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Pitt, CMU, WVU, Case Western unite in pursuit of energy research dollars

| Sunday, April 3, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Greg Reed, head of Pitt's Center for Energy, talks with students in an energy lab at Benedum Hall Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015. Students (from left) Stephanie Cortes, Alvaro Cardoza, Andrew Bulman, and Pat Lewis are gathered around an electrical work bench.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Greg Reed, head of Pitt's Center for Energy, talks with students in an energy lab at Benedum Hall Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015. Students (from left) Stephanie Cortes, Alvaro Cardoza, Andrew Bulman, and Pat Lewis are gathered around an electrical work bench.

Energy researchers at four regional universities hope there is power in numbers.

The University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Case Western Reserve University and West Virginia University have formed a partnership to collaborate on energy-related work with the goal of attracting more government grants and corporate money for research.

By pooling their resources through what they are calling the Tri-State University Energy (TrUE) Alliance, leaders at the schools' energy centers and institutes say they can better compete with larger, powerhouse research centers for more high-profile projects.

“Collectively, we can present a strong set to compete for (Department of Energy) innovation hubs that go to places like Michigan, Illinois and Arizona,” said Greg Reed, director of the Center for Energy at Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering, referring to the multi-school, multimillion-dollar projects modeled after the structure of the World War II-era Manhattan Project.

“These are strong but mid-sized schools, with no one partner having what it needs to compete. But together,” they can, Reed said.

Leaders from the schools, which signed an alliance agreement in March, plan to meet this month to start plotting strategy.

“This makes a much better chance of having money flow into the area from outside the region,” said Thomas Esselman, an engineer who serves on the advisory board at Case Western Reserve's Great Lakes Energy Institute, which led the two-year effort to form the alliance.

“We can also focus on some of the energy challenges the region has,” he said, noting that shale gas and updating the electric grid are topics of great interest in the universities' footprint.

Advanced work on the grid at Pitt, energy efficiency at CMU, electrochemistry at Case Western and fossil fuels at WVU have brought a growing amount of research dollars to the region. Pitt and CMU researchers shared in recent grant awards for projects targeting grid modernization that are being coordinated through the Department of Energy's 14 national labs.

More government agencies doling out grant money are looking for schools to cooperate, said Deborah Stine, associate director of CMU's Scott Institute for Energy Innovation.

“In the end, you need everybody to get together to really be marketable as a major research center,” she said.

Pitt, CMU and WVU had been working together with Penn State and Virginia Tech as part of a Regional University Alliance sponsored by the National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park. Its research, which focused on fossil fuels, ended when a five-year contract with the former URS Corp. expired in 2014, according to James Wilson, executive director of the lab's finance and acquisition center.

Having a separate agreement independent of any company or agency should furnish the alliance with more flexibility to approach different topics, Reed said.

He and others expect faculty and even students at each of the schools to collaborate more naturally under the agreement, potentially launching homegrown projects.

“Regional issues can become national issues. We might as well be on the forefront,” Esselman said.

David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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