Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New law gives Pittsburgh region climate funds, more jobs, cleaner air and hope

A solar array at the Nittany 1 Solar Farm.
Rachel McDevitt
StateImpact Pennsylvania
A solar array at the Nittany 1 Solar Farm is seen here in Lurgan Township, Franklin County on Nov. 24, 2020.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden signed into law Tuesday, has given new life to efforts in the Pittsburgh region to limit the worst impacts of climate change.

As the federal government races to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, the new law provides around $390 billion in spending to address climate change.

“This is really the most significant investment in climate and clean energy we've ever seen at the federal level,” said Flora Cardoni, a field director for PennEnvironment.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Care about the environment? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

The new bill is projected to help reduce emissions by 42% in the U.S. That puts additional attention and pressure on state and local governments to develop new policies that can help reduce emissions an additional 8% by 2030.

The City of Pittsburgh has already been taking steps to reduce municipal emissions by buying electric vehicles, procuring clean electricity and improving the energy efficiency of its buildings. The city’s goal to reduce emissions 50% by 2030 now seems more feasible, Cardoni said.

It went from things seeming like a reach to actually achievable, which is huge,” Cardoni said.

Building cleaner

Almost 80% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from its buildings, and the new law will help address that, according to Rebecca Kiernan, the principal resilience planner for the City of Pittsburgh. “The biggest bang for our buck will be focused on the building stock and housing stock,” she said.

The law provides additional incentives for building owners to reduce their energy use and build solar energy projects, said Chris Cieslak, an executive at the Green Building Alliance. Some of these incentives already existed, but the law has made them more generous and extended them for 10 years. This will help developers plan more energy-efficient projects, she said.

“Now they've got a certain sense of stability and predictability that this way of doing business will carry on into the future and enable them to take more investments and more risks and longer-term strategies that will pay off in the long run,” she said.

And because the bill provides incentives to increase the supply of green energy from power plants, she said, building owners will be more likely to be able to buy their electricity from a clean source.

The new law also incentivizes individual residents to join the effort. The law provides tax credits and discounts for residents to buy electric cars, replace their natural gas boilers with electric heat pumps and add energy efficiency upgrades to their homes.

This is critical because, typically, local governments have had limited ability to impact consumer choices, said Eric Raabe, a project manager who works with around 40 local governments in Allegheny County to help develop climate action plans for the Congress for Neighboring Communities. The new law has funds for rooftop solar, electric heat pumps and even electric stoves.

The measure will provide money to turn local climate plans into climate action, he said. “So what our communities were already working on has now just been supercharged with nitrous,” he said.

But most local governments in Allegheny County don’t have a climate action plan in place. And those communities could be at a disadvantage, as cities with more advanced climate policies will be in a better position to capitalize on the new funding. And this raises questions of equity, said Lydia Morin, the executive director of the Congress of Neighboring Communities.

“The communities that were able to get a climate action plan passed and on the books at the local level are the ones that kind of have a little more capacity,” she said.

The new law does provide funding that could help Allegheny County’s smaller communities come up with their own climate action plans, Morin said. Her organization plans to apply for funding to provide an “army” of technical assistance for “communities who just don't even think they can have this conversation and who kind of believe this is too good to be true and it will never come to them because it never does.”

 A charger goes into a car.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Cooler planet, cleaner air, more jobs

One of the ancillary benefits of this new law is that it has the potential to improve the Pittsburgh region’s air quality. One of the largest sources of pollution in the city limits comes from vehicles, and the new bill has additional money to support electric cars and buses.

“The more we decarbonize our economy, the better off we will be in the long run from a climate perspective and from a public health perspective, because the same sources that emit air pollution like carbon and particle emissions and ozone — that comes from combustion of a fossil fuel,” said Matthew Mehalik, the executive director of the Breathe Project.

Cardoni said Pennsylvania’s recent effort to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative [RGGI] would further improve air quality in the region. While the federal law makes it cheaper to produce green energy, RGGI makes it more expensive for fossil fuels. And those efforts will work together to make the state’s energy composition cleaner, she said.

The law includes incentives for industrial facilities to reduce their greenhouse emissions. A spokesperson for U.S. Steel sent a statement that the company supports the programs in the law that will make the manufacturing sector cleaner. But the spokesperson didn’t respond to a question about whether any of these programs could impact the company’s operations in the Mon Valley, where it is both the largest single source of air pollution and the largest source of greenhouse gases.

The new law will also provide a boost for local companies that have been investing in green energy technologies as the scale and scope of this work increases dramatically over the next decade.

Grant Ervin is the director of environmental, social governance and innovation for S&B USA Construction, which is based in Pittsburgh. Ervin said the new law is going to provide additional incentives for building solar energy projects and creating electric vehicle infrastructure. The company already has built about 450 megawatts of solar power in Texas and California. “Those are going to be some big, big opportunities for us,” he said.

Just a few weeks ago, the road to reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to a manageable level seemed like a difficult slog, and it was unclear exactly which policy levers might lead to real change, Cardoni said. But now, she said the local efforts to reduce global warming in the country have been infused with new hope.

“It really gives us a fighting chance to do what we need to do to stop the worst impacts of the climate crisis,” she said.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.