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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

Turkey Hill's new wind turbines powering production of beverages and ice cream

Anyone who's seen wind farms sprouting up along Pennsylvania highways can declare that wind turbines are nothing new. But most windmills are clustered in groups of 10, 20 or more.

The new wind turbines near the Turkey Hill Dairy in Lancaster County are different because there are just two of them. Still, the two 1.6-megawatt windmills, paid for in part with a $1.5 million state grant funded by the federal stimulus package, produce about one-quarter of the electricity Turkey Hill needs to produce ice cream, milk and iced tea. (They actually generated 32 percent of the dairy's electricity in February, their first full month of operation.)

The turbines are actually on land the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority owns next to the Susquehanna River. Their construction grew out of a partnership Turkey Hill had with PPL Renewable Energy, a subsidiary of the PPL electric company that serves the area. The authority and PPL had already worked together to develop a system to use waste methane gas from the authority's Frey Farm Landfill, located next to Turkey Hill, and turn it into electricity for the dairy and other customers to use.

Steve Gabrielle, director of asset management and development at PPL Renewable Energy, says it made sense to explore building wind turbines or solar panels nearby. Research showed that the best course of action was to build two wind turbines far enough from the banks of the Susquehanna, in deference to birds that migrate through the property.

Sources: Turkey Hill; Steve Gabrielle, PPL Renewable Energy
Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen

Philly solar conversion company among highlights of Cleantech Investment Forum

Clean technology is a big draw for potential investors. Several hundred people gathered at the Academy of Natural Sciences on March 31 for the 3rd Annual Mid-Atlantic Cleantech Investment Forum. Sponsored by Blank Rome Counselors at Law, the Academy and Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic, investor panels discussing the future of renewable energy, clean water, recycling and waste disposal were followed by presentations from area entrepreneurs.

On hand were members of the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster for Energy Efficient Buildings. Williams J. Agate leads the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, developing and managing the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which is now in the process of creating a smart grid energy master plan.

The Fostering Cleantech Investment Panel included Kevin Brophy, of Meidlinger Partners, who talked about the future of clean water investment, and said that while innovation in the field came from the middle cap, the greatest opportunity for future investments is in the huge lower cap market. Also on the panel were Gary Golding, from Edison Ventures, who addressed rapidly improving awareness of water issues, Arun Kapoor of SJF Ventures, who mentioned 100 percent Pennsylvania wind provider Community Energy, and Josh Wolfe, the founding partner of Lux Capital. Wolfe described Lux as an early stage high risk venture fund valued at $100 million, and had a different take on the market than his fellow panelists, explaining that Lux focuses on companies that are long on human ingenuity and short on government rationality. Passing on biofuel, nuclear and natural gas investments, Lux is instead investing in nuclear waste management, calling it the energy industry's biggest unsolved problem.

The only presenting entrepreneur based in the immediate Philadelphia area is solar power conversion company Alencon Systems, Inc. Now in the research and development stage, Alencon addresses the problem of energy efficiency with large scale photovoltaic systems, which are currently created by aggregating multiple small systems. Alencon, which was borne of research at Rowan University, aims to simplify solar and wind power systems from distributed harvesting to centralized conversion. With a prototype already built and tested, Alencon slates projected sales of its streamlined systems at $45 million by 2014.

Source: 3rd Annual Mid-Atlantic Cleantech Investment Forum
Writer: Sue Spolan

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PPL will pay customers to help them use less power on hot summer days

How would you like to get paid a little extra to use less electricity?

If PPL Electric Utilities is your power supplier, you can do just that. But there's one catch: you have to give the electric company the ability to turn off your heat pump or air-conditioning unit.

Customers who enroll in the E-Power Peak Saver program will have a digital device connected to their air conditioning units or heat pumps. When energy use hits peak demand on hot summer days, the device will tell the compressor on a customer's unit to run half the time it normally would. The units are operated remotely and receive a signal commanding the reduced consumption when demand on the grid hits a critical point.

PPL spokesman Joe Nixon says the difference in temperature is a negligible degree or two. In return, customers will be paid $8 per month. E-Power Peak Saver is available to residential customers, as well as some businesses, in PPL's coverage area in parts of central and eastern Pennsylvania.

Nixon explains that the program is part of the company's push to comply with a state law requiring a 4.5 percent reduction in utilities' peak demand by June 2013. Other utilities, including the Philadelphia area's PECO, offer similar programs.

Source: Joe Nixon, PPL Electric Utilities
Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen

New program at Clarion University's Oil City campus to train natural-gas workers

Forecasts from one study say that natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation will be responsible for 111,000 jobs in Pennsylvania by the end of this year. But as people who live in northern, central and western PA can tell by looking at license plates in their communities, plenty of those jobs are now being done by workers from heavy drilling states like Oklahoma and Texas.

Dr. Bill Hallock, chairman of the applied technology department at Clarion University-Venango Campus, says that if more Pennsylvania residents were trained for natural-gas jobs, energy companies could hire them rather than importing workers from the country's midsection and putting them up in hotels. That's why the Clarion University campus in Oil City is launching a new associate's degree program in natural gas technology.

The first classes in the program will start in June and will run through December 2012 without a summer break. That means students will be able to earn their degrees in 19 months rather than two years. Chances are they'll be able to land jobs right away, starting at $20 per hour.

"These guys can make some serious money if they're willing to work," Hallock says.

While developing the program, Clarion worked with the Precision Manufacturing Institute, a Meadville school that teaches skills for manufacturing.

Since the program at Clarion's Venango Campus combines practical and academic coursework, Hallock says they'll be prepared to move up to supervisory jobs as they gain experience in the field.

Source: Dr. Bill Hallock, Clarion University
Writer: Rebecca VanderMeulen
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