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January 14, 2010

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Princeton Energy Systems: Will Agate and Bill Smith. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

Small local office produces big sustainability plans

You would never know from the look of the modest office space on West Evergreen Avenue that the highest of high tech innovation is being planned within its walls.

The interior is spacious but simple. There are chairs, phones, desks – the usual office gear. There are no supercomputers (that I could see). No lab equipment. The space could have served a group of accountants or lawyers just as well.

But the work done at Princeton Energy Systems by principal Dave Smith, vice president Will Agate and the rest of their small staff is not simple white-collar work. This is the office in which Smith and Agate work on an innovative new way to cool the turbines of what is planned to be the largest solar installation in the world. The project, which will take 15 years and $2 billion to complete, was awarded to a company that used Princeton Energy System’s turbine cooling plans.

“It’s an incredible level of expertise going into devising a better mousetrap,” Agate said of the work.

What the company does, in the simplest of terms, is provide institutions – mostly colleges and universities – with long-range planning to reduce or eliminate their carbon emissions. That process includes financial strategizing and detailed planning for what types of efficiencies to install – from solar panels to light bulbs, heating systems to ventilation.  Any institution looking to address energy efficiency can hire PES to provide them with a complete roadmap to get there.

And it just so happens that this small firm with a staff of eight is on the leading edge of an energy-use changeover that will likely be one of the biggest deals of the next decade.

“There’s a new era upon us,” Smith said in a recent interview in the PES conference room, when I asked him about the future prospects of the company and energy efficiency in general. 

It was clear that with a lot of new awareness about climate change and new economic incentives and requirements on the way that energy consultation was a growth industry.

“The last 20 to 30 years has been an incubation period.” Smith said. “There’s a different future going forward that will require different business models, better solutions and better technology.”

Smith knows what he’s talking about. In the ‘80s, and ‘90s, the Long Island native was a researcher for Princeton Energy Partners, a group of Princeton researchers who invented the industry standard for diagnosing the energy efficiency of a building. It includes placing an exhaust fan at the building’s front door and using infrared technology to view heat flow patterns. It was Smith who branched out on his own in 1999.

A Hill resident for the last 25 years, Smith and his wife, Amma, are raising two daughters in Chestnut Hill, Annika, an 8th grader at Springside, and Marlena, a 5th grader at Plymouth Meeting Friends.

He met fellow Hill resident Will Agate less than two years ago through a mutual acquaintance who manages a fund that invested in Smith’s company. Agate, who worked for many years in commercial property management in Center City, was interested in working for an energy-consulting firm.

Will, who also moved to Chestnut Hill 25 years ago after he married lifelong Hill resident Martha Sheble, is the father of two sons, Billy and Taylor, who both graduated from Chestnut Hill Academy.

“I was telling myself I was ready to commute to Princeton,” Agate said. He never realized that Smith lived two blocks away and that the office was just as close.

Agate brought his real estate expertise – a great deal of it financial – to the company, giving PES that mix of services it draws on to plan for its clients. The mix of financial planning and science expertise is called sustainable energy planning. Their current client base is largely institutional and mostly universities.

Several things make universities ideal clients, Agate and Smith said. First, they are large facilities with lots of different energy systems, meaning Agate and Smith have a lot of options in finding ways to share resources or use co-generation – using the wasted energy of one process to help fuel another.

Universities are also venerable entities that can think long term, and many have committed to finding ways to eliminate their carbon “footprint” entirely. The American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment calls for “net zero carbon,” meaning these schools are looking at 10- to 20-year plans to achieve the goal

Several months ago, the Local ran a photo of one of PES’s most recent projects, a solar array on the roof of Springside School that they say is the largest of its kind in the state of Pennsylvania – one that will produce 92 Kilowatts.

When I asked what that measure means in terms of power, Smith smiled and said it was a question they get a lot and one that is not easy to answer.

“Solar produces more in the summer, less in the winter and more in the day and nothing at night,” he said. “What’s more compelling is the long term carbon reduction.”

Agate said that the move will save Springtide between $20 and $30 thousand a year. It’s a fact that many institutions would find pretty compelling in terms of long-range planning.

With the whole world talking about going in a sustainable direction – the U.S. Congress is talking about “cap and trade” solutions to reducing carbon emissions – Smith and Agate said they feel as if they’re in a good position after years of work in the field.

“There is no question that the economy and energy are seeing dramatic change,” Agate said. “For the first time we’re really seeing attention to sustainability.”



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