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

Xconomy Boston — 

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

looking at. One example is a thermal management technology, which automatically adjusts how much to shade a room, based on the amount of sun pouring in at different times of day. The aim is to eliminate the need for additional AC too cool down a room, by better shading from the sun instead. Overall, it’s not a tech that has been widely adopted in the U.S., says Browne. He hopes the CSE can figure out why, and show enough success for the products for them to take off.

Other types of technology that will make an appearance are radiant floor cooling and heating, glass coating to prevent sunlight from warming up rooms unnecessarily, LED lighting, and sky lighting to more directly focus natural light in a particular part of a room, says Browne. The CSE is also exploring open-floor office space and removable walls, to enable better illumination with natural light.

CSE also hopes to track how different combinations of efficiency technologies work together, to help building managers see an ideal mix of the cleantech products.

“The idea behind a living lab is take all these different technologies, put them in a real building, prove out their ROIs, then help companies develop them, says Browne. “Then there’s demand and then the industry picks up.”

The CSE building will display much of that data in real-time monitors as part of a showcase on its first floor. That showcase will also offer augmented reality displays, where visitors can see 3D visualizations of the different products in the buildings, and zoom in on particular sections of the building and particular efficiency systems.

“The idea of this first floor is to grab people and shake them and see how cool this is,” says Browne. “People can not only see it, but experience it. It helps them make connections between the theory and the practical.”

CSE managing director Nolan Browne

The CSE staff, which now numbers over 40 people and is growing (thanks to expanded work in three of its research topics), will move into the new South Boston facility around this time next year, Browne said.

It will be interesting to see what CSE means for the Innovation District, which the city of Boston has promoting heavily as a tech and startup hotbed. The area has already drawn some tech-focused business from other parts of the state. Fraunhofer has a knack for seeding geographical clusters around the industries it studies, boasts Browne. He points to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, founded in 1981 in Freiburg, Germany—a city now known as a solar industry hub.