How Philadelphia's Navy Yard will become mini-city of energy innovation

A model of renovated building 661 at the Navy Yard. A federal grant will fund research into energy-efficient building designs and training workers in how to do the best retrofitting and new construction. The Navy Yard's unique qualities sold the federal funders on the project.
A model of renovated building 661 at the Navy Yard. A federal grant will fund research into energy-efficient building designs and training workers in how to do the best retrofitting and new construction. The Navy Yard's unique qualities sold the federal funders on the project.
Posted: September 01, 2010

Congratulations. You've blown some insulation into the attic, screwed in some compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Perhaps you replaced those old, drafty windows.

Energy-saving moves, all of them.

But that's nothing compared to what is coming at the Navy Yard.

Pennsylvania State University and a slew of partners plan to implement and develop the very latest in eco-friendly technologies at the South Philadelphia site, with the help of $159 million in federal and state grants announced last week.

"Dynamic" building facades that adjust in response to changes in outdoor temperature and sunlight. High-tech materials that remove humidity from the air without cooling it to the bone-chilling level of the typical air conditioner. Electronic sensors that perceive harmful particles in the air and activate filters when needed.

Some of this is still in the concept stage, while other elements are on the market. But they are rarely implemented as parts of a system in which buildings - even entire neighborhoods - can slash energy costs by engaging in a computer-controlled give-and-take with the environment and the electrical grid.

So-called smart buildings have been built here and there, but not in a way that can be replicated at low cost for a mass market, said James Freihaut, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State. The goal is to develop technology that will pay for itself within five years, cutting energy costs by at least 50 percent.

"It's not rocket science," said Freihaut, the technical lead on the project. "It's actually a lot more difficult."

But he thinks it can be done, starting with several of the Navy Yard's redbrick structures as guinea pigs. Among the site's benefits is that it has its own power grid, said engineer Satish Narayanan of the Connecticut-based United Technologies Corp.

"It's sort of a mini-city," said Narayanan, whose employer is a project partner.

UTC makes Carrier air conditioners, among many other products, and this expertise is expected to be a big source of cost savings.

Today's air conditioners cool the air well below room temperature in order to remove humidity. In a typical commercial building, the air must then be reheated - a significant waste.

In a home with central air, the machine comes roaring to life every so often, emitting air at 55 degrees until the overall temperature is brought down to the desired level.

If the humidity were removed from the air in some other way, the air would not need to be cooled as much, and the machines could be smaller - saving energy and capital costs, Narayanan said.

Humidity could be lowered with some sort of membrane or chemical dehumidifier, perhaps by mimicking processes found in nature, said Penn State's Freihaut. For example, certain desert toads have skin that can capture water from the air, he said.

Other technologies that will be studied at the Navy Yard include window glass that can be electrically manipulated to admit different amounts of light depending on the time of day. Such a system would be automated to anticipate and respond to weather changes and how many people are in the building, said Narayanan.

The project's biggest recipient of federal funds is Penn State, with $34 million. UTC will receive $10 million for research and will chip in $5 million of its own, while Bayer MaterialScience is to get $2.5 million and contribute about $3 million. The partners include 11 universities and five corporations.

Several buildings at the Navy Yard will be retrofitted, among them Building 661 - a 30,000 square-foot edifice that once housed a gymnasium, swimming pool, and offices. A separate laboratory facility will be built from scratch.

Various forms of high-tech insulation will be used, but that requires more focus on indoor air quality, said Mike Gallagher, director of the government services group for Bayer MaterialScience. The air in a tightly sealed building can suffer from "off-gassing," chemicals emitted from synthetic materials.

So the company, part of the German-based Bayer Group, has developed eco-friendly urethane coatings and other materials with negligible levels of volatile organics.

Still another technology involves impregnating concrete or another rigid building material with a second substance, such as a waxlike polymer, that has a melting point near room temperature.

Called phase-change materials because they change back and forth from liquid to solid, melting or solidifying depending on the temperature, they serve as a sort of insulator.

They rely on the principle that a substance requires energy to change its phase - to melt (or boil, for that matter) - energy that is absorbed from the surrounding environment without changing the material's temperature.

The melting point of the substances used in building materials is typically above room temperature. So when the outdoor temperature exceeds that melting point, a certain amount of the heat is absorbed for the purpose of melting. Similarly, when the outdoor temperature comes back down at night, the heat from the material is released.

While these and other green materials already are available, rare is the building that has them all working in concert, said Thanos Tzempelikos, an assistant professor of architectural engineering at Purdue University - another project partner, which is getting $6 million.

A building has many complex subsystems, and they are generally designed and installed by different people. Unlike with say, an automobile, these professionals do not necessarily communicate with each other - from the developer to the architect to the subcontractor.

And the project leaders acknowledge that all the gee-whiz gadgetry in the world will not make a difference if no one uses it. The project officials will visit schools to describe their work and encourage people to enter the green-building field.

Business owners will be able to follow their work on an interactive website.

And some research will look at policies to encourage adoption of the technologies, such as incentives or regulation.

Still others will study energy generation and storage - for example, batteries to capture excess solar or wind energy for later use, when it is not sunny or windy.

Then there's a concept called combined heat and power - generating electricity on or near the site, perhaps with a gas-powered microturbine. Large power plants lose much of their energy in the form of waste heat, whereas the excess heat from a small, on-site plant can be used to heat the buildings.

The bottom line, said Freihaut, is that there is a lot of innovation to be done:

"I tell my students, 'Look, you can be richer than Bill Gates.' "


Contact staff writer Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com

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