Computer technology has trumped all the mental pictures I have of what a "control room" should look like.
On Monday, I visited the Navy Yard's new Network Operations Center (NOC) to see what's expected to be a showcase for how "smart grid" technologies will perform at the growing urban office and industrial park.
But instead of a wall-size map of the Navy Yard or a long control board with switches and blinking lights, the room on the first floor of Building 101 looked like the classroom it was, albeit with some funky strings of LED lighting.
First impressions can be deceiving, because not only are Penn State, Drexel and University of Pennsylvania students going to be learning about green-power technologies in that room, but Viridity Energy Inc. also will use it as a fully functioning backup to its Center City operations.
One day, those involved with creating the $160,000 network operations center said, it would be possible to monitor what they call the "energy ecosystem" of the Navy Yard, which runs its own unregulated power grid.
That day was not Monday. But William J. Agate Jr., vice president of Navy Yard management and development, called the opening of the NOC an important step in a multiyear process of smartening up the grid the Navy built to demonstrate on a small, real-world scale what might be possible in large, regional power grids.
The new center uses software developed by Viridity Energy, a small company that has developed tools to help large commercial power users optimize their energy consumption.
Viridity founder and CEO Audrey Zibelman, once the No. 2 executive at power-grid operator PJM Interconnection, sees much opportunity in not only reducing energy demand, but also turning passive power consumers into active ones — using technology to buy power when prices are low and sell it back to the grid when prices are high.
Sounds simple, but clearly it's not, since the distribution model of the power industry is the equivalent of the one-way street.
Zibelman, whose company has raised $24 million in venture capital and now employs 65 people, said she wants to see Philadelphia become a leader in energy efficiency. Key to that happening, she said, is attracting students who will be the "future operators of the power grid."
Since what is now being called the Energy Efficient Buildings (EEB) Hub obtained $130 million in federal funding in August 2010, it has been hard to see how this very collaborative effort among government, higher education, and private industry would become the economic engine that has been promised.
I can see the potential in a company such as Viridity, which has come far in little more than four years and is involved in programs such as storing the energy created by SEPTA train brakes and sending the power back to the grid.
And growth is clearly evident at the 1,000-acre Navy Yard, where employment has grown from 2,000 people when the site was turned over to the City of Philadelphia to more than 8,500 now at 115 companies.
Its new NOC would seem to be just another small step in a very slow process, akin to a Wall Street trading desk in a business school. College students should benefit from the integration of economics, business and engineering. But the benefits to the regional economy still seem to be years away.