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Energy Technology Innovators Power Greater Philadelphia Economy

Energy innovators are flocking to Greater Philadelphia, where the energy industry thrives on strong public support, strategic partnerships and a ready market.

By John Fuller on March 11, 2014

Greater Philadelphia is re-energizing its economy – literally. Energy innovators are flocking to the region, where the industry thrives on strong public support, strategic partnerships and a ready market.

With its more than 100 colleges and universities providing both research prowess and a highly skilled workforce and a wealth of venture capital, technical support and other resources, the region has crafted a thriving and growing energy sector that is creating millions of dollars in new investment and hundreds of new jobs.

Strong Grid, Strong Companies

Many of these companies are attracted by Greater Philadelphia’s presence in the nation’s largest power grid, which is coordinated over a 13-state area by Valley Forge-based regional transmission organization PJM. By carefully managing the flow of electricity through the grid, PJM ensures power stability and efficiency for 60 million customers.

Working alongside PJM are companies like Viridity Energy, which helps Greater Philadelphia’s largest energy users manage their draw on the grid.

Viridity’s primary product is VPower, a software platform that monitors the wholesale energy market in real time and automatically adjusts a client’s energy usage accordingly. The company also consults with large energy users to help them find ways to supply some of their own power.

Viridity has attracted the attention of Japan-based IT firm Mitsui & Co., Ltd., which plans to invest $15 million in Viridity and take the company’s products to Europe and Asia. Viridity and Mitsui also plan to work together on innovations like smart- and micro-grid systems.

Audrey Zibelman, the company’s president and CEO, says Greater Philadelphia itself contributes to her company’s success.

“The universities here are important to us because we need educated workers who are eager to do things differently,” she says. “And this location gives us extraordinary access to major markets like New York, Boston and D.C.”

Innovating for Efficiency

The region is on the leading edge of energy-related research and innovation, and the famed Philadelphia Naval Yard is at the epicenter of those efforts.

Funded by a combined $159 million in federal and state grants, the Energy Efficient Buildings (EEB) Hub opened its doors at the Navy Yard in February 2011. The Hub’s primary goal is to reduce energy usage in commercial buildings by 20 percent by 2020 via whole-building advanced energy retrofits. To reach this goal, the EEB’s efforts are concentrated on accelerating adoption of Advanced Energy Retrofits, new but proven technologies, systems and processes that can drive significant energy savings and, ultimately, economic savings.

Laurie Actman, the EEB’s deputy director, says those efforts can include anything from system upgrades to active management of employee energy use.

It’s an ambitious project, helped along by a Pennsylvania State University-backed coalition of schools, laboratories, utilities and economic development organizations.

“We’ve got the thinkers who are innovating ideas combined with the companies that are trying to implement them. They play off each other in a way that generates real solutions,” Actman says.

The region is already a leader in LEED-certified buildings, with 193 totaling 22.1 million square feet, as well as 336 LEED-registered buildings totaling 103.9 million square feet, as of August 2012.

Philadelphia in 2012 joined a small but growing list of cities mandating owners of commercial buildings with indoor floor space of 50,000 square feet or more “benchmark” their buildings annually.

Benchmarking requires owners to input the energy and water use of their buildings into an Environmental Protection Agency data tool that compares building resource use against buildings of similar type, size and use, and generates a 1-100 score and a report.

Cities that have made similar requirements have seen a 6 to 7 percent decrease in energy use, as building owners made their properties more efficient to cut costs and level the playing field with competitors.

A number of green tech companies have operations in the region with a diverse focus including the design of green buildings, the production of material used in solar-power production, smart grid technologies, energy-efficient control systems and power generation using renewable sources.

One of them, Mark Group, reaches out to homeowners. The England-based company opened its North American headquarters in the Navy Yard in 2010.

Mark Group installs energy-efficiency solutions like insulation, storm windows and LED lighting; conducts energy audits; and services HVAC and solar-power systems. About 1,500 Greater Philadelphia homeowners hire Mark Group each year, and the company plans to expand into Chicago, Boston and Baltimore within the next five years.

Abby Feinstein, sales and marketing manager, isn’t surprised by this quick success: She sees it as a natural outgrowth of Greater Philadelphia’s strong public support for innovative energy companies. Both the nationally recognized EnergyWorks program and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability have helped Mark Group find contractors and better understand the market – which Feinstein describes as “vast.”

“The market here has just the right mix of need, education and desire,” she says. “We hope more energy-related companies will come join us because it can only spread awareness and raise the tide for everyone.”

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