Almost since the nation’s birth, Western Pennsylvania has played an important role in energy production for the country.  According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, active bituminous coal mines have been in operation in the state since the late 1700s.

The first coal mined in PA was taken at Coal Hill on Mount Washington, across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh.  The coal was transported by canoe to the local military garrison.  By the 1830s, Pittsburgh was a major consumer of coal, using more than 400 tons a day for both domestic and industrial use.  Bituminous coal mining flourished along with the growth of railroads and the steel industry.

During the last 200 years, more than 10 billion tons of bituminous coal has been mined from the 21 Western Pennsylvania coal-mining counties.  This represents a fourth of all the coal ever mined in the country.  Pennsylvania still plays a major role in coal production.  According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, in 2004, 75 million tons of coal was extracted by 7,000 miners employed in the area’s coal fields.

Pennsylvania Oil Production

In addition to a history of coal production, Western Pennsylvania has a long history of oil production.  In the late 1850s, Titusville, in Venango County just north of Pittsburgh, was a sparsely populated area.  All that changed in 1859, when Edward Drake drilled a well while exploring for petroleum.  For centuries, oil had been seeping from the ground in the area, and there had been reports that as early as 1410, Native Americans were using the oil for medicinal purposes.  Records indicate that settlers to the area also used the petroleum as fuel for their lamps and lubrication for their machinery.

After Drake successfully struck oil in 1859, the area around Titusville boomed, with towns such as Oil City and Petroleum Center arising.  Until the early 1900s and the historic Texas oil boom, the wells in and around Titusville were responsible for half of the world’s oil production.  Companies such as Pennzoil, Quaker State, and Wolf’s Head all established headquarters there.  Oil production peaked in 1891, and although oil is still produced in the area, by the 1990s those companies had moved their headquarters elsewhere.

Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Electric Company

Westinghouse LogoIn Western Pennsylvania, Westinghouse is a household name.  George Westinghouse, the inventor extraordinaire, began his electric company in Pittsburgh in 1886.  As industry and households moved from coal and oil to electricity and natural gas for their power, the company grew, expanding until it became one of the world’s most important multi-national corporations.  Unfortunately, in the mid-1990s, Westinghouse Electric suffered a number of setbacks and sold off some of its business units.

However, Westinghouse had a rebirth, reincarnating as Westinghouse Electric Company in the early 2000s.  During this decade, a new giant in energy production emerged in Pittsburgh with its impact being felt all over the world.  In 2007, Westinghouse and the Shaw Group contracted to provide China with four nuclear power plants.  These multi-billion dollar contracts have spurred Westinghouse to expand and relocate its headquarters in Cranberry Township, just north of Pittsburgh.

In 2011, Westinghouse celebrated its 125th anniversary.  The future looks very promising for the company that George Westinghouse began so many years ago.  In addition to the four nuclear power plants the company is providing for China, it has also contracted to build six more plants in the southwestern part of the country.  The company, as of 2011, has 5,000 employees.

Pittsburgh’s National Energy Technology Laboratory

According to the Allegheny Conference on Community Development’s Energy Alliance of Greater Pittsburgh initiative, the Pittsburgh region ranks among the nation’s top 25 employers in energy-related industries.  As such, it is no coincidence that the Department of Energy has its National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) situated here.  Located in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, NETL conducts energy and environmental research and development that advances DOE’s mission to secure the national, economic, and energy security of the United States.

NETL began in 1910 as the Bureau of Mines, and during the past 100 years it has had expertise in coal, natural gas, and oil technologies.  To kick off its second century of scientific advancement in the energy field, NETL is collaborating with five regional universities and has dedicated a new science exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center, which will be on display for the next several years.  The universities teaming with NETL are Carnegie-Mellon University, Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia University.

Pittsburgh University Energy Programs

Two universities located in Pittsburgh have special energy programs.  The University of Pittsburgh Center for Energy at the Swanson School of Engineering focuses on five energy areas:  energy diversification, renewable energy, clean coal technologies, hydrogen and environmental solutions.  Carnegie-Mellon University’s Electric Industry Center is described as “the largest research effort in the world focused on interdisciplinary problems of the electric industry.”

With the recent discovery of the gigantic natural gas reserves of the Marcellus Shale formation, a new energy chapter is being written in Pittsburgh.  Governor Tom Corbett said of the Marcellus Shale play, “We are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”  If his words prove prophetic, the Pittsburgh area will once again be on the forefront of bringing energy to the nation and the world.


Article by Jan Palko