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Carbon County company makes unhealthy trees into pellets for home heating

Rising prices for oil, gas and electricity have more and more people looking at wood-burning stoves as a method of home heating. But before a Carbon County company opened in March, the closest manufacturers of the pellets that power some of these stoves were in West Virginia, Rhode Island and New York.

Great American Pellets, which operates out of a renovated factory in Palmerton, makes the tiny pellets out of hardwood. Most of its customers are in the mid-Atlantic.

Rather than using trees from clear-cut forests, the company gets its raw material from areas designated for timber stand improvement. This is the process of cutting down trees that can't grow to be tall and healthy. These trees are often twisted or crooked. Removing them strategically from a forest prevents them from choking out healthier trees.

"When these trees come out we're just allowing others to grow," says Jeff Nichols of Great American Pellets. "It's bigger trees, not more trees."

A 2008 report from the state's Hardwoods Development Council said a staggering 469 million tons of wood from these trees could be available for harvesting throughout the state. The report added that one efficient, carbon-neutral way of using this wood was to generate energy from it.

Source: Jeff Nichols, Great American Pellets

Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen

Power plant in York County latest to run on natural gas

Pennsylvania's abundant natural gas resources, along with the prediction that many of its coal-fired power plants will be retired in coming years, make the state a promising place for power plants that run on natural gas.

This week Calpine, an electricity company based in Houston, officially dedicated its latest plant in Delta, York County, near the Susquehanna River and the Maryland state line. When Calpine bought Conectiv Energy last year, the Delta plant, which was under construction, came along with the acquisition.

The plant, called the York Energy Center, is what's called a combined-cycle plant. This means it generates electricity in natural-gas powered turbines, which creates hot water vapor. That vapor is captured in a steam turbine to produce even more electricity. "You make a lot more energy with a lot less pollution," says Stu Widom, Calpine's manager of government and regulatory affairs. The York plant has about 20 full-time workers and can generate 565 megawatts, serving more than 450,000 homes.

Calpine operates 92 power plants, including one that opened in Bethlehem in 2003. That plant primarily runs on natural gas but can also use diesel fuel. Widom says this is also true of the York Energy Center, which is similar to the plant in Bethlehem.

Source: Stu Widom, Calpine
Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen

Local wood chips, not oil, will heat Sullivan County schools

School just let out for what's shaping up to be a hot summer, but one Northern Tier school district is deep into a project that will change the way its schools are heated come winter.

Last week the Sullivan County School District officially broke ground on a $1.5 million biomass plant that should be up and running by the end of the year. Of that cost, about $1.1 million was covered by state and federal grants.

The plant will consist of a biomass boiler and hot water storage tank. Since the district is closing one elementary school and its remaining two schools are next to each other, the biomass plant will be able to heat all district facilities. Sullivan County currently uses fuel oil for heating and that system will stay in place as a backup, district business manager Paul Schaefer says. In its first year alone, the biomass system is expected to save between $70,000 and $80,000 in heating costs – a big difference, considering that 2010 figures showed an average annual heating-oil bill of about $179,000.

Not surprisingly, Schaefer says the potential savings were the main reason Sullivan County considered alternative fuel. A few neighboring districts were also using biomass so it looked like a good option. He also points out that with the abundant trees and lumberyards in the area, securing wood chips for the biomass boiler won't be a problem. The potential also exists to build a solar-energy system on the site, Shaefer says.

Source: Paul Schaefer, Sullivan County School District
Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen

Navy Yard's Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster hiring five

One of the goals of the Philadelphia Navy Yard-based Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster (GPIC) is job creation. And they've got your jobs right here. GPIC, a consortium includes Pennsylvania State University, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern PA (BFTP/SEP), the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, and the Wharton Small Business Development Center, has five available positions spread out among these members.

"This is an early wave," says Christine Knapp, Manager of Public and Client Relations at GPIC, her own position falling under the auspices of Penn State. "These are jobs that are really conducting the work of GPIC."

The available positions are a Post-Doctoral Scholar, an Intellectual Property Associate, a Program Director, a Database Analyst, and an Administrative Assistant. Knapp runs down the details. There has not been as much response to the architectural engineering post-doc scholar, as it is a highly specialized position in which the candidate would be assisting in the research and development of building systems.

The Intellectual Property Associate does not need a law degree; rather, says Knapp, the BFTP/SEP based position would take the lead in the commercialization and deployment task area. "One concern is that intellectual property is correctly managed," says Knapp. "Our companies have sensitive proprietary information, and as they are discovering things and getting them to the marketplace, we need to make sure that people get credit."

The Program Director is specifically associated with the Small Business Development Center of The Wharton School at Penn. "Each of the members is required to have a full time GPIC staff member, and this would be their liaison," explains Knapp.

The Database analyst is actually two positions, both at BFTP/SEP. "We are doing a lot of data gathering," says Knapp. "We're researching building energy use, consumption and performance." The analyst would also draw on existing databases, and ultimately the reports would be sent to the Department of Energy. "We want to be sure that the data is getting integrated and all task areas have access," says Knapp.

Finally, the Administrative Assistant will be working closely with Knapp at the Navy Yard, and ideally should be someone who can handle not only clerical tasks but also logistics, planning events and outreach engagement work. "It would be someone who is interested in moving up and taking on more responsibility," says Knapp, who expects hundreds of resumes. The GPIC positions will remain posted until filled, which is expected to happen around mid-July, but each position has its own timeline.

Source: Christine Knapp, GPIC
Writer: Sue Spolan

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National competition pits Penn State-designed hybrid vehicle against 15 other prototypes

Anyone who's recently paid to fill up a gas tank can get behind America's quest for the next great innovation in fuel-efficient vehicles. And why not enlist the country's budding engineers?

That's the idea behind the EcoCAR Challenge, a joint effort between General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy. The three-year competition put teams from 16 colleges to work designing a power train and other energy-efficient components for a Saturn VUE donated by GM. Penn State's Advanced Vehicle Team is the only Pennsylvania group taking part in the challenge.

"It has to be as fuel-efficient as possible and as consumer-friendly as possible," explains Allison Lilly, outreach coordinator for the 40-person team.

The result of the Penn State students' efforts is a lithium-ion battery-powered hybrid vehicle that can travel up to 50 miles on a single charge, or up to 300 miles on a charge combined with a tank of biodiesel. It takes between four and eight hours to charge the battery. A display on the instrument panel shows the driver how much juice is left in the battery. Plus, the vehicle takes advantage of regenerative braking, which converts some of the energy produced by stopping the car into power for the engine.

After three years of work the EcoCAR finals are taking place now in Milford, Mich., before moving on to Washington, D.C. After the competition the Saturn will return to Penn State's campus so future students can work on it.

Source: Allison Lilly, Penn State Advanced Vehicle Team

Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen

Solar power means smaller utility bills for owner of Selinsgrove laundromat

It takes a lot of energy to get clothes clean, so the rising cost of electricity hits laundromats and dry cleaners pretty hard. Even so, alternative energy sources aren't that common in the industry.

One Central PA business, Steininger's Cleaners, is embracing new forms of energy at its self-serve laundry in Selinsgrove. Last month Steininger's started using solar power to run the facility, which has 27 washing machines. Owner Chuck Steininger says the solar units have saved about $500 in just two weeks, a big dent in gas bills that average $3,000 per month. "If I could save $1,000 a month on that, it would be tremendous," he says, adding that he'd like to pass the savings on to customers.

Steininger says he looked into solar energy for about two years before having the units installed. The project cost about $42,000, of which all but $17,000 was covered by state and federal grants. He says the cost of alternative energy is a barrier for many others in the industry but encourages them to take advantage of similar grants.

Solar energy isn't Steininger's only green initiative. The business, which also includes dry cleaners in Selinsgrove and Lewisburg, uses environmentally responsible cleaning methods and plans to completely transition to eco-friendly cleaning solvents by the end of the year. It began returning clothes to customers in soy-based garment bags when it could no longer find a place to recycle the plastic ones it used to use.

"It's more expensive, but I feel better about it," Steininger says.

Source: Chuck Steininger, Steininger's Cleaners
Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen

Five Pittsburgh companies hiring nearly 70, from IT to engineers

The region was ranked 14th among 100 metro areas for jobs added in March 2011 and job openings continue to proliferate with so many  postings in recent weeks only a quick list will do.

Business is booming at Brunner Advertising, the region's second-largest ad agency, which has announced 24 job openings, most of which will be in the company's downtown office. Brunner employs 185 in the city and has offices in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, Ga.

Energy company Eaton Corp. in Moon has announced openings for 38 in the area of IT, supply chain, senior finance analysts and engineers.

Westinghouse Corp continues hiring (mostly) engineers.

Deeplocal in East Liberty has an immediate opening for an Account Manager, a smart person with amazing organizational skills to work with existing clients and company technology to manage deliverables and company communication, says Nathan Martin. Deeplocal is on a growth spurt, having earned $1 million in revenue last year and $1.2 million in the first quarter of 2011. The company is on target for $3 million this year.

Wrecking Crew Media in the Strip District recently added two to its growing crew, bringing the total employee count to five. Another two people will be added hired soon, an associate producer and writer,  reports James Carter.

Source: Deeplocal, Westinghouse, Wrecking Crew Media
Writer: Deb Smit

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Pittsburgh's Tech Collaborative doles out $1.2M, BPL Global rakes in $6.2M

Nine companies and two universities received $1.2 million in grants from The Technology Collaborative, fueling the growth of robotics and digital technologies in Pittsburgh and across the state.

In addition, smart-grid technology developer BPL Global has raised $6.2 million toward an $8 million financing round to support company growth and hiring. BPLG in Cranberry is on the forefront of developing a better software solution that will improve distributed energy resources between utility companies and customers, saving energy and money.

Nine organizations in the region were among those to benefit from the TTC funding:

Pittsburgh-based SpiralGen, a Carnegie Mellon spinoff, is developing technology that automates the production and optimization of modular segments of software code, called libraries, thereby vastly reducing the amount of time spent on manual library development. The firm received previous support from the National Science Foundation as well as a Small Business Innovation Grant (SBIR).

Pittsburgh-based BluPanda, a startup supported by Disruptive Robotics of Pittsburgh (see the related story on The Brazen Kitchen), is working on logistics management software that will reduce the wait time and crowding in hospital emergency rooms. BluPanda will build, deploy and commercialize its robotic intelligence platform in several Pittsburgh area hospitals.

Voci Technologies Inc.
in Pittsburgh is a startup that delivers high performance speech-to-text appliances for enterprise analytics and security applications. Pioneered at Carnegie Mellon, the firm's Hardware Accelerated Proper Name Recognition project hopes to provide proper name and number sequences with an unprecedented level of accuracy and speed.

Butler County-based Steel City Optronics is commercializing a high-resolution, accurate, low-cost compact airborne mapping system for the military market that promises a better resolution and speed than current systems on the market.

The University of Pittsburgh will receive support for the development of a Simple Feedback Device (SFD) used by individuals with severe disabilities.

Allpoint Systems of Pittsburgh, a 3D data processing and software company, will create a mapping package for small mobile platforms for the defense industry.

Carnegie Robotics of Pittsburgh, a new company, is building reliable robotic products to improve safety in the agricultural, mining, defense and oil and gas production markets. The TTC funding will improve the computing and electronics of the robots.

Advantech US Inc is an R&D company specializing in evaporative printing technology, producing thin film devices for the emerging display market for OLED, ePaper and printed circuit board industries.

Embedded Energy Technology is providing a family of high-value products and services to reduce the nation's carbon footprint while increasing company efficiency in the thermal insulation market.

Source: The Pittsburgh Collaborative, BPL Global
Writer: Deb Smit

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Lancaster firm's technology to save energy, cash on climate control to undergo more testing

Energy Wall's revolutionary system to heat and cool buildings has a wide range of potential applications, but it has to undergo more testing first.

The Lancaster company's design uses a ceramic fiber membrane, bonded with lithium chloride, to move most of the energy in a building’s exhaust air, into the fresh air coming into the same building. This energy refreshes air coming into the same building. Energy Wall founder Dustin Eplee says this system saves up to 15 percent of heating and cooling costs. It's perfect for new buildings and recently constructed existing buildings, which were often designed for very tight air flow.

In the past two years the product has been installed in eight buildings, mostly along the East Coast. The idea there was to test its efficiency, but Energy Wall also found that its product absorbs a lot of moisture. The next step is to test the design's ability to withstand extreme temperatures, to determine the feasibility of use in these other applications.  "We basically want to find the failure point," Eplee says.

That's where a $100,000 grant from the Green Building Alliance comes in.  Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences will subject the product to temperatures as low as -40 degrees and as high as 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The testing is supposed to last a year, starting around the time students return to campus at the end of this summer.

The technology could end up being useful in more than just residential and commercial buildings. Possibilities include solar-powered air conditioning systems and fuel cells.

Source: Dustin Eplee, Energy Wall
Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen

Alphabuyer, the Groupon for utilities, opens office in Pittsburgh, hiring

Alphabuyer is opening an office and expanding in Pittsburgh, joining the group buying frenzy with deals on some of life's most basic needs, beginning with the monthly utility bill.

Based in Paoli, outside of Philadelphia, in 2010, Alphabuyer is among the first companies in the state to capitalize on the deregulation of the utility industry through group rates on non-discretionary items such as gas and electric, says Kevin Johnson, founder and president. The firm, is expanding to Pittsburgh first and plans to move on to New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Illinois this year.

"Right now the consumer doesn't have an adviser or advocate fighting on their behalf," says Johnson. "We're the consumer advocate so they can secure the best pricing in terms of the marketplace.  This (group buying) is big; it's the future."

Alphabuyer is considering office space in the Bakery Square area and plans to hire 15-30 software engineers in the next two years.

Like most collective buying plans, AlphaBuyer offers a higher discounted rate on monthly services based on how many customers buy in. Buyers agree to a locked in rate on utilities for two years (the current offer to Duquesne customers promises a 21.4% savings).  Your utility company and billing won't change, only the price that you are paying for energy, says Johnson. AlphaBuyer hopes to expand the offering to cable, insurance, mortgages and car purchasing.

The overall savings may be anywhere from 5-15% to 40-50%. Our objective is to cut bills, such as cable, in half, he says. With higher utility prices projected down the road, the two-year fixed rate will save electric customers between $100 and $200 a year in the Pittsburgh market.

It may take awhile for it to catch on, but similar programs are already succeeded in other regions, especially Texas, he adds. Alphabuyer currently has 2,136 customers in Philadelphia.

"Once the consumer switches and enrolls, that's as much work as they have to do. We secure the discount; we become the trusted adviser. We only put deals up that make the most sense. "

Source: Kevin Johnson, Alphabuyer
Writer: Deb Smit

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New gas pump in Harrisburg lets you choose how much ethanol you want

If you drive a car, you'd probably welcome a way to power it with fuel that's better for the environment and costs less than regular gasoline.

That's what Lancaster-based Rhoads Energy thought when it was planning renovations on the Pacific Pride fueling station it runs in Harrisburg. Pacific Pride stations, which consist of fueling pumps open around the clock to customers who have access cards, primarily serve commercial fleets that use a lot of fuel (the general public is also welcome). When Rhoads heard that ethanol-industry lobbying group Growth Energy was offering grants for pumps that dispensed ethanol with gasoline, Rhoads thought it was a perfect opportunity.

Rhoads' Harrisburg Pacific Pride station now features what's known as a flex-fuel pump. Customers who use it to fill up can choose between gasoline with a traditional blend of 10 percent ethanol, the 85 percent-ethanol mixture known as E85, or E30, a blend of 30 percent ethanol. The ethanol being used now is derived from grain.

"The E30 gives consumers a better option," says Scott Burky, Rhoads' VP of operations. He adds that it costs about 16 cents per gallon less than regular gasoline and might be more palatable to customers hesitant to fill up with E85, which gets fewer miles per gallon than a normal blend.

This happens to be the first flex-fuel pump in the state. "We’re kind of on the bleeding edge," Burky says.

Source: Scott Burky, Rhoads Energy
Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen

Mark Group hiring for 70 energy efficiency jobs at Philadelphia Navy Yard

The Mark Group, a UK company with recently opened North American headquarters at The Philadelphia Navy Yard, is hiring big time. And training, too. The Mark Group is looking for 60 to 70 new hires who can be trained to go out in the field as energy efficiency experts. The company, which concentrates on the residential market, recommends and completes refitting and repairs to make homes more comfortable and cheaper to run. Chief Operating Officer Dave Hopkins says Mark Group's average fee is $2,500, which will be returned in cost savings in two to three years.

Last week, The Mark Group graduated its first class of students at its North American Energy Efficiency Training Academy. The facility, developed with the support of a $192,000 grant from the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corporation, is sending out workers who can enter a home and go places even the homeowner may never have gone, like attics and crawl spaces, to identify and fix problems like leaks and drafts. Hopkins says the company is training and hiring two types of employees: assessors and technicians.

Since The Mark Group's US launch in November 2010, 40 people have been hired, and by year's end, The Mark Group will have over 100 employees out and about in the Delaware Valley, including New Jersey and Delaware. The parent company has a presence in 20 countries worldwide, and chose Philadelphia as its first stop in the US, thanks to assistance at the state level from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, and locally from Select Greater Philadelphia. "We have plans to expand to the Pittsburgh market, Newark, New Jersey and Baltimore," says Hopkins.

So far, The Mark Group has relied on word of mouth referrals and a favorable article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and next month expects to launch a marketing campaign. The company has also signed an exclusive deal with Prudential Fox & Roach Realtors to provide energy efficiency services to the agency's clients.

Source: Dave Hopkins, The Mark Group
Writer: Sue Spolan

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Pittsburgh-based Montauk Energy expands trash-to-power operations, hiring

Pittsburgh-based Montauk Energy is expanding its landfill gas-to-energy operations with the acquisition of seven landfill gas-fueled electric generation projects in Texas and California.

Montauk specializes in the recovery, management and utilization of landfill methane, an industry that has continued to grow, albeit slowly, nationwide. Landfill gas projects, which turns methane gas given off by decomposing garbage into power, have increased from 399 in 2005 to 519 in 2010 nationwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The beauty of the business is it's not only entrepreneurial but sustainable, says Marty Ryan, vice president. As garbage decomposes, it creates a gas that is half methane, a greenhouse gas deemed worse for the environment than either carbon dioxide or coal. Instead of escaping into the atmosphere, landfill operations collect the gas and treat it so it can be used to power homes and vehicles.

The acquisition means Montauk owns and operates 12 projects in nine states, enough to meet the energy needs of about 60,000 homes, and is in the process of developing another five that will provide for the annual energy needs of 26,000 additional homes, says Dave Herrman, president and CEO.

The company has local operations in Monroeville and Irwin; the remaining sites are in Texas, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, California, Oklahoma and Georgia. Montauk primarily focuses on the production of renewable high BTU pipeline quality gas and electricity as well as carbon capture projects.

The company employs 60 nationwide including 18 corporate staff in the Greentree office and seven in field operations staff  in the region. Montauk anticipates a staff expansion of 10 percent in 2011 to accommodate growth.

"Our vision of the future is to really take the next step and use it as transportation fuel," explains Marty Ryan, vice president. "We're trying to get landfill owners to convert their trucks to natural gas. The end product we sell now is cleaner than the natural gas found in the ground."

Source: Dave Herrman, Marty Ryan, Montauk Energy
Writer: Deb Smit

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Lehigh Valley company's nanocrystal coating makes solar panels work better

A Lehigh Valley company has figured out how to put tiny crystals to work, making solar panels more efficient.

SolarPA, based in New Tripoli, has developed a thin nanocrystal coating that can be applied to the cells that go into solar panels. Sunlight bounces off the almost imperceptible nanocrystals and refracts into the solar panel rather than bouncing back into space, as is the case with traditional solar panels. Robert Castellano, president and CEO of SolarPA, says the coating can improve solar cells' performance by 10 percent.

This improved efficiency could be a huge help to solar panel manufacturers, since it's not always easy for them to hit efficiency targets, Castellano says. And it can also save solar-panel makers money -- by using the coating, they could make panels with fewer cells and the same electricity generation potential.

Plus, home and business owners can install solar panels, equipped with the coating, that don't have to be in constant motion so they're always facing the sun. "Say you stick it on your roof. In the morning and the evening, the sun is ready to rise and set, so you're not getting as much sun as at noontime," Castellano says. "You could still get the benefit of the tracking system without the tracking system."

He says SolarPA is seeking grants for its work and talking about partnering with other companies. Philadelphia-based Arkema is working on developing a polymer for the nanocrystal coating.

Source: Robert Castellano, SolarPA
Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen

State gives $2M for sodium sulfur batteries meant to replace backup generators

A few years ago Alex Hillman, CEO of Connecticut alternative energy company Environmental Energy Solutions, partnered with a Pennsylvania company called Solar Development Group on a proposed solar panel installation project in Duncansville, south of Altoona. Now they're working with each other again on a venture to develop high-tech batteries that can store energy at places like police stations and hospitals.

That venture, Power Source LLC, is focused on 30-kilowatt sodium sulfur batteries about the size of a compact refrigerator. Customers that use renewable energy sources like wind and solar power will also be able to collect energy when it's windy or sunny out and use it when the weather is less cooperative. "Then you're not pulling it off the grid," Hillman says.

Alternatively, businesses that are closed during off-peak hours, like nights and weekends, will be able to use Power Source's technology to save money by drawing electricity from the grid during those hours and using stored energy from batteries during the day.

It's also notable that these sodium sulfur batteries should be available at one-third the cost of comparable lithium batteries, will be able to store twice the energy, and last three times as long.

Hillman says Environmental Energy Solutions' VP, scientist John Urbahn, designed the new battery technology and plans to move to northeastern PA to work with Power Source. A $2 million state grant will go toward developing these batteries for the market. Power Source plans to start production within three years.

Source: Alex Hillman, Power Source LLC
Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen
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