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How The Frick Environmental Center Will Produce More Energy Than It Uses

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Frick Park's new environmental center will have zero net energy and is considered the most environmentally friendly municipal building in the world.


The solar panels shading the parking lot at the new Frick Environmental Center are expected to generate about 150,000 kilowatt hours of energy each year, approximately 10,000 kilowatt hours more than the building is expected to use. The excess will go right back to the electrical grid, according to Noah Shultas with PJ Dick, the construction company that oversaw the project.

“We’re going to be consuming energy at night and the sun’s not out at night, so we can’t be producing everything we need all 24 hours of the day,” he said. “So it’s important that we feed back during the day knowing that we’re going to be drawing throughout the night.”

But the technology that makes the goal of zero net energy possible goes far beyond harnessing the sun’s power. This building is all about efficiency and combines both high tech and low tech solutions.

During a recent tour, design team lead Robert Aumer, with the sustainable architecture firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, pointed to a pair of small lights mounted on the wall.

“This red-green light system detects what the weather conditions are outside of the facility,” he explained. “If it’s optimal, the green light comes on alerting the occupants to open the windows, take advantage of the great conditions outside.”

The building is laid out in a way that encourages natural ventilation. Cool air comes in on lower floors and works its way through the entire building.

“We are taking elements from nature, as always, and we’re taking them and using them in a really effective way to use less energy,” said Camila Rivera-Tinsley, Education Director for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy which runs the environmental center.

The other major energy saver is the geothermal heating and cooling system, the heart of which is in the center’s basement. One set of pipes sends 65-degree water 525 feet into the ground, while another set brings cooled, 60-degree water back into the building.

“We have water-to-water source heat pumps in the basement and we have water-to-air source heat pumps as well,” Shultas said. “We’re conditioning the air or conditioning water based on transferring heat into the ground or taking heat from the ground.”

Other energy saving features are more straightforward. Stairs are central to the design and the elevator is off to the side, which is the opposite of many buildings. Floor-to-ceiling windows let in natural light, reducing the need for electric lights.

Rivera-Tinsley said she is hopeful visitors will be inspired to make energy-saving changes in their own homes.

“That’s one of the most exciting pieces of this building for me as director of education,” she said, “is to be thinking holistically about how to translate all these technical things we’re talking about right now and all of these pieces that are hidden from the public. How do we expose them and make them approachable and reachable for the average citizen here in Pittsburgh?”

In this week's Tech Headlines: 

  • The public interest group Consumer Watchdog is calling on Uber to make details of its testing of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh public and to answer 10 key questions about the experiment. The group’s Privacy Project Director John Simpson said since Uber is using public roads as a “laboratory” it has a responsibility to fully disclose their activities. Consumer Watchdog said some states have regulations covering the testing of self-driving vehicles but Pennsylvania does not. Among the requests is that Uber publicly report all crashes involving its test vehicles and issue monthly reports detailing testing activities and findings. The group also asked Uber if it could prove that self-driving cars are safer than today’s vehicles and how it will prevent malicious hackers from seizing control of a driverless vehicle. 
  • Last week, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Co. announced that it would spin off a big chunk of its business software line-up in an $8.8 billion deal with Micro Focus International PLC. Last year, CEO Meg Whitman split HP's operations focused on selling business technology products from its personal computer and printer operations. At its height, the combined HP generated more than $100 billion in annual revenue.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.
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