Letter: South Philly’s Energy Efficient Buildings Hub deserves more time to prove its value

     This former Navy rec center, shown here in September 2012, is the future home of the region's Energy Efficient Buildings Hub. (Zack Seward/WHYY)

    This former Navy rec center, shown here in September 2012, is the future home of the region's Energy Efficient Buildings Hub. (Zack Seward/WHYY)

    The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee’s plans to shut down South Philly’s federally funded Energy Efficient Buildings Hub are wrong-headed for the country and potentially harmful for Philadelphia.

    The following is written in response to Zack Seward’s story “U.S. Senate committee moves to defund Philadelphia’s Energy Efficient Buildings Hub.”

    Within weeks of Obama’s Climate Action Plan and new allocations for alternative energy and efficiency, the Senate Appropriations Committee wants to shut down South Philly’s federally funded Energy Efficient Buildings Hub because it’s been “more focused on the economic development of the Philadelphia Area rather than developing a national program.”

    About 200,000 Philadelphians are living at less than half the poverty line. That’s 12.9 percent of Philadelphians and the highest rate of deep poverty among America’s 10 most populous cities. Philadelphians spend 29 percent more on commercial energy than the rest of America. The Obama Administration would be wise to give this program more than four years to control energy consumption and set an example for the rest of the country.

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    The EEB Hub has two major construction projects (one new, one retrofitted) that are set to be open in the spring of 2014. If the president and the Senate abandon their plans to turn an immensely impoverished and inefficient city around so soon after Obama’s public plea to conserve energy and protect our climate, I will find it hard to take Washington’s environmental commitment seriously.

    The Appropriations Committee claims that the EEB Hub has achieved no measurable goals in four years and that their original five-year plan should be cut short just as the EEB Hub is set to open two facilities that could serve as models for the rest of the country. The EEB Hub did not intend to develop an efficiency program. Its goal has been to lead by example in a city that is in need of savings. The Immersive Construction Laboratory (ICon) has turned the EEB Hub into a commercial enterprise.

    ICon, located in the Navy Yard’s Building 101, is a space where up to 40 people at a time can virtually explore 3D and 4D architectural models. The EEB Hub is training private engineering and building firms to use this equipment to sway prospective investors and in the meantime has been using it to design Building 661, future EEB Hub headquarters and a repeatable achievement in retrofitting. Originally a gymnasium built in 1941 and closed in 1995, principal architect David Riz has chosen to focus on accessible “state-of-the-shelf” technologies to provide an economic model for efficiency.

    The EEB Hub’s current headquarters has become an efficiency laboratory with a 1,500 data point computer system capable of organizing factors related to energy consumption. The EEB Hub’s goal is to lower Philly’s commercial energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020, well above the initial five-year plan proposed by the Department of Energy in 2011.

    By the end of next year the EEB Hub will be in a position to vet all new construction projects in Pennsylvania and be a trusted source on how to build efficiently. While having such a hub in New York City or Washington, D.C., would be a more lucrative real estate venture if the hub where to be eventually sold, if the Department of Energy pulls out of Philadelphia they will have abandoned a population that needs their help.

    No Philadelphia senators are on the Appropriations Committee, but they may have the ears of those who are. Cutting off the EEB Hub would leave the Navy Yard with more of the vacant eyesores Philadelphians hoped to revitalize.

    Russell Zerbo is advocacy coordinator for the Clean Air Council.

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