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‘Zero net energy’ manufacturing site advocated by Erie County IDA chief

Imagine a factory on the former Bethlehem Steel site that generates as much energy from renewable sources as it uses during the course of the year.

Steven W. Weathers, CEO of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, has thought about it. And he’s floating what he describes as a trial balloon that proposes the construction of a 70,000-square-foot building for light manufacturing that would be powered by renewable energy sources and be so energy efficient that it be considered to be a “zero net energy” building.

Weathers acknowledges that there’s a lot of detail work that would need to be done before the idea can move off the drawing board. Among the major questions that would need to be answered include how much the building would cost, how it would be financed and whether it makes economic sense to even pursue.

Some of the energy could come from solar panels. Some could come from wind turbines. Other renewable sources could come into play, as well.

“It’s kind of a concept,” Weathers said Wednesday after broaching the possibility with the agency’s board of directors.

“I wanted to say, ‘Here’s the idea,’ and see what everybody thinks,” Weathers said. “I think it’s something to explore. I’m thinking, in this day and age, if you don’t explore something like this, you can end up behind the curve.”

At the moment, zero net energy buildings have been described as the Holy Grail of the green-building movement. But the technology is expensive, and zero-energy buildings are exceedingly rare.

A database compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy lists 10 zero net energy buildings, although others claim to have achieved that goal. Weathers said that as many as 130 buildings could be generating as much energy as they consume in a year.

“It would put us on the leading edge of advanced manufacturing and in attracting manufacturing to the Bethlehem Steel site,” Weathers said.

Weathers isn’t proposing that the IDA build the project. He’s offering the agency’s assistance to help steer its design, manage its construction and oversee its funding.

He’s recommending that the agency organize a couple of community meetings at some point in the future to gauge interest in the idea.