Skyscrapers that Act Like Batteries? This Entrepreneur Says Yes.
By: Adriana Reyneri, for Crain's Chicago Business
Vince Cushing Jr. is an engineer by training and temperament. When he studied electrical engineering at the University of Notre Dame in the late 1960s, he took classes in Cushing Hall, a building named after his grandfather, civil engineer and wealthy alumnus John Cushing.
But professionally, for the past two decades, Mr. Cushing has been an entrepreneur. After 25 years of rising through the ranks at Potomac Electric Power Co. in Washington, he took advantage of an early-retirement buyout in 1995 to launch a company, the first of a half-dozen successful and not-so-successful startups. His latest might put another in the win column.
Called QCoefficient Inc., the Chicago-based venture builds on the potential for skyscrapers to act like batteries by storing energy in the thermal mass of the structure. The firm's software would forecast the air- conditioning needs of a big commercial building and, if necessary, set thermostats to super-cool the property overnight, when electricity is cheaper. The chill in the building's concrete-and-steel core then would dissipate through the day as outdoor temperatures and power rates rise, reducing air-conditioning needs during office hours.
Mr. Cushing says field tests demonstrate that QCoefficient can save buildings 20 to 40 percent on their heating and cooling bills. The service has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy, Chicago's Clean Energy Trust and investors.
“What's really great about Vince is that he's had a very accomplished career. He really understands the nuts and bolts of the energy market,” says Amy Francetic, the trust's executive director.
Mr. Cushing, 64, seems comfortable in his lanky 6-foot-6 frame. Chatting at the Union League Club, he enthuses about potential improvements in electricity delivery yet easily switches to Belgian beers (he's an aficionado) and sailing, a passion he shares with his wife, Maryann.
Entrepreneurs live or die by their ability to figure out quickly whether an idea will succeed. “If you know how to cut your losses and move on to the next thing,” he says, “it's worth a try.”
He has moved on more than once, dropping ideas for a sulfur dioxide filter on big-truck exhaust pipes and injecting a communication signal into residential power lines to create “smart appliances.” At one point, Mr. Cushing had burned through his retirement savings and held more than $200,000 in credit card debt.
Energy Connect Inc., a company he co-founded in 1998, helped turn his fortunes around. The company, which helped businesses participate in regional power grids, went public and eventually merged with a publicly traded firm. An earlier incarnation of QCoefficient, Clean Urban Energy, won the $75,000 grand prize at the inaugural Clean Energy Challenge, sponsored by the Clean Energy Trust in 2011. New investors began marketing the service nationally.
Mr. Cushing bought back the company in December and, in collaboration with the University of Colorado at Boulder, plans to return to his initial focus, downtown Chicago. “We're going to take another shot at it.”
Photo by Stephen J. Serio.