DOE researchers see Pittsburgh's progress on district energy

About a dozen researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday visited three facilities that play a role in Pittsburgh’s initiative to shift away from relying on faraway power sources — the latest development in a partnership inked last July.

The tours offered federal researchers their first close-up look at the city’s existing capabilities to create so-called energy districts.

The initiative involves sectioning certain communities into districts that each feed off locally produced power obtained from natural gas generators or solar panels. District energy, proponents say, can boost reliability and efficiency compared with pulling power off the larger distribution grid fed by mammoth power plants and long-range transmission lines.

Local officials have been meeting regularly with the National Energy Technology Laboratory, the DOE’s research arm, since the city announced it would tap the agency’s expertise.

On Tuesday, the tours took researchers to Duquesne University’s combined heat and power facility in Uptown, which produces about 80 percent of the electricity and all of the heat consumed on the 50-acre campus; the Pittsburgh Allegheny County Thermal plant, which pumps heat to 59 buildings in Downtown; and NRG Energy’s plant, which provides steam heat to more than 30 buildings on the North Side.

NETL researchers are beginning to provide technical assistance to the city on how to reinvent the power grid, said Jim Wilson, the laboratory’s chief financial officer, after the tour of Duquesne University’s facility.

For Tuesday’s visit, the National Energy Technology Laboratory sent experts in combined heat and power systems, which integrate both electricity and thermal energy in a single facility, to advise the city on how to use the facilities within its plan to boost resiliency.

“We try to be an enabler,” Mr. Wilson said. “We try to make sure that we’re helping the city make connections, make sure the city’s aware of various governmental resources, assisting them in putting together applications for funding, and helping them in any way we can.”

The city is eyeing four new energy districts to be created by either building new heat and power plants or retrofitting old ones. New Jersey-based NRG Energy has expressed interest in building a new facility in the Lower Hill District to deliver steam heat and chilled water to surrounding buildings, including the Consol Energy Center and UPMC Mercy.

Other proposed energy districts include Larimer, where city officials want to build a microgrid for the 285-acre residential neighborhood, and for the Almono development, a 178-acre riverfront mixed-use property in Hazelwood. A power station on Brunot Island could potentially be at the center of an energy district that serves commercial customers.

During the morning tour, officials at Duquesne University showed off their Energy Center in Uptown, which generates the bulk of electricity for campus with a natural gas turbine generator. The university purchases the remaining electricity from wind farms, through renewable energy credits.

Crews are working to complete a series of upgrades totaling $11.5 million that includes replacing boilers and more than doubling its capacity.

After receiving a $2 million clean energy grant from the state last year, the school expects it can complete the expansion this year, officials said.

Rod Dobish, assistant vice president and chief facilities officer, said Duquesne was a pioneer among universities when it opened its co-generation plant in 1997. Now, with a new residence hall and other buildings, it is expanding to meet that new demand.

“It’s the heart of our campus,” Mr. Dobish said. “From a reliability standpoint, this has been phenomenal.”

The city and Energy Department have not said exactly when new projects may develop, but NETL spokesman Thomas Feeley said the two parties speak at least once a week to share progress. Larger meetings bringing together potential customers, donors and other stakeholders are held once about every six weeks, he said.

Mr. Wilson added that the district energy partnership is beneficial for NETL because it gives researchers a chance to demonstrate their expertise.

“We have a lot of bright people working on cutting-edge technology,” Mr. Wilson said. “We always have as a priority finding a way to get that the intellectual capital out into the commercial market.”

Daniel Moore:, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

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