Navy Yard Hub project in jeopardy

Posted: July 07, 2013

The Energy Efficient Buildings Hub, an ambitious Pennsylvania State University research venture that was hailed as a cornerstone of the Navy Yard redevelopment when it was founded in 2010, is in danger of getting its plug pulled.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended Congress cut the hub's $22 million budget for the forthcoming fiscal year and order the Department of Energy to terminate the three-year-old program. The hub, which employs about 30 people, is funded almost entirely with federal money.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees energy and water development, recommended at a June 25 hearing that funds be cut for the Philadelphia center "because of poor performance and failure to meet technical milestones."

"After $80 million in appropriations and spending $55 million over the last four years, the committee has seen no measurable benefit from this investment," the panel said in a 151-page report.

The full Appropriations Committee accepted the subcommittee's recommendations on June 27.

Philadelphia political leaders are unalarmed about the rebuke because they expect a gridlocked Congress will be unable to pass a budget this year, and the hub will receive funding under continuing resolutions.

"The Senate action is not the end of process," U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) said Friday through a spokeswoman. Fattah's district is near, but does not include, the Navy Yard. However, he serves on a House committee that deals with the issue.

Advocates of the Philadelphia project also suggest politics is at play - Feinstein's state includes several national laboratories that are competing for the same pot of federal energy money. A spokesman for Feinstein did not respond to messages left Wednesday and Friday.

"This would be as much a loss for the Department of Energy and the nation as is it would be for Philadelphia," said John Grady, president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., which manages the Navy Yard.

Penn State is increasing efforts to more clearly communicate the hub's mission to skeptics.

"We now have a signal that we have a lot of work to do to talk to the folks on the subcommittee, including obviously the chair, and to hopefully educate them and convince them that what we are doing is of national importance and should be continued," Laurie Actman, a deputy director of the hub, said Friday.

The EEB Hub is one of five energy innovation hubs that were started under former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and are aimed at solving specific energy challenges.

The EEB Hub's mission is to develop cost-effective technologies to reduce the 40 percent of the nation's energy consumed in buildings. Its initial strategy is to improve efficiency in the Philadelphia area - to reduce regional energy use by 20 percent by 2020 - and then deploy the approach nationwide. But its regional concentration now appears to be regarded as a weakness.

"The hub was more focused on the economic development of the Philadelphia area rather than developing a national program to improve the energy efficiency of commercial and residential buildings across the United States," Feinstein's committee said in its strongly worded report.

The Senate panel cited an independent review team last year that found the hub was "poorly managed and lacked measurable goals." Despite efforts by the Energy Department to improve management, "the committee has seen no improvement."

The review team criticized the hub's senior management for lacking "deep expertise in the buildings sector" and for being based in State College, not the Navy Yard. The executive director, Henry C. Foley, is Penn State's vice president for research and graduate school dean. A search is underway for a full-time director who would be based in Philadelphia.

The center is affiliated with about 150 academics. It is involved in 10 demonstration projects, including a retrofit of a Montgomery County office building in Norristown.


Contact Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947, amaykuth@phillynews.com or @Maykuth.

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