UMass program helps chart green future for municipal buildings

  • A UMass Clean Energy Corps class looks over plans for Colrain Elementary School. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/NATHANIEL SCHILDBACH

  • Students in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Clean Energy Extension’s Clean Energy Corps check out the walk-in cooler controls on a tour of Colrain Elementary School as they analyze the potential for more energy efficiency. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/NATHANIEL SCHILDBACH

  • Students in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Clean Energy Extension’s Clean Energy Corps tour Colrain Elementary School, analyzing the potential for more energy efficiency.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/NATHANIEL SCHILDBACH

Staff Writer
Published: 12/9/2022 11:01:32 AM
Modified: 12/9/2022 11:01:12 AM

AMHERST — When municipal buildings need new heating systems, the problem is often urgent, costly and involves non-renewable technology. With that in mind, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Clean Energy Extension’s Clean Energy Corps is striving to help cities and towns plan for a green future.

The Clean Energy Corps is a class for UMass upper-level students that uses consulting methods to solve these problems. In the class, students visit communities to investigate a building and create a detailed report on how it can be rehabilitated to become more energy efficient. The program then works with municipalities to maximize grants provided by the state to enact the plans that students have created for them.

“Building decarbonization, electrification of heating with energy efficiency, and working with communities on buildings are our main goals,” explained Ben Weil, assistant professor in the Clean Energy Extension’s Building and Construction Technology Department.

The Clean Energy Extension hopes to illustrate for businesses and residents how to decarbonize their properties, emphasizing that its work on municipal buildings can serve as models for others.

There are multiple ways to decarbonize buildings. Often this means not only replacing heating systems but also finding ways to make the an entire building more energy efficient.

The class not only has this larger goal, but teaches students statistical methods, data logging and how to analyze diagnostic systems. It also looks to make them comfortable with presenting findings and collaborating with others. Students in the class often are working on a master’s degree in sustainability or are students of mechanical engineering or architecture.

“What we want in the end is not just to do a class project, but to see the results,” said Lauren Mattison, Municipal Services Program director for the Clean Energy Extension.

Part of Mattison’s job is to keep checking in with towns the classes have worked with to ensure they are using the plans provided by the class correctly. Mattison and Weil continue to serve as a go-between for contractors and towns to ensure the research they have does not go to waste. “Having us as a consultant is useful,” Weil said.

Mattison also works with municipalities to find the right projects for the classes. She explained there has to be complete buy-in from multiple parties in the town, including the leaders of emergency services, energy committees and other local officials.

“It takes a lot of work to find projects that are good for the town and the class,” she said.

She explained most municipal buildings can be used because they are almost always inefficient, but she finds the correct fit by finding the buildings with the “biggest bang for their buck.”

The projects for the class can take three or more years to implement, because of the back and forth that is required.

One example of the students’ work can be seen at Northfield Elementary School. Working with Northfield’s Energy Committee, the students conducted a building assessment and proposed an energy-efficient redesign of the school’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. They then helped develop scopes of work, finding qualified contractors, obtaining Mass Save and Green Communities grants, and overseeing construction. The project took three years to implement.

“While a vendor had previously proposed a total system replacement, which was cost prohibitive, we offered cost-effective solutions by limiting project costs with reuse of existing equipment when feasible,” the Clean Energy Corps states on its website.

The Clean Energy Corps often works in public schools because schools are frequently a municipality’s biggest drain of energy, while also representing a large portion of the municipal budget each year. Many of their projects have a high price tag, but the team works with municipalities to implement their plans piece by piece over multiple years.

Greenfield’s buildings are another example of their collaboration. In 2021, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources recognized the city with a Leading by Example Award for achieving a 67.7% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2008. The Clean Energy Corps played a key role in that accomplishment by contributing to a variety of projects for the city.

Weil explained that one of the biggest setbacks for the Clean Energy Corps is its difficulties scaling up. Its two current employees do an incredible amount of work as a go-between for the towns, he said.

Since the Clean Energy Corps started in 2016, its students and employees have done projects in more than 30 cities and towns, doing its part to help Massachusetts reach its goal of an 85% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.

Climate Change at Home is sponsored by Whalen Insurance.


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