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Staying green: At 40, Greenfield-based solar advocates take new slant

  • Although the organization is still remembered for the Tour de Sol and still has a visible presence for the Greenfield Energy Park that it helped the town develop at the foot of Miles Street, much of its public visibility has shifted from a grass-roots organization to one focused on professional development in energy-efficient building design.

    Although the organization is still remembered for the Tour de Sol and still has a visible presence for the Greenfield Energy Park that it helped the town develop at the foot of Miles Street, much of its public visibility has shifted from a grass-roots organization to one focused on professional development in energy-efficient building design.

  • In 1989, NESEA moved to Ames Street in Greenfield, launched the first Tour de Sol and broadened its focus from solar energy to a broader range of sustainable energy concerns, including transportation and even bringing an energy curriculum into the public schools.

    In 1989, NESEA moved to Ames Street in Greenfield, launched the first Tour de Sol and broadened its focus from solar energy to a broader range of sustainable energy concerns, including transportation and even bringing an energy curriculum into the public schools.

  • Although the organization is still remembered for the Tour de Sol and still has a visible presence for the Greenfield Energy Park that it helped the town develop at the foot of Miles Street, much of its public visibility has shifted from a grass-roots organization to one focused on professional development in energy-efficient building design.
  • In 1989, NESEA moved to Ames Street in Greenfield, launched the first Tour de Sol and broadened its focus from solar energy to a broader range of sustainable energy concerns, including transportation and even bringing an energy curriculum into the public schools.

With names like “Aluminum Cow” and “Moonshine’s Revenge,” the bizarre-looking vehicles hummed as they rolled into Greenfield.

It was the 18th annual Tour de Sol, and it drew thousands of people to Miles Street, where the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s headquarters was a pit stop for 54 alternative technology vehicles en route from Waterbury, Conn., to Boston.

The April 2006 edition of America’s premier alternative vehicle road rally was among the last of the 18 annual events, some of which brought a palpable level of excitement to downtown Greenfield, involving students from grade school to graduate school drawn to the array of photovoltaic, hybrid and other then-futuristic vehicles — which gradually became commercially produced models that have become common on the roadways.

While the futuristic Tour de Sol may have become a thing of the present, NESEA still hums along in the former Greenfield railroad office, preparing for its 40th anniversary.

“This is the world headquarters of NESEA,” quipped Executive Director Jennifer Marrapese, who joined the organization 4½ years ago.

Although the organization is still remembered for the Tour de Sol and still has a visible presence for the Greenfield Energy Park that it helped the town develop at the foot of Miles Street, much of its public visibility has shifted from a grass-roots organization to one focused on professional development in energy-efficient building design.

The organization began in 1974 around an energy self-sufficient housing community designed north of Brattleboro, Vt., with architects, engineers, and advocates of what were then called alternative energy technologies.

NESEA, which formed a Boston chapter as well, was instrumental in putting on the 1976 Toward Tomorrow Fair at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, became part of a newly forming American Solar Energy Society in 1985.

In 1989, the organization, moved to Ames Street in Greenfield, launched the first Tour de Sol and broadened its focus from solar energy to a broader range of sustainable energy concerns, including transportation and even bringing an energy curriculum into the public schools.

Nearly 115 of its members — slightly more than 10 percent of total membership — are in western Massachusetts.

When NESEA moved its headquarters from rented space on Ames Street to the former railroad building in 1995, creating what the nonprofit member organization at the time called The Northeast Sustainability Center, it also took control of an unused piece of land for which it received grant funding to create the Greenfield Energy Park two years later.

That setting, owned by the town and the home of a photovoltaic solar array that helps power the building that is also home to the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District, has continued to be the main association that area laypeople have with NESEA in recent years, as the organization has focused more on offering professional training and services to its membership around the region from Maine to Delaware.

“As the field of sustainable energy became more competitive,” says Marapese, “There was definitely a transition from a more grass-roots, consumer focus to a professional focused organization that serves practitioners. ... NESEA was still here, but NESEA wasn’t doing what the community knew NESEA for.”

Even the name of NESEA’s membership magazine, which had been “Northeast Solar,” changed to “Building Energy” to reflect its new focus.

“It was a very hard thing for people who have seen it be a grass-roots organization, and see them completely drop the Tour de Sol,” said Steve Kurkoski of Warwick, a NESEA member who began volunteering for the alternative car rally in its third year, and met his wife, Janice, a former Boston auto mechanic, when she began volunteering there in 1994. He even proposed to her at the entrance to the Energy Park. But then again, after 16 annual events, Prius and other hybrids were actually on the road — a sign of success.

The couple continues to work for the organization, in part to help in their roles on the Warwick and North Quabbin energy committees.

Instead of the Tour de Sol, the signature NESEA event has been the annual Boston building energy conference each spring. This year’s event attracted 3,000 architects, builders, engineers, energy and environmental professionals, as well as educators, students, government workers and others. There were workshops on high-performance energy-efficient building techniques and renewable energy, with presentations of case studies, building materials, as well as microgrids and other renewable energy approaches.

The organization, with nine staff members, also offers year-round “building energy pro” tours, modeled after its annual solar home open houses, specifically geared for building professionals, at which they can earn education credits, ongoing presentations for members on topical issues as well as online, college-level courses and small-group workshops to build business skills. There are also “zero-net-energy building awards, an online database of zero net energy projects.

Nancy Hazard of Greenfield, a builder who became a NESEA staffer in the late 1980s and directed the Tour de Sol, said she misses its educational component, training teachers and developing curriculum materials to spark an awareness of sustainability issues in young people.

But she added, “NESEA’s niche is being cutting-edge. There are cutting-edge discussions that happen at their conferences that are unique,” and there’s a collaboration that it fosters among architects, engineers, builders and others that are critical.

Peter Talmage, a building design engineer from Northfield and longtime NESEA member, agrees.

“NESEA has evolved dramatically over the years, and it’s changed with the times,” he said. “I see it as a very valuable organization to have.”

On the Web: www.NESEA.org

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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