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Pittsburgh Renews Itself With ‘Green’ Technologies

April 25, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Pittsburgh, once described as the nation's "dirtiest city," is working hard to reverse that image with new energy efficient initiatives. Paul Solman looks at how the Steel City has become reinvigorated by implementing new "green" energy technologies.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, we continue our spotlight city week in Pittsburgh. Tonight, economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at efforts to develop clean energy in a city that was once one of the dirtiest in the U.S.

ANDREW HANNAH, CEO, Plextronics: That’s how simple the process is.

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: Entrepreneur Andrew Hannah thinks investment in solar power, mainly his own new technology, could solve the energy crisis in, of all places, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

ANDREW HANNAH: I think with a few billion dollars we can change the world.

PAUL SOLMAN: We’ll show you Hannah’s magic in a bit. But for this story, what matters is that there could be American answers to global warming, helping us compete and save the world at the same time, and that many of them are based where the seeds of the global warming crisis were arguably first planted.

The problem started to some degree with the burning of Pennsylvania trees and coal to feed America’s growing energy appetite. Another key historical event: the state’s response to the whale oil crisis, says local economist Lester Lave.

LESTER LAVE, Economist, Carnegie Mellon University: In the 19th century, we were using whale oil for lighting. It was the best way to get light at night. The problem was that there were only so many whales and we had more people around.

And so basically there just wasn’t enough whale oil, so what happened was that, in western Pennsylvania, they discovered oil.

Pittsburgh going alternative

PAUL SOLMAN: With oil and its fellow fossil fuel, gas, the region reaped a windfall. When Andrew Carnegie perfected the process of making steel from the local coal and iron, the boom was on in earnest.

No wonder that, narrates filmmaker Carl Kurlander, in a soon-to-be released film about his hometown...

CARL KURLANDER, Filmmaker: A hundred years ago, Pittsburgh was the richest city in the world with more skyscrapers and millionaires per capita than New York City.

Pittsburgh back then was the Silicon Valley of the industrial revolution, where Andrew Carnegie was the Bill Gates of his day, Andrew Mellon his Warren Buffet, where H.J. Heinz spiced up tables across this country with his ketchup, and George Westinghouse lit up America with his long-distance electrical lines.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so the city lured the likes of entrepreneur John Ford, who need cheap fossil fuel to make glass. In 1886, he founded Pittsburgh Plate Glass, now PPG, which eventually helped develop fiberglass, which today is helping replace fossil fuel with nonpolluting wind power.

Senior VP Vicky Holt.

VICKY HOLT, Senior Vice President, PPG: What you're looking at here is a mock up of a windmill. PPG is very involved in the wind energy business, both as a supplier of fiberglass materials that go into the blades -- these are composite blades -- as well as coatings that provide durability for the windmills in very harsh environments around the world.

PAUL SOLMAN: The coatings, they're an offshoot of Pittsburgh Paint, another division of PPG. The Earth Policy Institute says wind is the fastest-growing alternative energy, 29 percent a year over the past decade.

But PPG is not only making electricity; it's saving it, with new glass that shields the sun's heat while letting in its light.

It's all part of Pittsburgh's new competitive focus as a green building hub. Its convention center is the largest green building in the world. And the city's new emphasis in turn spurns advances at PPG.

VICKY HOLT: We share. We collaborate. And, in the end, we're going to find solutions faster, which is what the world needs to solve this issue of energy scarcity and global climate change.

PAUL SOLMAN: In a sense, it's no accident that Pittsburgh is desperately trying to go green.

PAUL SOLMAN: This was soot city, right up through the 1950s.

LESTER LAVE: Streetlights had to be on 24 hours a day. If you had an office job, you had to bring an extra shirt to work because your first shirt would be absolutely filthy by noon. And people often didn't have curtains because the curtains would get so dirty you'd have to wash them almost every day.

PAUL SOLMAN: Though it's a far cry from the filthy '50s, Pittsburgh has been rated America's second smoggiest city after L.A. And perhaps because of that, it's also become a hotbed of alternative energy.

Nuclear power sees a revival

PAUL SOLMAN: Take Westinghouse, which made its name here generating electricity the dirty way for nearly a century. It's now the country's top maker of nuclear power, whose main selling point these days is its cleanliness.

ADVERTISEMENT NARRATOR: As the effects of pollution and global warming increase, it is time to look for a better solution to the world's energy needs.

DAVID HOWELL, Vice President of Field Services, Westinghouse Electric: This is a representation of a fuel pellet that's actually inside the rods. And the energy in one of these fuel pellets is equal to almost 2,000 pounds of coal.

PAUL SOLMAN: Engineer David Howell.

DAVID HOWELL: And there's a stack of probably several hundred of these pellets in each one of these rods. And there's 144 rods in each fuel assembly. And there's roughly about 160 fuel assemblies in each core. So, if you do the math, that's a lot of energy.

PAUL SOLMAN: Nuclear power already supplies 20 percent of America's electricity, 80 percent in France. Westinghouse's nuclear business has tripled in less than a decade.

CEO Steve Tritch.

STEVE TRITCH, CEO, Westinghouse Electric: We've had as many as 46 countries come to us recently and ask for information or perhaps a bid on a new nuclear power plant. So it's great guns right now for nuclear around the world.

PAUL SOLMAN: But what of the fears, nuclear meltdown, leakage from storing spent fuel, diversion of enriched uranium for terrorism?

DANIEL HIRCH, Committee to Bridge the Gap: Nuclear is among the most dangerous technologies on Earth. The amount of radioactivity in a reactor core is so large that, if there were an accident, it could cause hundreds of thousands of casualties.

The wastes are so dangerous that they'll be dangerous for half a million years. And each reactor produces 10 tons of plutonium over its lifetime when it takes only a few pounds to make a nuclear weapon.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, says Tritch, modern plants are vastly safer. And though many environmentalists may disagree, others are taking a new look.

DR. JAMES LOVELOCK, Environmentalist: I think we need nuclear power urgently and soon because of the fierce changes of global warming.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, with the price rise of oil and gas, nuclear is increasingly an economic alternative, as well.

STEVE TRITCH: It's a very competitive offering for electric utilities. And if you add any kind of carbon tax in on top of it, either on a coal plant or a gas plant, than I think nuclear -- you're starting to see this now in the U.S. where nuclear is clearly one of the major considerations for people.

Solar also booming

PAUL SOLMAN: But, if nuclear and wind are now helping make Pittsburgh an international hub of alternative energy, the greatest promise of all may be in another technology with roots here: solar.

JOHN EASOZ, Executive Vice President, Solar Power Industries: What you see here is about 265 kilograms of pure, ultra-pure silicon, that represents about $20,000, $25,000 worth of silicon that you're looking at right here.

PAUL SOLMAN: Can I pick one up?

JOHN EASOZ: No, no, please don't, because even the touch of your hands, the oil from your fingers will contaminate this whole lignin.

PAUL SOLMAN: John Easoz runs Solar Power Industries, which began as the solar cell division of Westinghouse, which divested it back in the '80s when oil was cheap, global warming a distant concern.

Silicon, from which glass and solar cells are made, is another Pittsburgh connection. PPG developed the first flat-plate solar collector back in the '70s. Today, Easoz's firm is taking off, doubling every year, quintupling, he expects, in 2008.

JOHN EASOZ: And then we'll probably go back to a doubling pace after that.

PAUL SOLMAN: I don't mean to be disrespectful, but if you doubled every year, oh, in about 10 years, you'd be the size of Google or something.

JOHN EASOZ: Well, we'd be pretty big. I mean, in 10 years, we would certainly be one of the biggest solar cell companies in the world, no doubt about that.

PAUL SOLMAN: And he fully expects to be given the industry he's in.

JOHN EASOZ: At one time, it was felt that solar would never amount to more than a few percent of the world's energy supply. I think things have changed. And I think, in the future, very long term, it could easily accommodate nearly all the energy supply.

PAUL SOLMAN: And what kind of time frame?

JOHN EASOZ: Fifty years.

PAUL SOLMAN: Fifty years, we won't be here to see whether or not you're right.

JOHN EASOZ: We'll see. People are living longer, too.

PAUL SOLMAN: It's time to end back where we began, at the newest of clean technologies, in the oldest of once dirty energy towns.

ANDREW HANNAH: This is where the gold is. So...

PAUL SOLMAN: That's where the gold is?

ANDREW HANNAH: That's right. So a kilogram of this material can make millions of devices.

PAUL SOLMAN: Andrew Hannah's firm, Plextronics, makes polymers, molecules of plastic that connect sunlight to electricity. The polymers are liquefied into ink and literally printed as solar cells or painted on any surface that can be exposed to the sun.

ANDREW HANNAH: We believe, by the year 2016, that you'll be able to print a solar cell anywhere you want it. So you could have it on the top of a garage. You can have it on a game. You can have it on the back of a cell phone.

PAUL SOLMAN: So I could have my car coated with this stuff?

ANDREW HANNAH: Fantastic idea.

PAUL SOLMAN: If the power generation source is...

ANDREW HANNAH: Is affordable.

PAUL SOLMAN: And clean?

ANDREW HANNAH: Right, which solar can be.

Preparing for an uncertain future

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, maybe, maybe not. Others are skeptical of this technology, as well as of nuclear, certainly, or even wind.

But if the world keeps getting warmer and fossil fuels stay up in price, new energy technology will keep coming, technology that will solve today's problems, say the optimists, as technology has in the past.

Only one bet seems safe, however: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will continue to be a competitive cluster for addressing our energy problems, which had their American debut in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

RAY SUAREZ: You can watch all of our Pittsburgh stories, plus our Pennsylvania and other primary states coverage, on our Web site at PBS.org.