Millvale Shines with New Solar Power

This guest blog is part of the Pittsburgh Tall media series and was produced by Work Hard Pgh. Our guest writer is Alyse Horn.

Millvale has sustainability on its mind and a goal to eventually become “a self-reliant urban solar village,” said Zaheen Hussain, Millvale’s Sustainability Coordinator.

The community has adopted the goal of slowly incorporating its solar ambitions into its daily routine, starting with the Millvale Community Library.

The library, which is in the heart of the community, was the first to jump onboard and be the frontrunner for reducing the community’s carbon footprint by becoming fully solar operated. Hussain said the library no longer pays utility bills, and when the “bill” comes, it actually looks more like a check because of how much solar energy the library produces.

By saving money, the library is able to hire and pay staff members fulltime wages, which in turn provides more resources for community members.

Hussain said there is a skepticism that surrounds solar energy in the region, because the weather tends to air on the cloudy side, but residents who stop by the library can witness solar energy being harnessed in real time. There is a kiosk in the library that shows how much solar power the building is absorbing and using on a daily basis.

The library also helps residents get access to solar service providers and trustworthy organizations when is comes to solar installations. Millvale enhanced this concept by creating the Solar Ambassador program, where community members selected an ambassador to expand solar knowledge within Millvale and ensure that it is part of the community planning process.  Millvale was also an inaugural partner in the Solarize Allegheny Program.  As stated on their website, “Solarize Allegheny is a project funded by the Heinz Endowments and managed by non-profit SmartPower – to double the amount of solar energy throughout Allegheny County.”

Millvale resident Mandy Wolovich was the first Solar Ambassador for the program and the contact point for anything solar related in the neighborhood. Wolovich said she was part of assessing the solar output and necessities needed to turn the library 100 percent solar.

“The Millvale Community Library has been the hub and launch point for our solar initiatives, as well as other sustainability concepts that are becoming a reality in Millvale,” Wolovich said.

Wolovich’s own home is solar powered, which makes her a solid contact point and she is able to give other residents down-to-earth information on how and why to go solar.

“Years ago, you would hear people having conversations saying that solar isn’t a viable energy source,” Hussain said. “Now we are at the point where we are having educated conversations about it.”

Solar panels are still too pricey for some residents, but what matters is that the conversations are getting started and residents are talking about saving for future solar panels to power their homes.

Hussain said the adoption of solar power can keep Millvale resilient against natural disasters or energy blackouts, and has become even more of a valuable asset to the community. The building next to the library is also solarized now, and over the summer there were panels installed at the Millvale Community Center.

“We want to become self-reliant and independent, but also over time want to decrease our carbon footprint and improve our air quality,” Hussain said.

The Allegheny Solar Co-operative was created because of these diligent solarization efforts. Hussain said the co-op is the first of its kind in southwestern Pennsylvania, and it “seeks to democratize access to solar ownership and is an inclusive approach to solar ownership where we can provide benefits to those who are unable to install solar energy on their existing residencies or businesses.”

More information will be available on the co-op and how to get involved within the coming months.

Special thanks to The Henry L. Hillman Foundation, Neighborhood Allies, Green Mountain Energy, evolveEA, The Heinz Endowments, Solarize Allegheny, and The Borough of Millvale for their support on this initiative.



Millvale Residents Activate Community Plan

Over 90 Millvale residents and stakeholders gathered in the community center on Thursday, January 28 to connect and absorb the next steps to be taken for the Millvale EcoDistrict Pivot Plan.

When the project was first formulated three years ago, Millvale residents said they wanted to focus on enriching Food, Water and Energy. With progress steadily being made on phase one, a meeting was held in October 2015 to formulate phase two: Millvale EcoDistrict Pivot 2.0. During that meeting, residents added Air, Mobility and Equity as focus areas for the project.

EvolveEA has been working with Millvale from the beginning, and Thursday night Christine Mondor and her team presented all of the information that had been gathered for the project and they were able to put forth a “honed down” plan.

“Millvale is an incredible place, and it is going incredible places,” Mondor said.

Each initiative was broken down and created to have the best possible impact for the planet, people, profit and identity of Millvale.

Mondor started the conversation by reviewing Millvale’s Energy goals, and said the community already has some initiatives in place to reach the goal of becoming “a self reliant urban solar village.”

An Allegheny Solar Co-op and the “Solarize Millvale” campaign have been implemented, bringing solar panels to the Millvale Community Library roof and the installation of LED lights to many of the borough’s streetlamps. Mondor said the next step is to gather data on a national level and compare Millvale’s models to other communities in our country, developing “a more detailed business case.”

From the beginning of the EcoDistrict talks, Food was a huge concern for Millvale and its residents. More than one third of the community’s population lives over one mile away from a supermarket or grocery store, and that means it is considered a food desert. Mondor said that the people of Millvale spend more money on their cars than they do on food. Currently, Launch Millvale: Food Enterprise Incubator is in the works for the community.

Residents want their neighborhood to become “a foodie paradise for everyone [that] is known for hyper local production,” Mondor said. This takes production, processing and distribution into consideration. Future projects for Millvale to focus on are creating a food foraging trail, which will be a community walking path that connects hillsides and green spaces and could feature edible plants along the walkway. The neighborhood also wants to create a “restaurant cluster” that “would establish Millvale as a food destination in the Greater Pittsburgh Area.”

But considering Millvale’s placement, Water is definitely a liability that could hurt business owners; like when Girty’s Run overflowed in 2004 and 2007. Mondor said that the issues are “immediate and tangible,” and explained how the community’s location affects the EcoDistrict plan.

“Millvale is like being at the bottom of a sink bowl and someone left the faucet on,” Mondor said.

According to research done by evolveEA, “Most of Millvale’s storm water issues are a result of flows from upstream communities. Millvale will remain vulnerable to flooding and the combined sewer overflows if [the tipping gates] cannot be effectively addressed without collaborative, multi-municipal action.”

Mondor explained different ways to fix the problem, including expanding the basin that the water is flowing into, stream portals and developing complete streets on Grant and North Avenues. Complete streets would improve the sidewalk culture above, but also have underground water system infrastructures in place. Most importantly, the solution came back to needing collaboration from neighboring communities because “we need to turn the faucet off,” Mondor said.

Complete streets also includes Mobility, which Millvaler’s in the community stressed the importance of in the beginning of EcoDistrict talks. The community wants to be known as “a place where all ages of people have the freedom to move safely.”

Mondor added the importance of safety and also creating accessibility for those who don’t have cars. Replacing sidewalks was an issue that was brought up when discussing Mobility, which falls under complete streets. Another idea presented for future transportation plans was a kayak commuter hub, which says a lot about how unique Millvale’s location is.

“Millvale has done some good stuff, and the bike infrastructure has some sass to it,” Mondor said, commenting on the sharrow’s and bike racks that are already in place around the community to promote biking.

Mondor then turned toward Millvale’s clean Air concern and yearning to create “a community where people can breathe easy indoors and outdoors.” Mondor explained that most of the pollution being produced in and around the community comes from the roads and highways. One way Millvale can improve air quality is by planting trees between the community and roads to act as a buffer for pollution, such as a clean air park. Mondor said breathe easy zones are also a way to combat pollution in the community, which is a “focus on building-based air filtration” and “includes very efficient filters, smart air sealing, and green roofs.”

Tying all of these initiatives together is Equity, which seemed to be subconsciously considered throughout the planning process by everyone involved. The community decided that its Equity requirements focus on providing education, health, economic opportunity, accessibility, a welcoming community and affordability to sustain its ideal EcoDistrict. Currently, affordable housing projects and connected green spaces are in the works.

“You’re very enabled and empowered to shape your environment,” Mondor said.

Millvale is on track to complete these goals, and more, by 2030.

Special thanks to the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, Neighborhood Allies, EvolveEA, The Borough of Millvale and the Millvale Community Development Corporation for their support on this initiative.

This blog is part of the Pittsburgh Tall media series and was produced by Work Hard Pgh. Our guest writer is Alyse Horn, and the photography was done by Ryan Haggerty.