Philadelphia is not exactly a hotbed of clean energy and green buildings activity compared to San Francisco or even New York. That’s what makes it the perfect place to instigate real change when it comes how buildings are operated and retrofitted.

The Energy Efficient Buildings Hub, a U.S. Department of Energy innovation cluster, was opened in early 2011 to push for energy efficiency in the greater Philadelphia area, where it is located. The Hub has already had some early successes. It served as a technical advisor to the city to pass an energy-benchmarking ordinance that is similar to what some other large cities have on the books. In the New Year, the Hub will start a deep retrofit of a building in the Navy Yard to use as its headquarters.

“Our relationships with our utility and our regulator are growing and we’re becoming a point of innovative ideas,” said Laurie Actman, deputy director of EEB Hub. The Hub is also part of the negotiations as the state’s public utility commission looks at on-bill financing.

Ultimately, however, the Hub’s impact is meant to be national and not just regional. But making significant impacts in Philadelphia could give a framework for how to improve buildings in other cities.

Energy efficiency makes so much sense, but there is a complexity to deep retrofits and a lack of motivation by building owners, said Actman. The Hub is interested in tackling those complexities and finding ways to make it easier for the average building owner. As studies have shown, benchmarking can make notable improvements in energy use, and then “it will be a catalyst for engagement in market activity,” said Actman. Like New York, Philadelphia buildings 50,000 square feet and bigger will have their energy scores disclosed on a public website.

Along with a retrofit of its own building, the Hub currently has an RFP out for ten to twenty demonstration projects that will highlight different strategies to get to 20 percent energy savings. The Hub is not looking to develop new technologies or compete with the market; rather, “we want to enable it,” said Actman. Each retrofit will get up to $150,000 to help it move along.

Financing is just one hurdle, but the larger roadblock is awareness and time. The Hub is also launching building operator training to teach facility managers how to self-commission their own building using basic building management system data, “Right now you have to hire a commissioning firm to test systems to find the proverbial low-hanging fruit,” noted Actman. Of course, that is changing with more and more data analytics firms joining the market. Many software companies offer basic energy management data for free with the hopes that buildings will take that information to make decisions on retrofits.

The Hub is working with national organizations, such as ASHRAE, USGBC and the Institute for Market Transformation, as well as vendors and other industry participants -- including policymakers and utilities.

Ultimately, the Hub hopes to deliver a state-of-the-art modeling platform that integrates the entire retrofit process, from design to daily operation. The platform ideally could be used for buildings both small and large, and in places far and wide. “Our intention is to take what we can demonstrate in our footprint and export that nationally,” said Actman.

Tags: building energy management, deep retrofit, doe, energy efficiency, energy savings