Case Study - Smart Energy Initiative

The Smart Energy Initiative (SEI) was launched in 2007 by the Chester County Economic Development Council (CCEDC) in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  CCEDC had run a very successful industry partnership in information technology since 1999, and had extended that model to other industries following Pennsylvania’s promotion and funding of industry partnerships statewide. With a growing marketplace for renewable/smart energy, perceived strong prospects for job growth, and a solid core of energy industry employers already working with CCEDC, starting an industry partnership in the energy industry was an obvious choice.

SEI takes a broad perspective on the energy industry. There are three industry specific working groups – geothermal, energy efficiency, and solar energy – but companies from other industries (such as wind) are also represented,. SEI covers 9 counties in Southeastern Pennsylvania, home to over a third of the state’s population. The partnership maintains a mailing list of over 1800 individuals representing over 500 companies as well as private and public education providers and other stakeholders.

In the beginning the group was as much about creating a market for renewable energy in the region as it was about supporting those companies already engaged in that work.  The initiative has a strong educational arm to inform companies about the opportunities for them within the smart energy field, but has expanded that to doing education to homeowners and companies that support the industry, such as architects and lenders, so that they understand how the industry is structured, what its demands are, and how they can play a role in building a strong smart energy sector in the region.

As the group evolved and gained more members, training has become an increasing focus for the partnership. They have been able to leverage their position to pull together consortium training at per seat prices that are well below the price companies would typically pay. Another recent area of focus has been doing outreach to youth regarding job opportunities in the industry.

While the group has been able to successfully engage a large number of companies in its programs, CCECD has also noted some unique characteristics inherent in working within the smart energy field.  While there are a few large companies involved in the partnership, there are many small and medium sized companies. These companies are mostly construction based, and have had to be entrepreneurial, flexible, and willing to adopt new practices to succeed. There tends to be less bureaucracy than at larger companies, as the individuals engaged in the partnership play a variety of roles in their company rather than being siloed into human resources and other departments.

One challenge to the many small companies engaged in the partnership is that they are frequently competitors for the same contracts.  However, some have used the partnership to find like-minded and compatible companies to create joint bids on large or challenging projects. And they have found a few areas where companies are eager to collaborate. In particularly, companies are willing to share best practices with one another, and to work together to create standards for the industry that can be adopted by states or other stakeholders. The structure of the partnership creates a platform for developing these standards.

Up until now (2011), the activities of the partnership has been heavily supported by Pennsylvania’s generous industry partnership funding. But that funding is now at risk. The employer leadership of SEI (a 25-person Board of Directors) is currently working to develop a sustainability plan for if and how the work of the Initiative will proceed if this funding disappears or is reduced.  This creates an opportunity for the group to clearly identify and articulate the value it brings the smart energy industry and employers in the region.