Have you ever been sitting at PNC Park, looking out over the gorgeous Pittsburgh skyline, and wondered what that building was with the unsightly smokestack along Fort Duquesne Boulevard? It’s actually the steam generation facility for Pittsburgh Allegheny County Thermal (PACT) and it supplies steam heat to buildings in the Golden Triangle of downtown Pittsburgh. The problem is that demand for steam heat, in an era of cheap natural gas, is dropping at a rapid rate.
Pittsburgh first looked at steam heat in 1915 with the creation of the Allegheny County Steam Heating Company. A series of tunnels were dug and pipes installed over an eight mile long network to supply steam heat to buildings downtown. A number of wells were drilled into the underground aquifer beneath Pittsburgh, colloquially referred to as the ‘fourth river’, to supply the copious amounts of water needed to generate the steam. An aquifer like Pittsburgh’s fourth river traps water between a relatively impervious layer, in this case a thick layer of claystone, and a series of sand and gravel alluvial layers. Wells with screens are drilled into these glacial alluvial layers and water is extracted via pumps through screens to keep the particles out.
But with modernized heating systems and cheap energy, there are fewer and fewer customers for PACT today. A 2013 audit of the semi-public PACT by Chelsa Wagner’s office found that only 15% of the steam plant’s 4.4 million pound capacity was used in a given year. The system was originally designed for 300 customers to function at peak efficiency, but as per PACT’s website they serve only 65 buildings today. As customers drop, the rate will naturally go up. Pittsburgh’s 2013 stated rate of $27.50 per 1000 pounds of steam is nearly double Philadelphia’s rate by the Veolia North America-run facility.
So is steam outdated or gearing up for a resurgence?
Since the generators are fired by natural gas and not dirty fuel oil, steam energy is seen as a Green Energy alternative that helps reduce greenhouse gases. PACT generates everything at a central facility and pushes it via pressure to the various buildings downtown, thus potentially reducing the need for each individual building to have their own systems. It’s humorous to think of a steampunk-esque Pittsburgh if steam energy would take off again.
The City of Pittsburgh has a stake in the game to see that PACT does well. As per a 1915 ordinance passed at the creation of the Allegheny County Steam Heating Company, the City gets 3% of all revenues from PACT, which runs between $300,000 and $400,000 in recent years. Mayor Peduto is a forward-thinking individual in terms of green technologies. Is it possible to be so forward-thinking that you actually reach back to the early 1900’s to find a solution?
Although it would be difficult due to space restrictions at the present location, steam heat and the water by-products could be used to co-generate electricity and help supply power to various buildings, as well. These facilities could be one step closer to being off the grid of main utility sources. At first glance, steam heat seems like a product of a time gone by. But with a little ingenuity and a commitment from relevant business and technology partners, steam could actually be an impetus for a new view on green energy for Pittsburgh.