Illuminating the Way Toward Greener Parking Garages

In the business of energy efficiency, one type of structure that uses a great deal of energy might not come to mind first – a parking garage. In many cases, parking garage lights are on 24 hours a day, seven days a week – even when the buildings are totally unoccupied. As a result, garages’ electric bills can be shocking at the end of each month. In Downtown Pittsburgh alone, there are 84 parking garages and surface parking lots. Of the garages reporting energy data to Green Building Alliance’s Pittsburgh 2030 District (those which are working to cut energy consumption 50% below baseline by the year 2030), 73% were consuming more energy than national baselines in 2014.

Green Garage Initative

URA leaders in the Pittsburgh Green Garage Initiative: Brent Lahaie (left), Kryn Hoyer-Winfield (right), and David Thomas (not pictured) of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh

LED lighting upgrades and retrofits are often the first energy improvements that structures of any type undertake. Parking garages are no exception, with an informal alliance dubbed the “Pittsburgh Green Garage Initiative” (PGGI) helping efforts scale up faster. In 2014, PGGI began with GBA and the City of Pittsburgh asking if city parking garages could become efficient, renewable, resilient structures through the installation of solar photovoltaics with battery backups on upgraded, public-owned assets. While the answer at that time was “not yet,” the result was an official PGGI collaboration funded by a 2014 grant from the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority (PEDA).

PGGI’s efforts are to create truly green, renewable, and smart parking garages, with collaboration between the City of Pittsburgh, GBA, Public Parking Authority of Pittsburgh (PPAP), Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA), and Sports & Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh & Allegheny County (SEA) – all Pittsburgh 2030 District Partners.

“This is a great example of interagency cooperation and innovation – and Pittsburgh’s leadership in energy efficiency and building performance,” said Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto. “It is a smart investment in our infrastructure that will save energy, reduce operational costs, and provide for a better customer experience.”


The URA is evaluating its entire parking garage portfolio and planning to leverage savings from its initial projects by reinvesting into other facilities via a new sustainability revolving fund.

A collaboration years in the making, PGGI’s roots began in 2013 when SEA was planning to upgrade lighting in three parking garages. The agency was interested in using very high efficiency lighting, but realized that there was a discrepancy in the building code that would prevent it from maximizing its efforts. In collaboration with GBA, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), the City of Pittsburgh, and Councilman Dan Gilman, the issue was resolved with a unanimous code change. Just one year after completing its resulting retrofits, SEA experienced 64% reductions in annual electricity use. The payback period for the retrofit of 1,356 fixtures with accompanying motion and daylighting sensors is 3.5 years. Duquesne Light rebates helped SEA recoup 18% of its cost.

Following in SEA’s footsteps as part of the garage initiative and energy grant, URA retrofitted five local parking structures — and is extremely pleased with the results. For the first five months of post-retrofit operations, the Authority is averaging a 55% reduction in electricity use.

URA’s expected payback period is three to four years, mirroring SEA’s experiences. As prices for LED lighting continues to drop and energy prices climb, these payback periods are expected to shrink, helping parking garages in the region apply similar retrofits. URA’s complete retrofit portfolio, to date, includes five parking garages with 3,051 total parking spaces lit by 1,436 new fixtures. As a result of these amazing impacts, the Authority is evaluating its entire parking garage portfolio and planning to leverage savings from its initial projects by reinvesting into other facilities via a new sustainability revolving fund.

David Thomas, asset manager of the City’s Real Estate Department and president of the Pittsburgh Economic & Industrial Development Corporation at the URA, estimates that 18% of the total annual savings (not including rebates) will come from reduced maintenance. These savings include purchasing replacement equipment and redeploying human resources to other projects in the URA portfolio.


The completed retrofit uses controls to illuminate only the occupied zones, leading to jaw-dropping electricity reductions of 50% to 60%.

Pittsburgh Parking Authority is not far behind, completing a similar First Avenue Garage lighting and controls retrofit in August 2016 that is expected to have comparable jaw-dropping electricity reductions of 50% to 60%. CJL Engineering did the lighting design on all complete SEA, URA, and PPAP parking garages. PPAP is also designing retrofits on nine more facilities.

Ever interested in shaping the sustainability landscape in Pittsburgh, PGGI’s impacts continue as SEA pursues a nationally recognized Parksmart certification on its new Lot 1 parking garage on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. PPAP also has plans for a new garage pursuing Parksmart.

All 18 public parking garage projects engaged with PGGI indicate that structures of all types have opportunities to reduce their resource use in ways that may often be overlooked or underestimated. As PGGI partners continue to make energy improvements to more structures, PGGI and GBA are ensuring that efficiency opportunities for parking garages – and other oft-overlooked spaces – are brought into the light.

This article originally appeared in Viride magazine.

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