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Energy (and Economic) Transformation Come to the Philadelphia Navy Yard

We’ve long liked the Department of Energy’s new Energy Innovation Hubs program, with its resemblances to our energy discovery-innovation institutes idea. And we’ve especially liked the plan for the third type of the hubs, which has called for supplementing a powerful research, development, and deployment (RDD) hub focused on energy efficient building technology with an array of additional resources intended to broaden the effort and better connect it to the local economy.

Now, a research consortium led by Penn State and based out of the Philadelphia Navy Yard has won the five-year, $122 million award for a building sciences hub and innovation cluster and it feels like a masterstroke. One of multiple truly inventive proposals from around the country, the winning Philadelphia entry epitomizes the power of a new era of smart, region-centered thinking and action about science, innovation, and regional development in America.

Centered on a new paradigm for doing hard-core translational science, the new Energy Regional Innovation Cluster (E-RIC) initiative has always been noteworthy because it shows the administration moving to complement a narrower research and technology program (the hubs) with a broader view of the real-world process by which truly game-changing, commercial-scale innovation occurs.

Unlike the other hubs, the cluster-oriented building sciences initiative represents an explicit acknowledgment of the powerful role of place, regions, and local industry clusters in the dynamics of innovation and commercialization. In that sense the building sciences hub with its energy regional innovation cluster (E-RIC) strategy has always been important as a marker of the growing recognition in Washington that regions matter and that local innovation clusters are a proven forum for technology transfer, knowledge spillovers, and efficient entrepreneurship. Making the project even more significant is that fact that the award will launch an important piloting of a new, multi-agency approach to federal programming that seeks to align disparate federal funding streams (in this case from six economic development agencies) behind a core development goal. 

And yet what is especially compelling about the winning Philly project is the extent to which it places a gritty, physical urban place at the center of its plan. To be sure, the scientific program went through a rigorous review process with experts from the federal government, industry, and academia that vetted the scientific and technical merit of the project and the qualifications of the management team and personnel, which includes scientists from Princeton, Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, and other institutions. But while the translational science was clearly impeccable, it is equally clear that the Philly Naval Yard’s extremely real and physical urban presence loomed large in the region’s win.

The Naval Yard has, after all, been a focal point of Philadelphia-region revitalization efforts for a decade, ever since the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, the last vessel to pass through the works, cast anchor in September 1995. But notwithstanding its sketchy recent history, the Yard offers the energy hub an extraordinary asset because it encompasses a complete, working microcosm of an American metropolitan area under single ownership--perfect for experiments on energy efficiency and how buildings relate to the power grid. The yard’s 1,200 acres, for example, include more than 200 buildings, seven miles of waterfront, and a workforce of 8,000 in more than 100 companies. Among the yard’s buildings, some are old and some brand new, with the inventory including factories, offices, warehouses, and eventually residences. Moreover, the yard has its own unregulated power grid, which will allow further experimentation.

In this sense, that the chosen E-RIC winner happens to be deeply urban, metro Philadelphia is a true affirmation that America’s energy challenges need to be sorted out not just in suburban research parks or controlled lab-campus settings but in the gritty real-world of places, old buildings, longstanding infrastructure, transitioning economies.

For all of these reasons, then, Philly’s energy innovation hub in the building sciences makes for a super-compelling experiment in energy efficiency, regional economic development, and local revitalization all at once.