Holyoke brimming with climate change initiatives 

  • John Goodhue, the executive director of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, talks about the data center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • John Goodhue, the executive director of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, stands in front of the main switchgear which distributes power to the building.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The view from the second-floor window of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Some of the many cables that run through the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • John Goodhue, the executive director of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, talks about the data center.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • John Goodhue, the executive director of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, stands in one of the computer rooms at the data center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/18/2019 11:26:06 PM
Modified: 9/18/2019 11:25:55 PM

HOLYOKE — As one of the country’s first planned industrial cities, Holyoke’s infrastructure — its dam, canals, grid plan and mill buildings — powered its remarkable rise from a tiny town to an industrial powerhouse that at one point produced the vast majority of all paper made in the United States.

Those days are in the past now. But as the world faces a climate crisis largely sparked by the same Industrial Revolution that gave rise to Holyoke, the city is now poised to lead the way in addressing that crisis. And its infrastructure plays a big role in that.

“In a very real way, Holyoke can be the example for the nation that can test out a lot of what we think can work,” said Marcos Marrero, the city’s director of planning and economic development.

The list of areas in which Holyoke hopes to lead is lengthy.

Replacing a coal-fired power plant with solar panels. Working to become the first-ever U.S. city with a carbon-neutral energy system. Inviting companies to test their renewable hydroenergy technology in the city’s canals. Planting trees downtown to counter the urban heat island effect. Hosting a cutting-edge green data center. And welcoming some 2,200 families to the city from Puerto Rico after they were displaced by Hurricane Maria two years ago.

Green computing

It has become almost a cliche for people to point out that the computers used during the first lunar landing 50 years ago were less powerful than the smartphone in your pocket today. But that raises a question: What, then, do powerful computers today look like?

Nowadays, scientists can harness together thousands of cutting-edge computers to analyze massive data sets. For example, a biostatistician can sift through data from 100,000 genomes looking for patterns. And with giant computers, they are able to get statistically significant results.

That kind of computing has ushered in a new era of science based on big data, leading to many remarkable discoveries across many fields of inquiry. But that computing also requires massive amounts of electricity. And across the country, the vast majority of electricity continues to be produced by burning fossil fuels.

So how can universities and scientists reduce the carbon footprint of their groundbreaking work? Some answers to this question lie inside the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, a sleek building on Bigelow Street that represents a collaboration among the city of Holyoke and a handful of the state’s research institutions, including the University of Massachusetts.

“We now kind of represent the new normal for data centers,” said John Goodhue, the computing center’s executive director. The center was completed in 2012, and provides 15 megawatts of energy to researchers looking to tackle complex questions, from how bones react to stress to what plastics might be used to make solar cells more efficient and affordable.

Holyoke has some of the cheapest electricity in the nation because of its dam and canals. And that energy doesn’t rely on burning fossil fuels. Both of those factors made it an appealing location for the computing center, Goodhue said.

In addition to using hydro and solar energy, the building has many smaller touches that reduce the amount of energy needed to run its computers.

For example, water used to cool the computers is pumped into storage tanks outside, where it can cool naturally before being reused; only during the summer does the facility pump that water into refrigerator tanks, which Goodhue said are the “biggest energy hogs in the building.” Racks of computers also blow hot air into small “hot rooms” located between the rows, trapping the heat in small spaces where it can be most efficiently cooled before it is released back into the room. 

Computing center researchers have co-authored papers on data center energy efficiency, and the center has made operational data available to those who show interest. Sharing that knowledge is important because the need for such computing centers is only growing, Goodhue said.

Welcoming those displaced

Two years ago, Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico, killing thousands of people, destroying homes and causing the worst blackout in U.S. history. As weather patterns change worldwide, scientists point to climate change as a culprit in such cases.

Many families displaced amid the post-hurricane chaos moved to the U.S. mainland. Some 2,200 families came to Holyoke, including 247 children who enrolled in the city’s schools.

“It’s been a big piece of the conversation around climate change and how it affects places like Holyoke,” said Mike Bloomberg, the chief of staff to Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.

Western Massachusetts communities have been increasingly discussing changes to the local environment caused by climate change, including increased rains and an uptick in mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses. But stronger storms and sea-level rise far away from the region nevertheless have an impact locally, Bloomberg noted. The influx of displaced people is one of those impacts.

“Those were our brothers, sisters, parents,” said Marrero, the director of planning and economic development, who himself is originally from San Juan. “A lot of people had family members and friends in Puerto Rico.”

Marrero and Bloomberg said that welcoming those people to the city was never a question and that they have benefited the city in many ways. The only challenge was a logistical one — how to ensure they had adequate housing, educational support and access to their medical information back on the island, for example.

So the city has undertaken a planning study, due out in October, on the topic of climate migration, aided by a grant from the state. Municipalities are on the front lines when it comes to providing services to displaced people, they said. And those people are inevitably going to arrive, they said.

“The idea is to have a playbook not just for Holyoke, but for the entire state,” Marrero said.

Publicly owned utility

Holyoke operates its own municipally owned, vertically integrated utility — Holyoke Gas & Electric. And that provides an enormous advantage when looking to improve the city’s commitment to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

“There is a commonality of public purpose that doesn’t necessarily exist with an investor-owned utility,” Marrero said.

The sources of energy Holyoke Gas & Electric draws from are around 90 percent carbon-free, including nuclear and hydro. That includes significant power purchase agreements with solar companies including ENGIE, which operates a massive solar plant and electricity storage facility on the former site of the Mount Tom coal plant. Activists successfully pushed for the shut down of that plant in 2014.

Marrero said those agreements have not come at a premium. The energy is purchased at equal or better rates compared with sources like natural gas. The company has also gone further, installing advanced meters for its residential customers to find out how consumption can be reduced.

“One of the challenges of renewable energy is really understanding how consumption and production interrelate so the grid can be managed on demand,” Marrero said. “With fossil fuels you have the luxury to be able to ramp it up or down at any point … You can’t just tell the wind to blow harder or the sun to shine brighter.”

The city also has taken steps to move away from natural gas, although those initiatives have sparked the kind of debate that is increasingly playing out in municipalities across the country. 

Activists groups like Neighbor to Neighbor have been out front in opposition to a pipeline expansion through West Springfield that would add capacity to the city and several other municipalities. Holyoke Gas & Electric, which supports the expansion, has already had to place a moratorium on new natural gas hookups because of a lack of capacity. In an Earth Day pronouncement this year, the mayor also came out in opposition to the pipeline.

“It constitutes a short-term fix to a long-term problem, and falls short of the moral imperatives of this moment in history,” he said. “The HG&E may be contractually obligated to support this project going forward, but I will not, and will use my position to advocate against it.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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