How Philadelphia's Navy Yard could lead the way in energy efficiency

With about $129 million in federal funding -- the largest grant in Penn State University history -- the Philadelphia Navy Yard is set to become a national model for energy efficiency.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

With about $129 million in federal funding -- the largest grant in Penn State University history -- the Philadelphia Navy Yard is set to become a national model for energy efficiency. The funding, largely from the U.S. Department of Energy, will pay for massive energy retrofits, technology research, workforce development and more.

I spoke last week with Hank Foley, Penn State's vice president of research and graduate school dean, about how the project will proceed and how it could become a model for energy efficiency throughout the country.

Talk about the history of the Navy Yard.

It was a major component of the economy in the Philadelphia area going back to World War II. Unfortunately for us, it was closed in the early- to mid-90s. Immediately, [the city] began to look at this space as an asset rather than a liability. Our interaction with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation[PIDC] came about because they were looking to redevelop the area. Penn State had a laboratory in the Navy Yard funded by the Office of Naval Research and still does. We did several things there in underwater systems and in power systems engineering. That work is ongoing. Because we had that work going on, PIDC [decided] to bring Penn State in with them on the redevelopment of the Navy Yard. We were brought into many of the partnerships PIDC already had in industrial development, entrepreneurship and workforce development. That, combined with the facility itself, provided us with an unbeatable combination of assets.

What does the Navy Yard look like now?

It's many, many vacant buildings. But it also is a city inside of a city. It has its own coal fire power plant. [I'd like] to see if we couldn't bring clean coal technology to that. It has its own power grid. If we can bring smart grid technology into the Navy Yard, it could be a tremendous demonstration of what can be done. I'd like to look at the integration of different sorts of power through that smart grid and illustrate how these power sources can be brought together. I'm talking about things like wind, solar, clean coal, so they're feeding the same grid at different times. We probably should be looking at natural gas, as well. Two companies come to mind immediately. I know Tastykake moved their facility there and has anew LEED-certified bakery. Urban Outfitters is there.

Building 661 [at the Navy Yard] dates back to 1940 or 1942. It is prototypical of many buildings in the United States in that it's old, it's terribly inefficient. You can't just tear these down. You need to retrofit them. A good deal of what we proposed wasn't new construction, but was whole building re-engineering. Whole building re-engineering means modeling and simulation of the building and then choices of materials that will increase energy efficiency and livability. In the 1970s and 80s, we sealed up all our buildings and we saved energy, but we caused all sorts of problems in public health. When we look at these buildings, we have an opportunity to look at novel materials, green materials, recycled materials, recyclable materials. It's a really exciting opportunity to demonstrate how these new technologies can be brought to bear.

What's the plan for how the grant will be used?

We have four main tasks. The tasks will involve the retrofit. They'll also involve the simulation and model building that can be used out in the field. We'll be testing and implementing things that have already been developed, but bringing them together and doing the science around further development. We also have a task focused on policy. There have to be governmental policies that incentivize the use of some of these materials and technologies because they'll be costly. They'll be more costly than what we do right now. The last task is workforce development. We need to help builders doing construction, architects, [understand] how you do this stuff, how it'll work, how you get the technology.

When is the work expected to begin and what's the timeline?

I hope we will have the contract negotiated and cut by the end of this month. We may not start until the end of the year. All of the tasks [described earlier] will begin in parallel. One doesn't depend on the other. The program is for five years, renewable for a second five years. In a decade, we could produce tremendous change.

Talk about the team you've assembled to do this work.

The most important part is PIDC. The other major components are our university partners. Rutgers is part of our team. We look at the whole New Jersey-New York area, they could really have impact very quickly in their neck of the woods. Within Philadelphia, we are working closely with the University of Pennsylvania, in particular the Wharton School where they have a special center for entrepreneurship and small business development. We'll also be working with Drexel University on engineering aspects of building renovation, retrofitting and energy efficiency. Carnegie Mellon University comes in with their computational capability. The University of Pittsburgh comes in on the policy side [and] in public health and engineering. We've reached all the way out to Purdue University. They will be involved in many of the engineering design aspects of this. Princeton is doing tremendous things in outreach and workforce development.

Do you see this as a model that could extend to other cities?

No question. The mayor of Philadelphia articulated his vision that Philadelphia would become the greenest city in the country. This hub fits that vision beautifully. Everything we're doing has to have national impact. Philadelphia is a really good place to do this because we have four seasons. The summer is incredibly hot and the winter can be incredibly cold. Those seasonal variations are a bear to work with. What we do in Philadelphia in the winter will certainly pay dividends in the northern states and frontier states because they're cold. What we do in the summer looks a lot like Texas, Florida and other places in the summer. It's ideally located that way.

Image: Hank Foley

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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