Last June, when President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Accord and namedropped Pittsburgh in his reasoning behind it, Mayor Bill Peduto responded clearly: He announced efforts to power the city on 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. And he’s not alone. On April 5, as part of a group of 180 U.S. mayors representing 42 states, Peduto signed a pledge to make solar power a key element of Pittsburgh’s energy plan and to call on others to do the same.

Now Sustainable Pittsburgh has stepped in with a plan to further the Pittsburgh region’s renewable power commitment.

The environmental nonprofit, along with CEOs for Sustainability and the Power of 32, has announced the launch of Renewable Energy for the Power of 32 (RE4P32). The goal? To accelerate the adoption of renewables by combining the purchasing power of the region’s largest energy users, such as hospitals, schools and businesses.

“We’re focused on trying to increase the production and consumption of true renewable energy in our region,” says Sustainable Pittsburgh executive director Court Gould.

Partnerships and planning

To achieve this, Sustainable Pittsburgh partnered with the Washington, D.C.-based renewable energy advisory firm, CustomerFirst Renewables (CFR). The firm has dealt with several similar projects: In Boston in 2016, they helped facilitate a joint power purchase agreement between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston Medical Center and the Post Office Square Redevelopment Corporation. Touted as one of the largest renewable energy deals of its kind in the U.S., it committed all three institutions to buying all of their electricity from a 650-acre solar farm in North Carolina.

“It’s wonderful to be here, because Pittsburgh has made a lot of national news in terms of their aspirations to go to 100 percent renewable and become a more green, and clean-focused community,” says Bob Mango, CFR’s director of business development“The fact that we’re able to partner with Sustainable Pittsburgh and try to help spread the word and help the region achieve some of these objectives is a wonderful opportunity.”

Building on current trends

RE4P32 comes as just one of the results of a 2014 conference: At that time, 32 counties uniting southwestern Pennsylvania with eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia and western Maryland met to identify their most pressing needs and how to best address them. It led to the creation of initiatives tackling a broad range of issues involving the economy, education, the environment, communities, government, transportation and infrastructure.

“It was a real catalyst for people thinking about what they would want their energy profile to look like in the future,” says Gould.

He points out that while RE4P32 is a new initiative, it builds on current trends. He cites the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partner List, which includes hundreds of organizations and businesses working to support the development of new renewable generation capacity nationwide. Among them are the supermarket chain Giant Eagle, Chatham University and the architecture and consulting firm evolveEA, as well as other Pittsburgh-based institutions.

Beyond RECs: sustainability and cost-savings

“The market is taking the largest energy consumers in this direction for a couple reasons,” says Gould. “Renewable energy is no longer just price competitive, it’s cheaper than fossil fuel. Second, shareholders, trustees, board members and customers are now asking for and showing preference for companies that are high in their sustainability performance.”

One of the challenges, however, is getting institutions to go beyond the common practice of buying renewable energy credits, or RECs, to meet carbon-reduction goals. As tradeable vehicles, each representing the environmental attributes of one megawatt-hour of renewable energy, RECs allow consumers to offset carbon emissions produced by conventional energy sources and help build the market for renewable energy. An institution may choose RECs because it doesn’t have its own on-site renewable energy system or a utility that offers a green power product, or as a strategy for offsetting greater amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

The issue with this approach, says Gould, is that while RECs are very important, they don’t do enough alone to boost renewable energy production or introduce new renewable energy to power grids. He believes that developing long-term, large-scale purchase agreements could change that.

“Institutions for years have been saying they’re buying renewable energy,” says Gould. “They are purchasing credits, which are important, but now the market is saying credits aren’t enough.”

Gould believes that driving the demand for renewable energy can benefit the region environmentally and economically as an employment creator. Green jobs like wind turbine technician are growing fast in the U.S.

He’s also confident that the Trump administration’s efforts to steer the focus away from renewable energy and environmental responsibility – including the recent efforts of the Scott Pruitt-led EPA to relax auto emission standards in the U.S. – will do little to stop RE4P32’s progress.

“If anything, it’s creating a new lifeblood for renewable energy as companies, cities, municipalities, education institutions aren’t waiting around for leadership from Washington anymore,” Gould says. “They’re following the market and they’re doing it for themselves.”