” and identify older homes that could be retrofitted to make them more energy efficient.

According to GBA executive director Jenna Cramer, more than 600 acres in the Hill District aren’t ideal for residential or commercial redevelopment because the lots sit on top of abandoned coal mines.

The point of the project, Cramer said, is for experts and members of the community to work together to examine new possibilities.

“Is it a site that is viable for renewable energy?” she asked. “If so, what type of renewable energy? Could it be solar energy? Could it be thermal energy? Could it be micro wind energy?”

Though the project is still in the early stages, Cramer said the results of the grant projects should help improve the quality of life for people in the Hill District.

The Hill district has been designated an Environmental Justice Community by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Many residents have a “higher energy burden,” meaning they use a higher percentage of their income to pay utility bills.

If renewable energy is put in place, it could lead to energy cost savings for Hill District residents.

“If there are opportunities for renovating homes to make them more energy efficient, that then decreases utility bills for homeowners. Or if there’s an opportunity to produce renewable energy on site, that also . . . impacts their own energy burden and their financial situation overall,” Cramer said.

Any proposals that come out of the grant project would tie into the Hill’s neighborhood master plan.

“This grant will really help to establish what a clean energy plan can look like and may look like moving forward,” Cramer said.

Officials say they plan for the grant projects to be a community-led process, and the benefits of the renewable energy would be used to improve the Hill District.

Audrey Wells, a communications specialist for Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, said involving the Hill District community will be a priority.

“One of the goals that we have as the city planning department is to provide the neighborhoods that we’re working in with the tools that they need to have an active role in the future of their neighborhoods,” Wells said. “What we’re hoping is that this energy strategy can provide some additional education opportunities, so folks have more of an opportunity to actively participate in city processes and general improvements to their neighborhood and the homes that they’re living in.”

Cramer and Wells said they hope the grant projects will help improve the quality of life for people in the Hill District.

“This is trying to well-position our community and our region for future and ongoing investments, to make our spaces and our communities cleaner, healthier, more equitable, but also sustainable and resilient,” Cramer said.

Over the coming months, officials will work with local renewable energy experts to make more concrete plans for the near future and beyond. Officials expect that the project will also receive funding from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package signed last year.