Friday, February 1, 2013

The Contemporary Art of Eco-Energy

MASS MoCA’s miracle: zeroing in on zero net energy.

Micro Wind Turbines
These two micro-wind turbines, installed in late 2012, are part of
MASS MoCA’s strategy for achieving energy self-sufficiency.
Photograph by Mars Vilaubi.

The offices of Storey Publishing are located on the MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) campus in North Adams, Massachusetts. We love our arrangement with MoCA — not only are we nestled within the beautiful Berkshire hills, but we are also surrounded by amazing art and an inspiring, innovative community. Storey publishes information to help people live a sustainable lifestyle, and MASS MoCA is taking exciting leaps toward energy self-sufficiency for their organization and the entire campus.

Our digital production manager interviewed Blair Benjamin, Director of Real Estate & Community Development at MASS MoCA, about their focus on energy self-sufficiency.


“A few years ago we cut our electricity 

use roughly 25%.”

Storey Publishing: Two wind turbines now proudly stand atop MASS MoCA, and we’ve noticed a lot of activity this past week on the rooftop next to Storey’s offices. We don’t want to seem like a nosey neighbor, but our window-peeping has us convinced that solar panels have been installed. Can you tell us what is going on?

MASS MoCA: Over the past 5 years we’ve been pursuing a multipronged plan to reduce our fossil fuel use, lower energy costs, diversify our fuel sources (so we’re not as subject to the ups and downs of any one commodity market), and insert energy education and awareness into our programming.

The solar panel installation now underway is part of that plan. Last year we agreed to serve as a host site for a large-scale solar photovoltaic installation under a power purchase agreement (PPA) with a solar developer, Tecta Solar. The PPA means that MASS MoCA will be purchasing all of the electricity generated by the solar panels. It took a long time for Tecta to work through the engineering, financing, and permitting, but the installation is now underway. By spring we’ll have solar panels on six more rooftops (we had panels on one rooftop installed in 2007) totaling more than 450 kilowatts of additional electricity-generating capacity. At that point, we’ll be sourcing roughly 25% of our electricity consumption from solar.


Storey Publishing:  When were the wind turbines installed? And how much energy do they produce?

MASS MoCA: The two vertical-axis micro-wind turbines were just installed in late 2012 by New England Solar & Green Solutions, which is based in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The “interconnection” with National Grid has not even been completed, which is why the turbines are not spinning very regularly yet and have not begun producing electricity. Each is a 1 kilowatt turbine, so the electrical generation is relatively small, not even enough to power a house. But the symbolism and the educational potential are very important to us. The turbines are mounted on the decommissioned “Boiler Plant” in a visible location where smokestacks used to eject large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere from massive oil-burning boilers.

The Boiler Plant is open to visitors on a seasonal basis and has been converted into the setting for two fantastic art installations. One is a sound art piece by Stephen Vitiello, incorporating the steel pipes and other relics of the Boiler Plant into a soundscape that re-imagines the industrial fabric of MASS MoCA; the other is the beautiful airstream-trailer-turned-“satellite” with solar panel wings, a project conceived and designed by Troy, New York-based artist Michael Oatman and installed on an industrial catwalk above the Hoosic River. It’s accessed via a stairwell in the Boiler Plant.

We also recently installed a new super-efficient wood pellet boiler in a cinderblock structure built on to the old Boiler Plant, so we can now meet much of our heating needs with a greener fuel sourced from New England Wood Pellets, a plant about 60 miles from North Adams in southern New Hampshire, and we were able to recondition the old ash silo from the Sprague Boiler Plant into a functioning wood pellet silo – another crafty bit of recycling. The wood pellet boiler came from Biomass Commodities Corporation in Williamstown and was installed by local contractor Adams Plumbing & Heating. You can see there’s some tremendous expertise around renewable energy right here in the northern Berkshires, including Berkshire Photovoltaic Services in Adams, which did our smaller solar installation back in 2007.

I got side-tracked from the original question about the wind turbines, but my point was that the two micro-wind turbines really cap off the transformation of the Boiler Plant from an industrial-age energy system to the energy economy of the future. I recommend checking out the educational exhibit inside the “Pump House” – a small structure just next door to the Boiler Plant – that traces this fascinating history in more detail. All of this recent energy-related programming has been supported by grants from the Kresge Foundation and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources through American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.


Storey Publishing: What are your long-term renewable-energy goals for MASS MoCA?

MASS MoCA: Long-term (very long-term!), we’d love to pull off the miracle of turning our leaky old mill buildings into a “zero net energy” campus. That means conserving so much energy and generating so much energy on site that we could meet all of our energy needs without buying fossil fuels. We’re still a long, long way from that, and the technology and the markets are far from where they need to be for that to be possible. But we’re going to continue to look at renewable energy and conservation options, from geothermal and micro-wind to thermal storage and building envelope improvements.

The most dramatic changes we’ve made to our energy use in the past few years are not the most visible ones. A few years ago we cut our electricity use roughly 25% by installing better heating and air conditioning controls and much more efficient pumps and motors for moving hot water or chilled water throughout our campus. That investment paid for itself within a year. And last year we replaced over a thousand lighting fixtures and lamps in our galleries, performance spaces, and public areas, installing LEDs and the latest compact fluorescents and ceramic metal halide fixtures, cutting our overall electricity use by a further 15%. As we’re presented with more opportunities such as these, we’ll look to keep up the savings. From 1999 to 2007, MASS MoCA’s combined annual utility costs rose from about $200,000 to nearly $800,000, and since 2007 we’ve systematically chipped away at those costs to bring them back down to around $500,000 per year. But there’s certainly more to be done.


Learn about ways to refresh and eco-energize your home in
The Short Storey: February

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