Pennsylvania’s Parks Are Recharging…Themselves

Nationwide, cities have become the rock stars of climate change. With few exceptions, America’s largest metropolises have set the most progressive standards for carbon reduction, including aggressive renewable energy targets, mandatory building benchmarking, and clean energy tax credits. But among the New Yorks and Seattles of the race is an unlikely contender—the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). The state agency which manages 121 state parks has slowly built a reputation for excellence in building design, and the key to their success lies in the simple adherence to a greater mission.

Green spaces are generally regarded as environmental assets, representing not only an undeveloped piece of land but also a host to many carbon capturing trees and shrubs.  However, many sites also include recreation facilities, requiring the same energy and maintenance as any other building within a portfolio. As part of their 123-point Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Plan, the DCNR has taken the unusual step of calling out energy demand and resource management in particular, and have already realized those principles through a number of showcase projects.

“We took a really critical look at all our buildings and how we could actively mitigate the risks,” said the DCNR’s Deputy Secretary for Administration, Mike Walsh.

At the Ohiopyle State Park, the agency completed the LEED-Gold Laurel Highlands Falls visitors center, which accounts for a CO2 reduction of 2,000 tons, the equivalent of planting 600 acres of forest each year. It doubles as an education tool, giving its more than 1.5 million annual visitors a chance to see how buildings can actively create a better tomorrow.

The agency recently completed its 16th LEED certified building, with more planned for the near future.

“The tech is getting better, building systems are getting better. It’s a continual process of reviewing adaptations and making changes,” Walsh said.

Infrastructure isn’t the only sector of the DCNR that is evolving toward sustainability. Forty-three parks and forests are receiving solar-powered car charging stations over the next year. The implementation of the charging stations will fill gaps in the electric charging grid across the state, while reducing around 680 tons of CO2 emissions a year, according to Walsh.

“This provides a way for visitors to recharge their car batteries while recharging themselves in nature.”

The solar panels aren’t just intended for cars. Moraine State Park’s sewage treatment plant is now using a solar panel array to power itself. The move brings the plant to net zero carbon emissions and follows the agency’s plan of making all its current and new buildings high-performing.

In 2016, DCNR announced Point State Park’s role in the Pittsburgh 2030 Districts campaign.

Over the next year, a team will be deploying new software to track energy usage at the park and eventually throughout all the state’s parks. The technology will allow the team to further monitor emissions and pinpoint areas of need within each respective park. The DCNR will continue to work and grow with the 2030 Districts campaign as it expands into the future.

“As the states conservation agency we feel it is important to do everything we can to promote sustainability and share that with the public,” Walsh said.

While its buildings and infrastructure are becoming active models of sustainability, changing the habits of the public is also a key focus the DCNR’s plan.

“This issue isn’t going anywhere with each passing month more and more people are understanding the importance of this work,” Walsh said. “There’s a meaningfulness that comes with it.”

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