Creating An Economy Based on New Energy Requires Broad-Based Collaboration


Something’s growing in Pittsburgh. The city made famous by its steel mills and heavy industry now boasts acres of sunflowers throughout its urban center.

The yellow-and-black blossoms are a small clue to Pittsburgh’s ongoing transformation from an industrial economy, with all the pollution associated with it, to an environmentally sustainable one. The effort won the city a spot on Forbes magazine’s list of the top 10 U.S. cities with the largest numbers of “green,” or “green collar,” jobs – that is, those related to clean-energy industries.

“Pittsburgh has a geological abundance of oil, natural gas and coal, and that’s why we were able to build America,” Bernie Lynch, an economic development consultant in the city, told “Our largest challenge is recognizing how we … convert those rich abundant resources into a cleaner economy and a greener economy.”

One answer is in the sunflowers. They were planted by youth workers under a partnership among municipal development agencies and a nonprofit organization called Growth Through Energy & Community Health (GTECH) ( ).

The flowers pull lead and heavy metals out of the soil, and their seeds are used for biofuel. Planting the flowers on vacant urban land increases the value of adjacent properties, according to GTECH head Andrew Butcher. The secondary school students who plant the crops learn about renewable energy and resource management – projected areas of job growth.

The project serves as a “unique way of introducing a green economy into traditionally distressed and marginalized communities,” Butcher said. “We partner with landowners … to [turn] negative vacant space into positive, productive community assets.”

Pittsburgh has 20,000 vacant lots totaling nearly 10,000 acres, which make up 10 percent of the city’s land, he said. As the U.S. recession has displaced businesses and homeowners alike, cities such as Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, and Detroit are well-positioned to replicate the model. Indeed, GTECH is bringing the project to New Orleans in the spring.

The sunflower project highlights the challenge in developing a more energy-efficient and less-polluting economy even in a state that in 2008 passed an energy-independence bill with $650 million in incentive funding. Several different stakeholders must come together at the same time: labor, government, industry, academic science, consumers and nonprofit groups.

Pittsburgh leaders are marshaling those groups to build booming clean-energy industries on a scale larger than flower plots. Whether it’s solar power, biodiesel, green building, green chemistry or nuclear energy, there’s something going on in Pittsburgh.

The city has moved to increase demand for renewable energy through initiatives like installing solar water heaters in firehouses and other municipal buildings, creating a $100,000 trust fund for environmentally friendly initiatives and installing diesel particulate filters in city waste haulers.

“Whether it’s greening dozens of vacant lots, running diesel engines with clean-burning biodiesel, or retrofitting traffic lights to make them more energy efficient, we have the momentum it takes to take this city to the next level of green,” Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said in a statement.

For the kind of transformation needed in Pittsburgh and the surrounding region, government leaders must work closely with the entire community.

A good place to start understanding the immense task at hand is Pittsburgh Green Innovators, a collaboration of 29 government, nonprofit, corporate, philanthropic, education and labor groups aiming to develop a trained “green-collar” work force and stimulate growth in clean-tech industries.

The alliance is developing a physical facility to provide education and conference space, showcase product development and encourage environmental innovation, Lynch said. The site under consideration is a city school property, which would house city career and technical programs as well as construction and trade academies. As a “green” campus, the buildings themselves would be a teaching tool, with a greenhouse also on the property, she said.

Labor groups, educational institutions, nonprofits and corporations would locate on the campus, including the International Union of Operating Engineers, Pennsylvania State University and Pittsburgh Gateways’ business incubator for start-up companies and “green” design firms.

The task is for educators to work closely with industry and employers to develop a work force that’s up-to-date on cutting-edge environmental science at the moment those positions need to be filled locally.

“We’re trying to create jobs,” Jeaneen Zappa, director of green business development for the nonprofit Green Building Alliance ( ), told “We envision having a whole training program for people who are properly installing insulation to meet the national standards.”

In the new energy economy, workers will need to know how to install solar panels, solar water heaters and low-water-flow plumbing fixtures. Whether it’s retrofitting buildings, working on the science of soil remediation or rethinking architecture, the work of those workers will stretch from unskilled to semi-skilled and skilled.

“Buildings consume 60 percent of the energy that we use on a daily basis,” Zappa said. “That’s a much larger percentage than is consumed by the entire transportation sector.”

In order to have a green building, you must have access to products that will make the structure more energy efficient. So the alliance is working closely with manufacturers. “It’s about driving economic activity for the products and services that go into using a green building,” Zappa said. “We’re trying to help [manufacturers] develop the products and the skills that will be necessary in the green economy.”

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: