The Making of a ‘Living Lab’ for Solar and Efficiency

Along the waterfront of the Charles River Basin, where rooftop access is scarce, solar panels rarely see the light of day.

Since its founding in 2008, the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems has grown in both scope and influence — even without the practical benefit of aligning the solar panels it tests directly in the sun’s path.

Down the road from two renowned Cambridge, Mass., institutions — Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — sits the current home of the Fraunhofer scientists who research and test the latest in solar technology and energy efficiency.

The offices give little indication of the type of work being done within its four walls. Someday very soon, though, it will become abundantly clear what’s happening at the Fraunhofer CSE, and it will have everything to do with its location.

The Fraunhofer is moving away from its current post on First Street in Cambridge and toward a vision that will make it a destination for those working to infuse solar technology with energy efficient design. Construction crews are working to gut a 100-year-old former tannery warehouse in the heart of the vaunted Innovation District along the South Boston waterfront. With a move-in date projected within the next year, the six-story, $22 million project will help the team at Fraunhofer redefine how the worlds of solar and efficiency come together.

The New Building: A Tour

There will be an interactive exhibit space for visitors. There will be floors of office space for teams working on solar technology and energy efficiency. And yes, there will be room for solar itself, both on the roof and as part of the test chambers on the facade of the building. But the real difference with this “living laboratory” is not what it has. It’s what it does. Even more importantly, it’s about the unconsidered possibilities that will be brought to life under its roof.

Fraunhofer works with companies to help understand barriers, to research ways to address those challenges and, ultimately, to find solutions that will get widespread use. But how does one technology integrate with another, and how will they impact each other? The space itself will allow researchers to get a fuller picture of a widespread building strategy, from the phase-change materials within the walls to the way energy is transferred to where it is needed most, to how the building actually generates power.

“That building is going to be our tool to do all of this,” said Scientific Director Christian Hoepfner. “For us, a building is a system. This will be a great systems testbed. It’s multifaceted. We’ve designed it to be very versatile. As a research organization, if you think you can plan today for what you will do in three years, you’re probably wrong.”

Here Comes the Neighborhood

Perhaps the new location is just as valuable as the building itself. The goal of the organization is to bring many of the building technologies to widely acceptable uses. To do that those findings will have to be infused in the latest in design and building practices.

Within a 15-minute walk of the new digs will be about 60 architect offices, housing some of the biggest design firms in Boston. Among Fraunhofer’s many missions is to arm the building supply chain — everyone from those who design the buildings to those who own them and actually build them — with an understanding of renewable energy and efficiency and how they can be applied.

“In order to accelerate efficiency technologies, we need to work with people who influence and make decisions for construction projects” said Hoepfner. “The ability to show them what’s possible is very important.”

While the solar technology and the building integrated PV may be visually obvious, some of the innovative technologies and strategies being tested for energy efficiency are literally behind the wall. That’s where the interactive space comes in. Visitors will be able to see computer-enhanced models that bring the technology to life in real time. They’ll also be able to follow the building’s energy flows and they’ll gain a better understanding of how PV on both the roof and the facade fares under current conditions and how it varies according to the weather.

Breaking Down Walls

Fraunhofer already has agreements with 37 companies who are donating nearly $3 million in building materials, components or whole systems. The payback is something they can’t get anywhere else — they’ll get a real-life reading of how their products integrate with an energy efficient commercial building.

Fraunhofer’s work has long focused on residential applications, but this building will open up a testing ground for the ripe world of commercial and industrial applications. The South Boston project is a complete retrofit, which can be a far more costly and restrictive option. But as high-tech businesses continue to take over old industrial spaces, energy efficient commercial retrofits will become better understood and more economically feasible.

Solar — especially building integrated PV — is a vital component of this project and of the future of commercial buildings. But it is not the entire solution. Rather, it’s a fundamental piece of a system that is becoming infinitely more complex and better refined. The energy intense PV testing done by Fraunhofer CSE means the building won’t be carbon neutral for the foreseeable future. But that isn’t really the point, anyway. The point of the building is to be a laboratory where innovation and practicality meet. It’s where leaders from various sectors will unite to see how the future can unfold under one roof. It’s also where solutions will be found, new challenges will be met and uncertain futures will come into focus.

“We have the opportunity to really understand the practical challenges,” said Hoepfner. “It’s nice to do everything on paper, but not everything we do will work. We are actually eager for those types of lessons because only in this way can you truly learn.”

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