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New Energy Map Of Commercial Buildings Could Help Pittsburgh Reach Its Sustainability Goals

The 3D map of Downtown shows some of the buildings for which researchers estimated rates of annual energy use.
Courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh
The 3D map of Downtown shows some of the buildings for which researchers estimated rates of annual energy use.

A model created by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh could help city officials make more effective energy policies and encourage businesses to use less energy. The map includes 3D models of 209 buildings Downtown and in Oakland. Different colors indicate different levels of energy use.

The map is significant, because previously there was no central source of information about energy consumption for commercial buildings in Pittsburgh.

According to Melissa Bilec, civil and environmental engineering professor and deputy director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at Pitt, most U.S. cities either don’t have this information available or it’s so disparate that it’s hard to use.

“We are really, in many ways, finding our way through the dark to really understand even what buildings we have in the U.S. And how much energy are they using?” said Bilec.

Pitt’s map was created by using street-level imaging to determine a building’s materials. Bilec said Pitt civil engineering student Samuel Copeland spent hours collating images of buildings to determine how much exterior was brick, concrete or another material. Then, using the number of floors and LiDAR data from the U.S. Geological Survey to determine building height, researchers were able to estimate the annual energy use of the buildings.

Combining these resources helped their model make more accurate estimates compared to previous urban building energy models which rely on more assumptions. It has only a seven percent error rate.

“Researchers need to rely on assumptions based on when buildings were built or what the mechanical and electrical systems look like. Our hope is that by using image processing, we can build a framework that reduces some assumptions,” said Rezvan Mohammadiziazi, co-author and graduate student in the Swanson School’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Researchers did not disclose a list of the 209 buildings and their estimated individual energy use.

Bilec hopes the model can be used as a framework to help city officials meet its 2030 sustainability goals. Pittsburgh has committed to cut its energy use, transportation emissions and water consumption in half by 2030.

“[The model] helps highlight whether buildings are tracking their energy improperly as well as buildings with large opportunity for energy savings. This creates a foundation for outreach and education to building owners around their role in addressing the climate crisis locally,” the city’s office of Sustainability and Resilience said in a statement.

Information about how building materials affect energy consumption could also encourage developers to rethink what materials construction crews use when erecting new structures. According to Bilec, this information could prove vital to the city trying to reach its sustainability goals.

The city already requires owners of non-residential buildings over 50,000 square feet to annually report their energy and water consumption in a process called benchmarking. The report uses utility data, but does not take building materials information into account.

Pittsburgh's Office of Sustainability said building owners looking for ways to decrease their energy consumption should take advantage of Allegheny County’s commercial property assessed clean energy program. C-PACE helps commercial, industrial and agricultural property owners secure long-term financing to pay for energy efficiency, renewable energy and water conservation projects.

Eventually, Bilec hopes to map out every single building in Pittsburgh. She hopes researchers in other cities can replicate and build upon the model.

“A significant investment in the building sector to understand energy use is really critical in the U.S.,” she said. “The data in the building sector is so disparate … taking this type of model and demonstrating how to bring together the disparate sources and visualize that, it can be used by other cities as well.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.