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Pittsfield Explores Green Solution For Emergency Energy System

Downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Pittsfield, Massachusetts is exploring a renewable energy option to bolster its energy system in the event of disaster.

James McGrath is Pittsfield’s Park, Open Space, and Natural Resource Program Manager. He says the city’s quest for energy independence inspired a look into establishing a microgrid.

“We’ve been exploring a local downtown microgrid, and an opportunity came up with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to do just that," said McGrath to WAMC. "So we were awarded a small grant to work with the Microgrid Institute out of Minnesota to really understand the feasibility of design and implementation for a localized microgrid.”

The grant, announced in February by Governor Charlie Baker, became available in May. The $75,000 will cover the feasibility study.

“A community microgrid is essentially an islanded energy network, and it’s typically or most commonly used for long-term power outages as the result of a storm or some significant weather event. And its goal is to keep energized, keep power on critical infrastructure," said Tory Hanna, speaking to WAMC at an Environment Massachusetts press conference last week. A Pittsfield resident, he’s the founder and head of business development for Origin Solar, a Boston-based solar energy company. A former employee of the office of community development, Hanna is no stranger to city hall.

“He lives in Pittsfield and he’s really interested in assisting the city with matters related to energy efficiency," said McGrath, "and when this opportunity became available he approached the city about our interest in being involved in a microgrid feasibility study.”

Hanna is volunteering his services to the city in pursuing the study.

“It’s a lengthy analysis of the identified infrastructure, the opportunities,” he explained.

Standing in downtown Pittsfield, Hanna sees one of those opportunities in the soon to be replaced Columbus Avenue parking garage.

“We identified this asset as a potential generation facility to energize the microgrid," he told WAMC. "On top of the parking garage, there could be a solar parking canopy, a solar canopy generating energy, also protecting cars and the users of those cars.”

In addition to sites like city hall, Berkshire Medical Center, and the fire department, Hanna says the microgrid would include the O’Connell Senior Living Center and the Columbia Arms public housing building just down Columbus Avenue from the parking garage.

“Over 200 units across both of them," said Hanna. "If you think about vulnerable populations during long-term outages, the elderly the disabled — these are vulnerable populations. They can’t just run to the store to get batteries.”

Hanna says the study will include input from residents of the housing units. For now, he says the major threat to the study is cost. He believes that without the region’s current energy provider offering its existing infrastructure, it would be prohibitively expensive to start anew.

“If we can’t use the Eversource infrastructure, that could be the death knell to this type of a project,” Hanna said.

Pittsfield is one of 14 microgrid projects being funded among 12 communities in the commonwealth. The study is due in February 2019.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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