BRUNSWICK — When the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority hired consultants to imagine the future of renewable energy at Brunswick Landing, it encouraged them to think big.
But it didn’t expect the consultants to think food.
A National Renewable Energy Lab study paints a picture of the former U.S. Navy base as an industrial ecosystem complex, with companies utilizing each other’s waste products.
Scott Huffman, the author of “Integrating Sustainable Economic and Net-Zero Energy Redevelopment at the Former Brunswick Air Naval Station,” envisions greenhouses filled with crops like lettuce and mushrooms that would satisfy the local demand for fresh vegetables throughout the winter.
The greenhouses would be heated by the waste heat from a biomass power plant, which would also pipe excess carbon dioxide to the greenhouses to accelerate plant growth. Leftover heat could be piped to other buildings, reducing heating costs for tenants.
So does Tom Brubaker, the head of renewable energy at MRRA, think the base is ripe for food production?
“That business sector is not something MRRA had in its targeted industry sectors,” he said.
“If a company wanted to come in and set up shop, we would certainly entertain them coming,” but the redevelopment authority has no plans to actively recruit growers. Still, he said he likes the idea of a large greenhouse in the style of Backyard Farms, the company that grows tomatoes indoors in Madison.
Brubaker found the study’s other recommendation – an industrial complex centered around a wood burning power plant – much more compelling.
“We want to be able to generate electricity at a rate that will attract tenants, and we want that energy to be green,” he said.
Of all the renewable technologies surveyed, Huffman found biomass to be the most attractive due to the abundant wood resources in the area. Other technologies, like solar and wind, were found less cost effective. Both would take closer to 10 years to pay off, due to the poor wind and solar resources at the former base.
Despite this, Brubaker said MRRA has been approached by a solar energy company that has proposed constructing solar panels on brownfields or capped landfills on the base.
“To do that here is attractive … you can’t do anything else with that land anyway,” he said.
Whether MRRA selects a biomass plant, a solar energy facility, or something entirely different, Brubaker expects to be able to fulfill the energy needs of all of Brunswick Landing’s tenants and “beat the standard offer from (Central Maine Power Co.) for electricity.”
According to Huffman, the particulars of redevelopment Brunswick Landing make it a good candidate for being a net-zero energy importer.
For example, the fact that MRRA owns all the buildings on the base and leases them out will make it much easier to unify the heat and electricity infrastructure than if each building were owned by a private company.
Another advantage is the age and condition of the majority of the buildings. Because many of them will have to be renovated, Huffman said there is an opportunity to make energy efficiency improvements that might not happen if the the buildings were in better condition.
During the renovations, solar ventilation air heat panels could replace the siding on buildings. This technology, which looks like black paneling along the side of a building, absorbs heat and transfers it to air coming in and out of the building, reducing the need for additional heat. When installed as part of renovation, the report found that this technology can pay for itself in two years.
Like the greenhouses, Brubaker wasn’t completely sold on this recommendation.
“Maybe we’ll look at it to make buildings more efficient … but I’m not sure it’s a technology we’ll pursue with vigor,” he said.
As for the study’s suggestion that Brunswick Landing could be a carbon neutral development, meaning the facility could offset all the carbon dioxide generated by activities on the base by generating its own renewable electricity, Brubaker said that’s just not the goal of the redevelopment project.
“We’re not trying to market that Brunswick Landing is going to be a carbon neutral development,” he said.
He pointed to the airplanes flying in and out of Brunswick Executive Airport as an example of why that goal doesn’t make sense.
“For us to be a carbon neutral development, right now at least, isn’t really possible,” he said.
Still, he said, it’s nice to hear that “a nationally known laboratory believes we could get there.”