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The Pitt Sustainability Challenge is down to 5 finalists

  • University News
  • Sustainability
  • Pitt-Johnstown

Following months of deliberation, an evaluation committee has narrowed the Pitt Sustainability Challenge down to five finalists.

The initiative will award $300,000 to an integrated, impactful, durable and feasible solution to move Pitt toward its goal of carbon neutrality by 2037 — the 250th anniversary of our founding. 

Among the many efforts under the Pitt Sustainability Plan and beyond are initiatives balancing equity, environment and economics to ensure current and future generations can thrive across disciplines, domains and scales. The winner of the challenge will play a key part in this goal. 

The Pitt Sustainability Challenge Finalist Pitch Event will be held on Sept. 14 from 9 a.m. to noon at the Petersen Events Center. Members of the Pitt community and general public are invited to hear all five finalists publicly pitch their solutions. A committee will select the winner at the celebration. Registration for the event is requested as space is limited.

Get to know the finalists:

"Chill Up" Challenge by Pitt Green Labs

Because they need to freeze specimens, tissues and things like vaccines, research labs can be three to six times more energy intensive than an average commercial building. The “Chill Up” Challenge proposal would offer researchers on all campuses freezer upgrade rebates and incentives to share freezers, as well as reduce barriers to “chilling up” with educational efforts. One of the most impactful changes a lab can make is replacing old, energy inefficient, ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers and “chilling up” their ULT freezers to -70 rather than -80 degrees Celsius. This action can reduce energy consumption by an average of 37% without compromising specimens.

Chill Up also wants to increase engagement with the Pitt Green Labs program, which provides recommendations and resources to help Pitt laboratories incorporate sustainability best practices (so far, only 22 labs have participated in the Pitt Green Lab program out of over 2,000 across the University).

CO2IReduce by University of Pittsburgh

The CO2IReduce project would collect data and create a personalized dashboard relevant to any student, faculty or staff member on the Pittsburgh campus to demonstrate how they can use space efficiently and reduce their carbon footprint. A key goal of the project is to provide scalable solutions to make even the least energy efficient buildings more efficient, especially when compared with new buildings or vast renovations.

[Here are the highlights from Pitt’s latest Sustainability Plan progress report]

Ecotone Renewables’ Anaerobic Digestion Technology

Ecotone Renewables’ Anaerobic Digestion Technology looks to divert carbon emissions by converting local food waste into nutrient-dense, ready-to-use fertilizer. Excessive food waste and dying soils are having a profoundly negative global impact, notably in creating extreme atmospheric carbon levels. Food waste also expands landfills, leads to less healthy plant life and weakens the soil microbiome.

ZEUS anaerobic digesters on or near Pitt campuses would address these issues by processing 10 tons of food waste and diverting 120 tons of CO2 emissions per system per year, aiding in Pitt’s mission to achieve carbon neutrality by 2037. This waste would then be converted into 2,600 gallons of Soil Sauce, a ready-to-use, ultra-clean, nutrient-microbial-rich fertilizer. This fertilizer will support Pitt’s expanding garden and tree cover infrastructure by improving the vitality of green roofs, increasing edible garden yields by 34%, and increasing campus tree and plant life's ability to capture carbon — putting it back in the land rather than the atmosphere.

Panther Tracks by S&B USA Construction

In fiscal year 2019, commuter travel represented 16.4% of Pitt’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory. Due to Pitt’s size, geographic pull and relative shortage of nearby affordable housing, many community members rely on personal vehicles to get to campus.

S&B USA Construction aims to facilitate regional transportation decarbonization and increase the University’s electric vehicle charging and eMobility infrastructure. They plan to leverage the physical places that University of Pittsburgh controls, such as garages, lots and adjacent buildings across campuses, to support the transition of single occupancy vehicles, shuttles, shared-use vehicles and micromobility to zero emissions. The project’s budget would be used to deliver two solutions: a comprehensive decision-making and prioritization plan for short-, medium- and long-term investment and a pilot project to engage all stakeholders and lay the groundwork for future expansion.

UPJ Geothermal Tunnels Feasibility Study

The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown has an unseen resource under the campus grounds — mining tunnels that can provide sustainable geothermal energy.

This year, Pitt-Johnstown’s electricity consumption is trending 60%-70% above budget allocations. A sustainable solution is needed, and this project would also result in savings via tax credits. The team will complete a feasibility study and project management plan to use the existing tunnels as a geothermal heating and cooling source; the solution will tie together campuswide systems more effectively.

The intended outcomes for this feasibility study include identifying measures to benefit the regional community, reducing energy consumption and serving as a model project for large scale geothermal projects. The study will be led by partners at Apex Companies and H.F. Lenz, who both hire Pitt alumni. Geothermal heating and cooling will also serve the campus and its students by resolving system issues concerning the Physical Plant Building. The project will serve the campus by responsibly stewarding Pitt-Johnstown’s natural setting, revenue and assets.


Photography by Tom Altany