Pittsburgh Technical Council

Energy Innovation Center

Energy Innovation Center

Article Published: June 23, 2017

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A rare jewel of Pittsburgh stands at the foot of the Hill District. It’s the Energy Innovation Center (EIC), owned and operated by Pittsburgh Gateways Corporation (PGC). Within this 186,000-square-foot building, teachers educate young people for the trades, scientists research electrical transmission for the years ahead, and educators make it possible for the community and at-risk youth to learn about life sciences by conducting controlled experiments.

Under the directorship of Robert Meeder, Ph.D., President and CEO, PGC opened the EIC in November 2015. The EIC and key stakeholders transformed what had been a vacant property—formerly the Connelley Trade School.

This edifice was built in 1930, housed the largest vocational training center in the United States, and graduated as many as 1,800 students per year. “Counting our incumbent worker training and our entry-level training and the enrollments of the participating, post-secondary students, we will exceed 2,400 persons a year by 2018,” Meeder said.

Today, EIC stands as a LEED Platinum Certified structure that’s home to clean, efficient and sustainable energy solutions and technologies.

In recent years, EIC has renovated this building to meet U.S. Department of Interior specifications for historic preservation and has kept vocational shops and classrooms to their original dimensions. EIC has also added electrical supply, heating, air conditioning, insulation, power generation, power distribution and energy conservation to meet LEED Platinum standards. 

In a renewal of the Connelley tradition, the EIC, through its Institute led by Richard DiClaudio, now trains students in its new and innovative training programs as it works hand in hand with its industry and community partners. In fact, the organization is developing a state-of-the art campus for workforce-development. The EIC works with Pittsburgh industries to continue developing a sustainable workforce with best-in-class training programs that may be acceptable industry wide.

“Our goal is threefold,” Meeder said, “to prepare program participants to obtain jobs with sustainable compensation, to open up avenues for career-path growth and to offer recurrent training to assist participants with training required by their employers.”

In all, EIC Institute offers six trade-related training programs, including the Energy Safety Passport, Intro to the Trades, Surface Restoration and Treatment, Underground Utility Readiness, Fundamentals of Project Management, and the soon-to-come Underground Utility Job Readiness Training Camp.

Years ago, young people grew up conversant with various trades because family members and friends worked in the trades. That’s not true today. Now, many young people choose to bypass vocational training and instead opt to attend college.

That’s why EIC offers a six-week course, Introduction to Construction/Trades. This one-of-a-kind training program provides an introductory overview to the building trades. This course exposes participants to a wide range of skilled occupations, through field trips and state-of-the-art union-training facilities, hands-on activities and meetings with expert craftspeople from 118 local trade unions.

The classroom portion of this course introduces the key, job-readiness skills participants need to begin careers in the building and construction trades. On completion, successful participants can take the next step and apply for union apprenticeship.

Heralding the Advent of DC Current

Robert Meeder remains keenly aware that the U.S. power and energy grid stands at a critical juncture. Built in the 1930s, this grid now runs on an aging infrastructure using outmoded and legacy based systems. One day, these will reach the end of their lives and not run properly. The University of Pittsburgh’s Energy Grid Institute now seeks to proactively improve the U.S. power grid.

Meeder points to the work of Gregory Reed, Ph.D., Professor and Director of Pitt’s Center for Energy and the newly established Energy Grid Institute, launched by the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering in 2016 and headquartered at EIC. Under Reed’s leadership, the ongoing work of the Energy Grid Institute on small, controlled electrical systems can be applied to full-scale systems.

“We’ll have a utility scale microgrid infrastructure here,” Reed said, “that’s connected to an energy-management and operations system—a command and control center, if you will—where we can work on everything electrical, including both alternating-current (AC) and direct-current (DC) technology developments, distributed energy resources, energy storage and even cybersecurity. Very few research centers like ours exist that focus on researching electric power delivery as we do here.”

Timing and circumstance have come together for the Energy Grid Institute. The path to greater use of DC-based electrical systems will begin to replace AC systems over time, as well as to operate in hybrid AC/DC networks. Plus, companies want energy resources like renewable and sustainable wind and solar power closer to their sites.

And utilities, in fact, are already learning how to adjust to the changes involved, how they do business, how they design their business-plan models and how they’ll use the technologies they’ll need to handle all this.

“In this context, we want to be the leading center in the country to help address these opportunities and develop solutions to these problems,” Reed said. He added that the way to reach solutions is to enable utilities to come to the EIC along with leading manufacturers who develop the technologies as models of consortia to solve the big electricity-delivery problems locally and throughout the country.

In the United States, it’s transformation time marked by the growing use of renewable wind and solar power as resources for electricity production. And existing 100-year-old systems have begun to adapt to the use of these resources coupled with the generation of DC-based electricity and energy-storage solutions. The existing power grid made up of lines, substations and equipment lies between places where electricity is generated and where we use it. Not only here in the United States, but around the world.

China, for example, is now building high-voltage, DC electrical transmission systems to deliver electricity from the center of the country to the east and south, where most people live and where most of the country’s manufacturing takes place.

“Here in the United States,” Reed said, “it’s now possible for us to build an interstate highway of electrons using direct-current technology to deliver electricity more efficiently from remote resource locations to where the demand pockets exist along the east coast, midwest and western parts of the United States. Doing so can help eliminate the potential for large-scale, cascading blackouts, a vulnerability that still exists.”

According to Reed, the way to get around the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) avoidance of building near or in residential neighborhoods is to install DC electricity lines underground the way the natural gas industry has done to transport natural gas from place to place.

He emphasized that laying electrical power lines underground is expensive, but laying direct current lines is more cost effective than laying AC lines. All of which suggests that the United States needs to develop a national strategy to create an interstate highway of electrons.

“One reason why we haven’t done this to conduct electricity, outside of urban areas, is that doing so is very costly,” Reed said. “Realistically speaking, this takes into account that the federal government may not fund such an endeavor, but this would present opportunities for private investment by sources of private capital.”

Because the Energy Grid Institute resides at EIC, the company may enter into, and fulfill, work for businesses like Pitt Ohio Express, the provider of total transportation solutions. The Energy Grid Institute designed and built the microgrid now in place at the company’s 100-bay loading facility in Harmar, Pa.

Pitt Ohio Express approached the Energy Grid Institute to maximize its LEED certification process and improve the efficiency of its energy systems at the Harmar facility. The company wanted to integrate solar energy using direct current in this facility. This had not been done before on such a large scale at a commercial facility.

In response, the Energy Grid Institute created a state-of-the-art microgrid that integrated direct current coupled with battery storage to enable Pitt Ohio Express to improve its load handling at the docks of the Harmar facility. The revised system also incorporates a wind turbine in its design connected with DC-to-DC current. Energy resources like wind and solar power enter the area through an alternating current interface that’s adapted to DC current.

Reed and his colleagues are also working on the Direct Current Architecture for Modern Power Systems (DC-AMPS) program. They’re making advances in key, DC-based technology areas, such as power electronics converters and control systems. All of which is helping to make Pittsburgh the center for DC developments and demonstration.

Right now, it’s transformation time for Pittsburgh and the United States. Existing 100-year-old systems are adapting to contemporary use to generate electricity. The Energy GRID Institute is continuing its forward-thinking tradition by introducing the use of direct current into our national grids.

The Community and At-Risk Students Learn Life Sciences

Back in the late 1990s, Dr. David Satcher, then Surgeon General, made it known that only about three percent of individuals in the life sciences at the doctoral level were African Americans. This statistic created a buzz in the ear of Andre Samuel, Ph.D., that never left him. He was going to do something in his life to change this and attract more African Americans to obtain doctoral degrees and conduct research in the life sciences, instead becoming doctors and dentists.

Later on, Alan Seadler, Ph.D., was creating and seeking funding for what was then called The Bio Lab. Seadler asked Samuel to serve as director of the lab. “I jumped at the chance,” Samuel said. “This was something I could do and sustain full time to attract younger students from under-represented neighborhoods to the sciences. I wanted people who came to our lab to feel happy and comfortable as they learned about the sciences.”

While he contemplated setting up the lab, he checked out the plans and location of the Energy Innovation Center and saw it as a bridge between the Hill District and Downtown Pittsburgh. Samuel wanted to make sure that he could serve at-risk students in need and those in disadvantaged neighborhoods who would not otherwise avail themselves of the experience he provided. “I saw this as a chance to create a bridge between these two areas,” he said.

As Samuel explained it, “We serve the community as a whole, but try to concentrate our efforts on younger people in low socio-economic at-risk neighborhoods.” The Citizen Science Lab provides experiences that students would otherwise never participate in. He and his staff visit Pittsburgh public schools like Brashear, Carrick and the University Preparatory School to invite underserved students to the lab.

Regarding economic development, The Citizen Science Lab also serves individuals and small start-up companies that lack the lab facilities and the capital to build and access the kinds of labs that the Citizen Science Lab provides. This, based on the Sigma Program adapted from the Urban Pathway Charter School.

Students who attend the laboratories learn such sciences as bacterial culture, genetic engineering, 3-D printing, building an engineering water robots and microbial fuel cells from mud and computer coding. “It’s all about providing students with opportunities and access to as many different kinds of sciences as possible,” Samuel said. “We even touch on renewable energy and cover as many branches of the life sciences as possible.”

Samuel determined early on that what students complained most about science learning was that they didn’t get to do anything but read and listen to lectures about science. “We don’t do a lot of lecturing,” he said. “If students come in for a two- or three-hour workshop, they get about 15 minutes of introductory information about what we’re going to do and the principles behind it. They spend the rest of the time in hands-on learning how to do it.”

He emphasized that with the Sigma Program it’s best to involve students in sciences they may not have learned during the school year like microbiology, chemistry, fatty acids and proteins.

At the end of each summer session, the students present their work complete with poster boards to their parents and other students.

“Our work is all about giving students options so they can commit to sustainable jobs,” said Samuel. “And since Pittsburgh today is a biotech center, it only makes sense for us to create our own home-grown scientists.”

In fitting tribute to all the forward-thinking research and work at the Energy Innovation Center, Meeder will arrange for the construction of a Windstax Corporation windmill, once a symbol of things past, but now a symbol of contemporary, renewable energy. This windmill will be on the property and will be visible in Pittsburgh to those who glance in its direction on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District.

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