Nuestro Huerto in the News

COVER STORY: Going Green-How Worcester, Central Mass are leading the way

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Solar Farm panels on the former Greenwood Street Landfill.

Solar Farm panels on the former Greenwood Street Landfill. Elizabeth Brooks photo.

The irony seeps through the ground – a vast wasteland on Greenwood Street that once held heaps of residential trash for more than a decade is now home to what city officials deem to be the largest municipally-owned solar farm in New England. With a ribbon-cutting ceremony expected to occur sometime this summer, the 25-acre site will have completed its transformation from an environmentally unfriendly dump to one that will be the greenest of the green in terms of energy saving measures.

The solar arrays over on the south side of Route 146 are impressive – 28,600 panels tilted at 25-degree angles, row after row, one after another. And then, just up ahead, with the hills in the distance on the northern side of 146, a lofty wind turbine spins at 262 feet high on the campus of Holy Name Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School. Separately, the two are just some of the many energy efficiency projects in the city; together, they serve as a beacon along the highway, a gateway to the city and the road map for the future. Driving down the highway and seeing both gives a feeling of “Welcome to Worcester,” says John Odell, Energy & Asset Management director for the city.

Welcome to Worcester, indeed. In a world of “going green,” the city has gone green enough that officials there consider Worcester to be a leader in such efforts.

“Yes,” says City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. “You might expect me to say that. I think you can prove that.”

In fact, “going green” is not a new concept for Worcester. Efforts date back to before the current administration, and other city institutions, such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, have been practicing energy efficiency for more than a decade. Worcester was one of the first in the state to have a curbside recycling program and a climate plan, and it was also one of the first certified Green Communities. Even the Beaver Brook Farmers’ Market, which sets up Mondays and Fridays on Chandler Street, is the oldest in Worcester – its roots dating back to the ‘90s, when it was originally located near City Hall.

Even so, “It’s easy not to notice the strides the city has made in green issues,” says Steve Fischer, executive director of the Regional Environmental Council, an organization that started in 1972 with a mission to study clean air, clean water and open space issues. It has since expanded over the years to include other green initiatives, including urban farming.

Today, however, officials want residents to take note of Worcester’s many green efforts.

Saint Gobain Kiln.

Worcester Energy, a municipal initiative of the Executive Office of Economic Development and the Division of Energy & Asset Management, has an extensive website detailing the city’s green projects past and present. And both Augustus and Odell cited three ongoing projects – not only the solar farm, but also a street light replacement conversion and an energy aggregate plan – that have had or will have significant impact on the city. The three together, Odell says, are “near completion or far enough along that we can say we are in a leadership position. We’re in a great position to start spreading the word.”

Ten years ago, the city entered into a multiyear, multi-million energy efficiency and renewable energy project to assess all of its municipal facilities. Honeywell International was hired in 2009 as Worcester’s Energy Services Company to conduct energy audits of those buildings. Two years later, the city signed an Energy Savings Performance Contract for $26.6 million. As part of the ESPC, energy conservation work was to be done in 92 of the city’s largest facilities, out of 171 total. Some buildings have benefited from small changes, such as computer power management systems, while other, more aging facilities have received more extensive improvements – heating and cooling systems, insulation, air-sealing, lighting fixtures and water conservation equipment and solar panels.

The goal, according to Odell, was to save $1.3 million a year – an amount guaranteed by the ESCO. But a recently completed assessment of the ESPC revealed a $1.7-million savings per year.

“Energy efficiency has become a really good investment,” Odell says. “I think it’s important to note that the dollars are real. It costs money to do these things, but because of the benefits you get, it’s a savings.”

Mayor Joe Petty agrees, saying green energy is ever-important, not just for the environmental aspects, but for cost-savings as well.

“I know it’s a little more expensive sometimes, but that in itself is a positive,” he says, adding the city’s endeavors are going to save millions of dollars over the next several years.

A major contributor to those savings are the city’s numerous solar projects, including the Greenwood Street solar array. Although it cost approximately $28 million to construct, with a three-year payback, the 8.1-megawatt farm will produce about 10 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year once connected to National Grid’s distribution center. That’s enough to offset the electricity used by more than 1,300 homes in the city. In total, the city expects a return of about $50 million over the 20 years of the project, plus approximately $15 million more the following 10 years.

“It’s equivalent to 19 football fields of energy,” Augustus says. “That’s a big deal in terms of taxpayers’ dollars and in terms of shrinking our carbon footprint.”

Another major project completed this past fiscal year involved the installation of approximately 4,500 LED, high-efficiency street lights throughout the city, a measure expected to save $400,000 in electricity costs. Once all 14,000 planned street lights are switched over, city officials say they expect the savings to be more than $900,000 per year.

Beyond the cost savings are the additional benefits that come with the new street lights. Officials say the lights will cost less to maintain and have longer life cycles, reduce carbon emissions and light pollution at night, and improve lighting quality overall, plus give a sense of greater security. According to Augustus, Los Angeles County did a similar street light conversion and officials there credited the project with a 10-percent reduction in crime because the intensity of the lights was able to be calibrated at specified times.

“There are a lot of operational efficiencies that come from having this kind of technology,” Augustus says.

In addition to those projects, Worcester has upgraded lighting at four parking garages to LED, saving an additional $89,000 per year in electricity costs; completed a $1.7 million lighting upgrade project at the DCU Centre without using any taxpayer funds; and replaced a failing HVAC center at the senior center, among other initiatives, with more on the way. And when President Donald Trump announced the federal government would no longer participate in the Paris Climate Agreement, Petty made his own announcement: that the city would continue to battle climate change locally and invest in green technology.

“As our federal government retreats from its responsibility as steward of our environment, it is vitally important for state and municipal government to uphold our commitment to the future of our planet,” says Petty, who joined mayors across the country in signing the U.S. Climate Mayors statement. “If the president doesn’t want to do it, we will.”

Mary O’neill and Eva Elton display fresh produce at the Mobile Farmers Market Laurel St. location, in Plumley Village.

Green Schooled

Worcester Public Schools has gotten into the green zone as well. Over at 35 Nelson Place, a school dating back to 1927 is being demolished in preparation for a new building to serve Worcester students in pre-kindergarten through grade 6 starting this fall. But unlike the old Nelson Place School, the new 600-student facility will be twice the size – 110,000 square feet compared to the original’s 55,000 square feet – and will be the city’s first-ever, net-zero energy building, defined by the U.S. Department of Energy as, “an energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy.”

And even though “you could effectively pull that building off the grid,” Odell says, that doesn’t mean the new school is being built with highly-specialized technology and equipment. On the contrary, it’s all “off-the-shelf technology.”

According to Brian Allen, chief financial and operations officer for Worcester Public Schools, the roof’s solar panels will provide 100 percent of the building’s energy, and together with the high-efficiency windows and insulation, “natural gas for heating will be one-third of what we’re using.”

“You basically have one school taking care of itself,” Augustus says. “Imagine if I could have every city building take care of itself.” The school was designed as a green building from the start as part of the application process for the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which works with cities and town across the state to help build affordable, sustainable and energy-efficient schools. Because the state offers more reimbursement credits for green buildings, it made more sense to create the new Nelson Place School as net-zero energy, Allen explains.

The new Nelson Place School is just one of the many examples of how the city of Worcester and the educational system have collaborated on the ESCO contract, and in the near future, the hope is to do another energy partnership with the schools, Augustus says. Many of the schools have benefited from new doors and windows, with others slated for similar work soon.

“The city,” he says, “has been very aggressive over the years with window replacement, making them energy-efficient and more aesthetically pleasing in some of the older buildings.”

Other schools have been outfitted with new boilers and exterior LED lights, while converting interior lights is currently being explored, according to Allen. In addition, the school district as a whole also benefits from numerous solar panels at its buildings, about 3 million kilowatts of energy, Allen says. Two of the schools have parking lot canopies, and eight – including the new Nelson Place – have roof arrays. Four of those roofs, according to Odell, were nearing the end of their lifespan and were resealed with white roof coating application instead of black to make the arrays more effective.

“The net effect,” said Odell, “is we got the roofs for free.”

As a result, all of these green efforts are beneficial to the city and school district and the students. “Any way that we can be part of the initiatives and save money and be more environmentally aware, it seems to perfectly align with the mission of the school district,” Allen says, noting it also demonstrates to students that there are ways to be environmentally conscious and friendly.

The solar panels on the roof of the new Nelson Place School

Windfall

Holy Name’s wind turbine is another example of how the city has collaborated with schools. Although it is a private school and no city funds were expended to construct the turbine, regulations did not allow for such projects a decade ago. City officials, however, allocated staff resources to review the regulations, and as a result, in June 2007, adopted the Large Wind (Energy Conversion Facilities) Ordinance, allowing for wind turbines to be located in Worcester by special permit with provisions for height, abutting uses buffers and noise regulations.

The turbine has been largely successful. Holy Name, built in 1967 and heated electrically, was paying $180,000 in utility bills each year, according to a sustainability profile by Worcester Energy. In 2015, when the report was written, the turbine was producing an average of 74 percent of Holy Name’s yearly energy needs.

That’s one of the reasons why Worcester officials feel it is so important to partner with other schools and businesses on green technology.

“It allows us to be credible,” when businesses want to locate or relocate in the city, so that they don’t feel like they’re working on projects in isolation, says Odell.

City officials also believe it is important to help residents go green – and stay green. The Municipal Electric Aggregation program, which City Council recently approved, pools all of Worcester’s National Grid customers into one negotiating block as long as they are signed up for the Smart Grid program. By doing so, the city can offer residents and businesses various components of green energy to them.

“That’s the next big thing,” Odell says. “You can make your own portfolio greener.”

 

Saint Green

One such company that is no stranger to green issues is Saint-Gobain, a world leader in designing and building high-performance, innovative and sustainable building materials. Recently, the company announced a renewed commitment to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Plants Program, which works with manufacturers to improve energy efficiency to drive cost savings for the industrial sector. Eighty four of Saint-Gobain’s manufacturing plants in the country – Worcester included – are participating in the program, with a goal of achieving an energy savings of 20 percent over the next 10 years. Saint-Gobain joined the program in 2011, the same year it launched.

Michael Barnes, vice president of operations for Saint-Gobain Abrasives North America, says the company chose to focus on the Better Plants Program because it “really aligns with our own strategic direction. Saint-Gobain is committed to not only what we do every day with the products we make and sell, but in the communities as well.”

In Worcester, specifically, the plant is getting a lights makeover with the installation of LED lamps, plus a new kiln was installed. Many of the company’s products, Barnes says, are fired in high-temperature kilns, and the new one has provided the company with a significant reduction in natural gas consumption. In addition, Saint-Gobain in Worcester has its own powerhouse that generates steam, which in turn heats the buildings, so that the company not only procures energy but produces it as well.

It’s a “very smart move,” Barnes says, to look at the energy the company consumes and expels. Part of that as well is the company’s carbon monoxide emissions, which SaintGobain seeks to reduce by 20 percent.

With these strategic, long-term plans “heavily supported” by capital investment, a creative team and the continued financial support from the corporation, Barnes says, it shows Saint-Gobain’s commitment to remain in Worcester and to contribute to the city’s employment rate.

“It’s difficult to do business in New England. It’s a high-cost area. It’s very highly regulated environmentally. It’s easy for people to say, ‘Let’s do this elsewhere,’” Barnes says.

But, he adds, the company remains committed to its Worcester roots and helping the environment as well through its Better Plants Program participation.

“Energy is a very critical cost component. That’s why we take this initiative seriously,” he says, adding, “This isn’t just something we talk about. It’s something we’re committed to.”

While the company cites its efforts to become more environmentally friendly, it has not been without its missteps. Saint Gobain allegedly violated the Clean Water Act, reaching a settlement last December with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that required the company to pay a $131,000 penalty and to install new storm water treatment equipment.

Technically Green

If Worcester and its businesses have been in the green game for some time, WPI has, too. In fact, its very mission statement pledges the college will “demonstrate our commitment to the preservation of the planet and all its life through the incorporation of the principles of sustainability throughout the institution.”

WPI has a Sustainability Plan, an initiative put into motion during spring 2012 by the WPI Task Force on Sustainability, that outlines goals, objectives and tasks for academics, campus operations, research and scholarship, and community engagement. It offers 119 undergraduate and 30 graduate sustainability related courses, as well as a minor degree in sustainability engineering. And, back in 2004, five undergraduate students from the college were the ones to conduct the wind turbine study at Holy Name’s request.

Ten years ago, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution that all new buildings be designed to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, a national rating system created by the U.S. Green Building Council. Today, WPI boasts four LEED buildings: Bartlett Center, LEED Certified in 2006; East Hall, LEED Gold in 2008; the Recreation Center, LEED Gold in 2012; and Faraday Hall, LEED Silver in 2013.

Although WPI has many sustainability programs, two have stood out, according to WPI Director of Sustainability John Orr, who is also a professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering.

“The project with the greatest environmental impact has been our building energy and lighting retrofit program that saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions,” Orr says. “This is largely invisible to the community, but has a great environmental impact. Our bike share program, Gompei’s Gears, is highly visible and has received great community feedback.”

Gompei’s Gears was originally an Interactive Qualifying Project (submitted for degree requirements) by two students, Kevin Ackerman and John Colfer, and the program has evolved from an idea in 2015 into a fullscale program. Gompei’s Gears, named after the WPI mascot, allows students, faculty and staff access to bikes from various locations on campus that they can ride anywhere on site or even off school grounds. It is available after spring break (weather depending) until the first snowfall.

For all its efforts, in June WPI earned a gold rating in the Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), awarded by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Two years ago, the first time the school submitted a STARS application, it earned a silver rating and worked hard to improve upon that. This year, WPI was one of 117 schools out of 415 total that received a gold rating. Only one received platinum, 201 silver, 67 bronze and 29 reporter rating.

Orr says he believes the campus’ four LEED-certified buildings – with another under construction – Gompei’s Gears, the building energy upgrades and other programs make WPI a leader in the “going green” movement out of colleges in similar size.

“Also, very much in our educational programs – environmental engineering and environmental and sustainability studies – and our global project programs in developing nations,” Orr says. “Advanced technology is required to address the world’s environmental challenges, and we are showing leadership in our campus operations, our educational programs and our research (advanced batteries, biomass, advanced recycling, etc.).”

Leeding and Leading the Way

Other Worcester and Central Mass colleges are making an effort to go green as well.

At Assumption College, the new Tsotsis Family Academic Center, which will open this fall, and site lighting were all designed for LED lights, with the exception of specialized lighting in the performance hall, according to the school’s Office of Communications. Five interior space renovations are underway, where the lighting will be replaced with LEDs and reverse refrigerant systems will be installed in place of air-conditioning to control the temperature within those particular spaces. In addition, speed controllers were added to the HVAC units in the Fuller/IT buildings, and last summer, low flow shower heads and aerators were installed on the sink’s faucets in all the resident halls. Opened in 2015, it is the first building on the campus to be designated LEED certified and is the only Gold-certified building in southern Worcester County (a term sometimes used to define towns south, southwest and southeast of Worcester), according to college officials.

Over at Nichols College in Dudley, its newest academic building was awarded LEED Gold certification last year. Opened in 2015, it is the first building on the campus to be designated LEED certified and is the only Gold-certified building in southern Worcester County, according to college officials. The three-story building’s green components include locally-sourced and recycled materials; excellent indoor air quality; efficient water use systems; sensors that better control heating and lighting in individual rooms; and large windows for natural light, which reduces the need for interior lighting and minimizes the use of electricity during the daytime.

“Gold LEED certification for the new academic building is an exciting accomplishment and a statement to Nichols College’s commitment to environmental stewardship,” says Robert LaVigne, associate vice president for facilities management at Nichols. “Since opening its doors last fall, the building has served as a testament to the college’s dedication to innovation – not only in sustainable design, but also education.”

Other green programs at Nichols include its single-stream, campus-wide recycling program, food waste recycling at Lombard Dining Hall, geothermal heating and cooling systems at two residence halls and LED conversion of all exterior lights on campus. In addition, Fels Student Center received National Grid’s Advance Building Certification for energy efficiency.

Food for Thought

But “going green” doesn’t just refer to eco-friendly buildings, energy-efficient lights and solar panels – it can also mean the food we eat and how it is sourced. In cities, people don’t always have access to fresh food, but Worcester has been working to change that as well.

On Mondays and Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 306 Chandler St., the Beaver Brook Farmers’ Market sets up shop with local produce, plus bread and craft vendors. Originally the Worcester Hill Market, it is the oldest farmers’ market in the city, according to Fischer. It moved to Chandler Street when the front of City Hall closed for repairs, and the REC took over management in 2012.

Beaver Brook is just one of the city markets, which all opened in late June and run through Oct. 28. The University Park Farm Stand, a Main South staple since 2008, moved to its current location last year so that the REC could more closely partner with Clark University, the Main South Community Development Corporation and other area organizations to provide not only fresh food but family-friendly activities as well. It is open every Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at 965 Main St. The REC also runs the Mobile Farmers’ Market, which makes 16 stops around the city Tuesdays through Fridays, bringing locally grown produce straight to residents who might not otherwise be able to travel to a farm stand. Fischer notes the city is home to many other farmers’ markets not run by the REC. “We’re seeing a demand in farmers’ markets,” he says. “We’re seeing a demand for local food.” Martha Assefa, manager of the Worcester Food Policy Council, agrees.

“There are so many amazing farmers’ markets happening in the city,” she says, recalling, “A while ago, it was a few folks at the table talking about this. Now local food and food access is becoming mainstream. I think folks are much more interested in buying local than they were 15 years ago.”

But is buying fresh and local more expensive? The Healthy Incentives Program makes sure people who receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) assistance have just as much access to fresh food as others. Through March 31, 2020, the program will match any SNAP dollars spent at farmers’ markets or stands, mobile markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm stand programs. Families of one to two people can have up to $40 instantly debited back to their EBT card each month, $60 for three to five people, and $80 for families with six or more people.

“I think many folks realize it makes sense to buy local,” Assefa says, adding it reduces the amount of food travel from producer to consumer, and it also reduces some of the packaging it comes in as well. Plus, it directly helps local farmers – and all that leads to a greener planet.

“A lot of the farming community knows how important it is to protect Mother Earth. A lot of the farmers are innovators. If they don’t protect it, they’re going to see it on their fields,” Assefa says. “That’s the forefront of it all,” she says. “Plus, local food tastes better.”

Urban Gardens

Just as farmers’ markets are not reserved for the suburbs, neither are gardens. In 1995, the REC started a network of urban farms and community gardens that has now grown to 64 in number. These farms have allowed citizens to contribute to the community, learn about growing their own food and beautify their neighborhoods. There are also 20 gardens at the public schools, as well as a youth program in Belmont Hill for ages 14 through 18 that has been in existence since 2003, Fischer says. Both programs, he says, are “transformative,” adding that, for many, this exposure to gardening is the first time students see “how a carrot comes to be, how lettuce comes to be, other than buying it in stores.”

And by working in the gardens, Fischer continues, “They can see the fruits of their labor. It has an amazing impact.”

That’s precisely why groups in the city are pushing for more urban farming – specifically to allow residents to grow and sell their own food. Although personal gardens are allowed, Fischer says, residents are not currently permitted to set up roadside stands or sell to farmers’ markets or stores.

The Urban Agriculture Zoning Ordinance seeks to change that.

“It’s a set of rules to make sure there are rules in place for growing and selling food in the city,” Fischer says. “Right now there’s a big hole in the regulations for growing food in the city.”

Currently in committee hearings, the ordinance has been three years in the making, after the mayor convened a working group with concerned citizens, those associated with urban farming, the Chamber of Commerce and other groups to look at the zoning regulations from environmental and social justice perspectives, Fischer says.

The Worcester Food Policy Council is also heavily involved with the proposal to make sure anyone in the city can farm their land and in turn sell their products. The ordinance has received some pushback, however, particularly among area beekeepers who worry it will infringe upon their efforts.

The ordinance would require beekeepers to notify abutters that they have bees, which the keepers find potentially prohibitive. Worcester Magazine wrote about their concerns earlier this month, in a story titled, “Beekeepers buzzing over proposed urban agriculture ordinance.”

Still, says Fischer, the ordinance and other work is an acknowledgment that urban agriculture is real.

“There is a growing interest as to how the food is produced and where it is grown and the quality of how it’s grown,” he says, noting that “it’s full circle, and essentially we need to rebuild the infrastructure that was dismantled over the last decade, and also to rebuild the biodiversity.”

Plus, says Fischer, “It’s exciting to have the city and local businesses and the residents taking an interest in these things and providing leadership in moving things forward.”

It is a project of which the mayor is particularly proud.

“I think it’s a great asset to the city,” Petty says of the ordinance. “We are taking what people are doing anyway and putting some rows around it.”

Plus, he adds, with that and the existing farmers’ markets, “It’s a driver for jobs. We’re taking locally grown food and selling it.”

 Barking Up a New Tree

Amanda Barker knows much about urban agriculture. On a sunny day, she is planting scallions at Cotyledon Farm, her newest venture in nearby Leicester. She is the founder of Nuestro Huerto on Southgate Street in Worcester, which she watched grow from a small-scale community garden to a successful urban farm.

When she moved to Main South eight years ago for graduate school at Clark University, she didn’t know anyone but had a desire to “ultimately help create and become part of a community around food,” she recalls.

Barker started a garden in her back yard, but soon found the shady space and the lead in the soil made it unsuitable for growing anything. Faced with needing to take on an unpaid internship for her requirements at Clark, her “practical” gardening project ended up becoming long-term when she set up on land owned by Iglesia Casa de Oración (House of Prayer Church). Initially, she says, she started with 10 raised wooden garden beds, with the intent to give away the food for free. Eventually, it became a full-scale urban CSA.

“It demonstrated interest and demand for those projects. Certainly, we weren’t lacking for volunteers, depending on the day,” Barker says, recalling that there were always a “lot of young people showing interest in being outside and being in a non-city place. It was a respite and a green space.”

Today, after a largely successful run, Nuestro Huerto and the CSA are now closed to the public, but with good reason—the site is host to three farmers from Nepal who will use the opportunity to provide for themselves, their families and their communities. Barker still serves as a liaison for the project, she says, even though the farmers are mostly independent.

“You can produce incredible amounts of food, and they certainly are. Every inch is going to be packed with vegetables,” she says.

It is why she has “mixed thoughts” on the Urban Agriculture Zoning Ordinance.

“What I want is everything to be allowed by right in all zones,” Barker says. “We’re human beings; we eat food. What is there to have a conversation about?”

If the proposal is successful, it should address some of her questions and transform some of those blank spaces into only more green spaces for the city.

“We’re excited about the potential urban agriculture has in responding to how difficult it is for some people who are working hard but are unable to access fresh food,” Fischer says. “It also makes neighborhoods beautiful. That is a key strategy for beautifying the city.”

Not only that, but “people in the area grow to love those neighborhood farms, and they look out for it,” he says. Between the urban farms and solar farms, plus all the energy-efficiency programs, is there room for Worcester to improve? Augustus says,“Yes,” adding Worcester should “continue to set the pace of what can be done by a municipality … in terms of great and innovative ways to save the taxpayer money instead of being paid to a utility to produce.”

Worcester, Petty says, “is killing it” not only with green issues, but other aspects as well, such as the arts.

“I think we have a government that’s pretty interactive, and people are noticing. We’ve made all the right decisions so far.” When it comes to going green, he says, “This is good, cooperative effort between the government and the community.”

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