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The Energy Innovation Center: Leading Pittsburgh’s Energy Transformation

December 13, 2017

By Meg Campbell

Photos courtesy of The Energy Innovation Center.

“As the sun sets each evening on the Allegheny River, Pittsburgh’s Rachel Carson Bridge lights up with 27,000 multi-colored bulbs. This nightly display downtown in the City of Bridges is powered entirely by 16 wind turbines attached to the arches of the bridge. It’s just one example of how a city once famous for its steel mills has emerged as a trailblazer in environmental innovation,” wrote Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in The New York Times.

Indeed, Pittsburgh’s transformation from a smoke-filled, factory-driven, industrial steel town to one leading the way on clean energy has been both remarkable and well documented.

More than 13,000 Pittsburghers are employed by the renewable energy industry. The city has committed to being 100 percent powered by renewable energy by 2035. The Harvard Business Review calls Pittsburgh’s transformation “a model for clean energy innovation.”

And what, exactly, is that model? Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration.

“To tackle the infrastructure challenge, Pittsburgh’s city leaders pulled together a broad collaboration that included Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Duquesne University along with corporate partners such as Duquesne Light, NRG Energy, and Siemens in an effort to think strategically with local businesses and nonprofits about moving the city forward,” said Gregory Unruh, professor at George Mason University, in his article on the topic.

At the heart of that collaboration is the Energy Innovation Center, a Pittsburgh non-profit bridging the divide between corporations and communities, building human infrastructure, and incubating clean energy businesses.

Located in the former Connelley Trade School in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the EIC is a testament to what persistent public-private partnership models can accomplish. For more than five years, investors and partners worked to bring their vision to life: a place where nonprofits and business alike would work side by side, Pittsburghers could receive job training to meet the growing demands of the industry and universities could perform their research in the same space as those who would commercialize it.

Their hard work and commitment paid off when construction on the EIC opened in 2015. In its first two years, it has brought in 14 organizations to the space, ranging from universities and nonprofits to private corporations and incubators.

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A 21st Century Workforce

One of the core tenants of the EIC is to align the workforce development of the region with its changing industry needs.

Last year, the first class of students entered the “Intro to the Trades” program, a free six-week course designed to help prepare and introduce men and women primarily from local urban neighborhoods to the complex and demanding union building and construction trades industry.

“Since the closing of the Connelley Vocational Trade School in 2004, too many young men and women in the City of Pittsburgh have not had the opportunity to truly understand what the construction industry is all about, including what it has to offer in terms of rewarding, family-sustaining careers,” said Jason Fincke, executive director of the Builders Guild.

On the Grid

The largest tenant of the EIC’s Central Lab area is the University of Pittsburgh, which leases an 18,600 square foot laboratory and incubator. Here, they house faculty and student startups working on renewable and clean energy, several laboratories, and the Energy Grid Research and Infrastructure Development (GRID) Institute, launched last year.

“The University’s leading research in energy and sustainability and state-of-the-art laboratory space at the Energy Innovation Center enables GRID to evaluate, assess, and develop solutions collaboratively with our partners on major issues and technologies that impact not only our nation’s power grid but also energy transmission and distribution infrastructure around the globe,” said Gregory Reed, Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Energy and the Energy GRID Institute.

Building Innovation

The EIC building is not only innovating energy within its walls, but by the building itself. In July, it received a high level LEED Platinum certification, meeting a goal clearly stated from the out start of the project.

“Achieving LEED Platinum certification for an adaptive reuse of a historic building of this size is an international recognition of our efforts to reduce energy usage and provide an environmentally friendly and productive work environment,” said Bill Miller, COO & Vice President of Pittsburgh Gateways Corporation who founded the EIC. “This accomplishment also dovetails nicely into our ongoing effort to provide a training platform for designing, building and operating energy efficient buildings.”