University of Vermont

Seniors Champion Innovative Renewable Energy Projects

Cooke and Crockenberg
Erick Crockenberg (right) and Tad Cooke prepare two growing beds in the greenhouse where warm air from a compost pile will be delivered to grow plants year-round. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Tad Cooke and Erick Crockenberg are masters of synergy -- the idea that individual elements, when brought together, will produce an effect greater than they could have on their own. It's true for the duo, who have been friends since their childhood in Charlotte, Vt. Now, as seniors at UVM, they've created an award-winning project that aims to improve the synergistic potential for Vermont farms.

At UVM's Horticulture Research Center in South Burlington, the pair have installed a heat capturing system designed to extend a greenhouse's growing capacity. In the depths of winter in Vermont, an unheated hoophouse might be able to boost the temperature during the day to keep growing plants safe, but once the sun goes down, crops are at risk. Heat must be provided, but that means the cost of production increases (as does the farm's use of fossil fuels and its resulting carbon footprint).

To solve this problem, Cooke and Crockenberg are testing whether a cheap material readily available to many Vermont farmers -- a waste product, in fact -- can be used to heat a greenhouse at a minimal cost. The material? Cow manure. As manure and stall bedding decomposes, it produces heat, which if redirected, could prove useful to a chilly greenhouse in January. In Cooke and Crockenberg's design, this "feedstock compost" is collected and piled up outside the greenhouse and kept covered. A fan draws air through the pile, down to porous PVC pipes leading underground into the greenhouse and distributes the warmed air to a bed of nutrient-rich soil where crops are planted. The plants, now able to thrive thanks to a warmer environment, also scrub the incoming air of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, improving their own health, saving the farmer on future fertilization needs and protecting the environment from greenhouse gases. A win, win (win, win, win). Synergy in action.

It's based on a concept that's been used on a larger scale, like at New Alchemy Institute in Massachusetts, founded by UVM professor emeritus and ecological design pioneer John Todd, whose class was an inspiration to Cooke and Crockenberg their sophomore year. But it hasn't yet been adapted and perfected at this scale, which is ideal for a farm with both a small dairy herd and vegetable production -- just the sort of operation found in Vermont and the Northeast.

The pair hopes to create a model, easily adaptable and affordable to implement for local farmers. "Getting our system right means we can show farmers how much it might cost them and what the benefits might be. We don't want this to be an added burden but to have net positive impact with minimal effort and minimal expense." Cooke says. "Nothing that we're doing is that expensive or complicated -- except the testing." Over the coming winter, they'll take that testing on, monitoring temperatures in the compost pile, the pipes, the growing area, the greenhouse air, and an unheated, partitioned area of the greenhouse. With the help of four student interns, Cooke and Crockenberg will also conduct nutrient testing. Results will inform them whether and how to make tweaks and improvements.

Funding and support for their endeavor comes from UVM's Clean Energy Fund, a student-led initiative begun in 2008 that collects $10 from the fees of each student per semester and funds worthy projects that advance renewable energy research, education, and infrastructure on campus. "What's most exciting about Tad and Erick is their enthusiasm," says Mieko Ozeki, manager of the Clean Energy Fund in the Office of Sustainability. "And they've really been able to get other students excited about this project."

It's not the only award received by Cooke and Crockenberg, both self-designed majors in ecological food and energy systems. In its early phases, their project was also a recipient of a UVM Public Research and Civic Endeavors Scholarship, which allowed them to investigate compost energy capture at Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne. And in 2012, Cooke was named a Udall Scholar, the most prestigious undergraduate award in the country for students pursuing careers focused on environmental issues. Crockenberg followed with an honorable mention in the Udall competition in 2013.

Moran plan

If it seems they've reached the height of what two students can accomplish in four years of college, think again. They've also submitted an ambitious proposal to the City of Burlington to revamp the waterfront's Moran Plant, once a coal-fired power plant, now a derelict building. Their vision: use the heritage of the building and the waterfront to showcase renewable energy and agriculture innovation along with the cultural wealth of Burlington today. Their proposal, Moran Ecological, brings mutually beneficial businesses together to create an environmentally and financially sustainable facility.

How does it work? Their design draws on the same systems-based concepts as the greenhouse project. Waste produced on site, including spent brewing grains from Zero Gravity Brewing, and organic matter from farm-to-table eateries developed by the Farmhouse Group, will feed an anaerobic digester to create heat and energy for the building, and, in fact, enough extra to sell to the Burlington electric grid and create a heating district for surrounding structures. Its proximity to the lake and the bike path will make the site a community gathering space and tourist destination, and the science contained within will provide educational opportunities ranging from pre-school to post-doc.

Out of more than 50 proposals for waterfront reinvestment projects in Burlington, Moran Ecological was the second-highest rated overall and the highest among Moran-specific proposals and has advanced to the next round. If advanced again this fall, Burlington residents could have the option to vote to fund the project as early as March 2014. 

Their blog,, further explains the project. The blog's name, and the name of their "fledgling firm," as they call it, "Room 9 Redevelopment" is an homage to a space within GreenHouse, the residential learning community where they lived on campus. There, they'd work late into the night with fellow students, writing, drawing, designing, talking -- energized by brainstorming and working as a team to make change happen. Now, poised to graduate this December, change is coming. And they're leading the way.