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Old Factory/New Power

From time to time  Joe Thompson, MASS MoCA’s Director, will let us know what’s on his mind.  Here’s his latest blog…

The previous two tenants of the great site we now occupy were forced to abandon the fort because of the costs of energy: Arnold Print Works literally went south, to avoid the energy transport costs of their raw materials.  And the oil crisis of the early 1970’s was in some ways the beginning of the end for the great Sprague Electric Company.

Making sure MASS MoCA isn’t the third to succumb to the costs of energy is at the very top of my “to do” lists.  Our artistic program is superb.  Our audiences are growing.  Our financial underpinning has improved markedly over the past 2 years.  But energy pricing still represents a huge institutional risk, and I want to put MASS MoCA on the other side of the supply & demand curve.

We’ve started, having installed one of the largest arrays of rooftop photovoltaic solar panels in the Northeast.  50 kilowatts is a very large array, but it’s a drop in the bucket for a huge campus like ours, generating only 4% of our total electrical need.  In conjunction with the solar initiative, we simultaneously completed a major upgrade of energy conservation equipment: variable speed water pumps and air handling equipment, CO2 sensors which allow us to modulate the amount of frigid (or, in the summer, hot) “make up” air we introduce to our air-handling system, sophisticated controls…and all these have cut our consumption by about 15%.

I monitor the spot and futures price of natural gas every single weekday morning, and we hedge aggressively.  Reacting to spot pricing of Henry Hub gas on NYMEX is probably not in most museum director’s job description.

But we’re still far too exposed to the energy market for my taste.  Seven or eight years ago, utilities used to take up 4% of our total budget, and now consumes almost 14% — with almost no top line budget growth, that 10% growth has come directly out of the hides of our programs, staffing, and educational services

One of the things we are intent on doing is increasing our on site production of solar-produced power by an order-of-magnitude.  If we can achieve that, MASS MoCA would be a national prototype (and excellent training ground) for multi-building, commercially-scaled applications of that renewable technology.

There are other interesting solutions.  I spent last Friday in the fuel cell labs of United Technologies, in Hartford.  That was invigorating: it felt like staring at the future (and there indeed white-coated scientists re-charging fuel cells for the NASA program).  Fuel cells are batteries: they use hydrogen (which can be cracked out of  natural gas using super clean, non-combusting chemical reactions that generate a bit of water as a by-product, plus lots of direct electrical current and useful heat.  The current can be inverted and transformed into AC line voltages, and the surplus heat can be scavenged, harvested, and turned into warm galleries (and even air conditioning in the summer months, via miraculous heat pump equipment I don’t fathom).  I also got to see micro-turbines in action: cute little jet engines you can hold in your hands that burn compressed natural gas at very high efficiencies, turning electromechanical generators, and giving off useful heat.  Keeping generation close at hand saves about 50% of energy normally lost in voltage drops over transmission lines.  It’s very cost effective to generate as close as possible to the point of usage, and at micro scales, so long as you can do it cleanly.  The co-generation technology is real (though at still very high capital costs.)  Right now, for quasi-industrial sites like MASS MoCA’s,  tucked down on river bottoms below wind-rich ridge lines, natural gas is the only feasible way to do that…though bio-fuels and other renewable sources of hydrogen will come into play in the future.

If MASS MoCA’s noble 19th century mill buildings can be made energy efficient, and run from renewable– or low-carbon footprint — fuels, and if we can achieve that in New England, then there is just no excuse for not solving our energy challenge.  Here, or anywhere else.

Posted March 2, 2009 by Brittany Bishop
Filed under Architecture, BLOG, Blogroll
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