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Oakham Farm Inspires Central Massachusetts' 100 Percent Renewable Energy Goal

Local government, business, nonprofit, and environmental leaders recently gathered at the farm to discuss how the region can move to 100-percent renewable energy.

(TNS) -- OAKHAM - A 'slinky' of plastic tubes sprawled across the dirt floor of the greenhouse under construction at Dismas Family Farm, part of the radiant floor heating system that will keep organic vegetables toasty as they grow during the winter. But while a radiant-floor-heated greenhouse may be unique enough, what's really impressive is what the greenhouse will be fueled by - a compost pile.

"I'm talking rot," said the heating system's engineer Thaddeus Szkoda, president of Freedom Energy Systems, laughing. "Goodbye to oil technology, hello to compost."

The greenhouse is a zero net energy building, getting all of its energy needs from renewable sources on site.

It is also an example for the future of Central Massachusetts, as local government, business, nonprofit, and environmental leaders recently gathered at the farm to discuss how the region can move to 100-percent renewable energy.

"There's a lot we can do in the local community to move in this direction and accelerate our progress," said Ben Hellerstein, state director for the Environment Massachusetts Research and Policy Center. "The sooner we can get a clear goal and achieve that and a framework to get there, the better."

For Dismas Family Farm, the decision to go green was a financial one, said the farm's executive director, Dave McMahon. The farm - which is a rehabilitative and vocational prisoner reentry program - faced funding challenges in 2009 following the Great Recession and started working with state programs and initiatives to lower utility costs through renewable energy. Today, the farm provides all of its electricity with solar energy.

"The funding we saved from utilities we can use for our programs and staffing," explained Mr. McMahon.

And leaders at the forum said that Dismas Family Farm's energy success can be replicated across the region, benefiting local health and the climate as fossil fuels are abandoned.

Ellen Watts, president and co-founder of Architerra architecture firm, said that zero net energy buildings can be all sizes and cost effective. Tony Dutzik, a senior policy analyst with the public interest think tank Frontier Group, noted that renewable energy resources are now widely available, and "barriers are falling" for renewable energy. For instance, the cost of solar is decreasing, battery storage capability is increasing, and cars are more efficient than ever before.

"We're moving in the right direction," Mr. Dutzik said.

The question is how to get there.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, has filed legislation to set a goal of 100 percent renewable energy economy-wide by 2050 and 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035.

"It's very easy for us to say Massachusetts is a leader" in clean energy, Mr. Eldridge said. "But there's so much more to be done, and we can't rest on our laurels."

Ms. Watts recommended that leaders encourage businesses and large institutions to "lead by example," and mandate zero net energy buildings or at least make new buildings ready for solar installations.

Mr. Dutzik said there was no one way to achieve a 100 percent renewable energy future, mentioning that the goal required innovations and expansions in the technology, energy transmission, and transportation sectors.

But as attendees toured the farm admiring sheep, the greenhouse, and a solar array, Jeuji Diamondstone said she was optimistic that 100 percent renewable energy was a possibility.

"It's a possibility but it's contingent not just on the people here but the rest of the community," Ms. Diamondstone, a community organizer with Renewable Energy Worcester, said. "People have to understand the needs and the benefits and understand that we are all part of that solution. ... It was exciting to hear about all that is being done and know that there are so many purposeful people committed to moving us along."

©2017 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.