26 August 2010

Philadelphia: Birthplace of Energy Independence?

Philadelphia Navy Yard, from Robert N. Dennis ...Image via Wikipedia
Philadelphia Navy Yard, Robert N. Dennis collection
Can Philadelphia become the birthplace of another kind of American independence: energy independence?

Two developments this week add to the Greater Philadelphia region's bid to become a regional powerhouse, if you will, of energy efficiency, clean technology research and commercialization, and entrepreneurship.

The location of these new developments is the old Philadelphia Navy Yard, the "city within the city" that is rapidly becoming an economic center with the headquarters of URBN, TastyKake, and the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard.

On Tuesday, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania (BFTP-SEPA), announced the launch of its Energy Commercialization Institute (ECI), which it describes as "the region's first partnership for accelerating alternative and clean energy technology development and commercialization, through translational research and sponsored research funding."

The ECI is a partnership between Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, and BFTP-SEPA, which created the ECI with $1.2 million from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A host of other area universities will also participate.

"The Energy Commercialization Institute is a catalyst for regional energy-based economic growth," said RoseAnn B. Rosenthal, President & CEO of Ben Franklin.

The Institute will implement "common intellectual property protocols among the participating institutions and by provide capital at the earliest stage of technology commercialization," according to Rosenthal.

The other development tackles another energy and economic opportunity: efficiency.  A research consortium led by Penn State University announced yesterday that it won a competitive grant from the Department of Energy worth $129 million to develop an "energy innovation hub" at the Navy Yard.

The hub will fund research into energy efficiency for buildings and train workers in both retrofitting and new construction.

"Our goal is to create the building equivalents of super low emissions vehicles (SULEVs) in buildings – call them SULEBs!" said Dr. Henry Foley, Penn State's vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, who is leading the effort.

"With this kind of support we can realize the vision of Philadelphia becoming America’s greenest city and we can put Pennsylvanians in the lead of this technological revolution," Foley said in an email.

The Navy Yard, with a land footprint of 1,200 acres, has some unique qualities suitable for such a research facility, including its own unregulated power grid, allowing for testing technologies in a way that won't impact the larger, city-wide power grid.

The campus also has over seven miles of waterfront, more than 100 companies with a workforce of 8,000, 5.5 million square feet of buildings, and more than $500 million of private investment, according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Critics question the assertion that the energy hub will create 100,000 jobs and note that other top-down efforts have failed to deliver results.

But Foley dismisses such criticism, saying in an email that "this effort will be driven by science and engineering for innovation. This HUB is highly focused in one incredibly important area. The outcome will be technology-based economic development."

As for comparing this to other top-down efforts, Foley said, "it sounds to me like a comparison of apples to bowling balls – they’re both spherical."

The combination of this hub, the energy commercialization institute, and existing business incubator-style efforts at the Navy Yard, which houses such promising companies as OxiCool that is developing a cutting-edge air conditioning technology, makes the case for a growing support infrastructure for the region.

What's needed next is more opportunities for ground-up entrepreneurial efforts, attracting some later stage companies that will provide jobs, and an investment ecosystem to support the best emerging technologies in the region.

Philadelphia still has a long way to go, but it is slowly building momentum to ramp up to full power. If these efforts succeed, Philadelphia may become the birthplace of another American revolution, that of energy independence.

(Disclosure: The author is co-founder of the Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic, which provided a letter of support for the Energy Innovation Hub application and is a partner in that effort, along with other efforts supported by BFTP-SEPA.)
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