Boundless Energy: Equipped with its own grid, the Navy Yard has a unique energy plan

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story by Alon AbramsonDespite its remote location just beyond the sprawling stadium parking lots at the south terminus of Broad Street, the Philadelphia Navy Yard’s steady development is hard to ignore. In fact, the campus, which has been managed by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) since the Navy transferred about 1,000 acres to the City in 2000, just celebrated a major milestone of 10,000 employees — an employment level greater than at the height of Navy operations on the site. Amid celebrations of the Navy Yard’s resurgence and the release of an updated Master Plan, another type of planning has been taking place with little fanfare.

Early in its planning, PIDC decided to position the Navy Yard as a sustainable campus. This is clearly visible in the revised Master Plan renderings, which show large park spaces, green roofs and canals for stormwater management. What isn’t seen in the renderings is the energy system that will enable the campus to operate independently with an unregulated electricity grid (leftover from the Navy’s occupancy) and reach new heights of energy efficiency.

PIDC is an economic development agency so its primary purpose is to draw businesses to the Navy Yard. The Master Plan outlines the extensive growth to come, while the separate Energy Master Plan tackles the challenge of providing competitively priced energy during and beyond this expansion. “The Navy Yard’s energy solution must provide reliable, safe power at a competitive cost, to a rapidly growing and diverse community, while lowering the carbon footprint,” explains Rudy Terry, director of the smart grid at the Navy Yard.

As more businesses move to the Navy Yard, the demand for energy is expected to rise at a rate that will make it difficult for PIDC to continue supplying affordable energy. PIDC, realizing that they needed to take some drastic measures, created a strategy that would help reduce the growing demand while also increasing the campus’ energy-making capacity and ability to power new buildings. It’s similar to Philadelphia’s innovative Green City, Clean Waters program, which is applying green stormwater tools to help the city’s currently overburdened sewer system. Instead of spending billions to expand the system’s capacity to meet demand, the Water Department has found sustainable ways to reduce demand.

The Navy Yard’s energy solution “will come in the form of an increase in traditional capacity, mitigated by adding various forms of clean, on-site energy resources,” says Terry. Conservation will also play an important role.

To implement this solution, the Navy Yard is investing in smart building-to-grid technology, explains Terry, and is taking a collaborative approach to energy resource management. For example, making buildings at the Navy Yard more energy efficient will reduce overall energy demand. Equally important, PIDC will identify the maximum amount of electricity needed at any one time. This peak demand happens on hot summer days when business as usual is combined with intensive air conditioning. Reducing demand on those days will mean a lower overall energy supply is needed. For PIDC, this will mean paying less for electricity year-round under their purchasing agreement with PECO.

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Reducing peak time energy use begins with laying out a sophisticated system for tracking energy use in Navy Yard facilities. Smart energy meters will be installed in buildings and are tied to a central network operating center where energy usage can be tracked in real time. With this new smart metering, PIDC can give its tenants electricity bills that don’t just show how much electricity is used, but also when it’s being used. PIDC can then offer owners rebates for cutting energy use during peak demand times. This system enables two key parts of the energy plan: efficiency and conservation.

Even with increased efficiency and conservation, the Navy Yard is certain to see an increase in energy demand. To offset this demand PIDC is encouraging on-site energy generation through large-scale and individual building (“behind-the-meter”) installations. PIDC is considering the installation of a natural gas generation facility to help offset the high demand periods, which would reduce the electricity costs to PECO.

Some behind-the-meter installations are already happening. Last December, a 600-kilowatt fuel cell was put in at the Urban Outfitters headquarters. The cell is expected to cover 60 percent of the headquarter’s electrical usage. PIDC will encourage other power generation investments through payment plans and leveraging available government rebates. By implementing these various measures, PIDC hopes to curb the Navy Yard’s greenhouse gas emissions, so that while energy use continues to rise, more renewable energy will be available to offset that demand. The result: a more sustainable, secure and reliable energy grid that is able to support the Navy Yard’s steady development.

Alon Abramson is project manager at the Penn Institute for Urban Research (penniur.upenn.edu) and a researcher at the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub (eebhub.org).

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said that PIDC has already released plans to develop a 1.5-megawatt solar facility on a former brownfield site. While this project was proposed, plans haven't been confirmed nor released.