Fraunhofer CSE, With Roots In Post-WWII Germany, Eyes South Boston Building as Energy Efficiency Test Bed

9/15/11Follow @xconomy

Building owners and managers are often reluctant to adopt new energy efficiency technology because they doubt it will be worth the cost in the long run.

Nolan Browne, managing director of the Cambridge, MA-based (for now) Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems, is on the same page.

“I fundamentally agree with them,” he says. “If we don’t prove it, why would they want to buy it? We need to prove that it will work or last 20 to 30 years and that the occupant in that building is going to be happy and productive. If not, then it’s a problem.”

His organization is in the process of retrofitting an old building in the South Boston waterfront section known as the Innovation District. The facility will serve as the center’s offices and a “living lab” for demonstrating and validating energy efficient building technologies.

“Our goal is to become recognized as premier global leader in sustainable energy field,” says Browne. And it hopes to promote economic development through the technology it commercializes, he says.

The Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (CSE) is connected to the Munich-based Fraunhofer Society, an organization formed in 1949 and funded in part by the Marshall Plan to help spur economic recovery in post World War II through research projects that could benefit industry across the country.

Globally, Fraunhofer centers now perform research in a variety of arenas and have about 18,000 scientists and engineers, and a 1.66 billion euro annual research budget. They’re credited with having a role in the invention of things like MP3s and fat-free sausage, to name a few, says Browne. CSE was first formed in 2008 to collaborate with MIT on research in building technology and solar. It is part of a smattering of U.S.-based research centers known as Fraunhofer USA, an independent American 501c3 nonprofit focused on growing the U.S. economy through technology research and commercialization. The USA centers have different structures and non-profit charters than the German group, Browne says.

CSE—which launched with funding from National Grid and Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s the Renewable Energy Trust (now part of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center)—works in a few different ways with industry partners. The CSE can be commissioned by companies who are in need new technology or modifications to their existing products, but don’t have the needed internal R&D capabilities. And CSE scientists can come up with an idea and develop the project in house and bring it to potential industry partners. Some of CSE’s projects are publicly funded, focusing on cleantech areas the government has deemed promising. It has attracted research funding from private donors and foundations.

For its South Boston project—dubbed the Building Technology Showcase—CSE will be installing materials and systems from a host of energy efficiency players (Browne wouldn’t name names) and collecting real-time data on how the products are working. The project is costing more than $20 million, and has the support from groups such as the U.S. Department of Commerce’s economic development agency, the city of Boston, MassCEC, the Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Economic Development, and Commonwealth Ventures, Browne says.

And it’s not just typical efficiency tools you might think of—like solar panels or energy use monitoring software that the CSE will be

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