University of Vermont

Snowy Day

NESEA Sighting!

by James Wilcox, 2010-2011 CEF Education and Outreach Fellow

Though I couldn't resist beginning this post with a reference to the Scottish, loch-dwelling, sea creature, the "NESEA" I'm talking about is actually the NorthEast Sustainable Energy Association, whose annual conference, Building Energy, I attended last week in Boston, MA. The conference was massive--with over 4,000 attendees, eight session tracks and a giant trade show floor--and indicative of the steady growth of the clean and renewable energy industry. On hand were architects, urban designers, government officials, educators, and legions of clean energy businesses, non-profits, and equipment manufacturers large and small. Below, you'll find some of my personal highlights from each of the conference's two days


Kicking off the conference on Wednesday morning was a plenary keynote address by Oberlin College's David Orr, who delivered a signature "big picture" message about the importance of getting real about climate change and human overshoot. Specifically, Orr cited two priorities:

  • engaging the public about the unpleasant realities of the climate crisis as well as the opportunities it presents, and
  • shifting the conversation from its current focus on the environment and the economy to an overarching concern with national security.

Orr was enthusiastic about practical collaborations with the national defense community and the potential for communities across the country form local chapters of a larger, grassroots, national security network. Orr also updated the audience on developments in Oberlin, Ohio, where the college was partnering with local businesses and government to transform the rust belt town's center into a destination for sustainability-focused activity and tourism.

These themes spilled over into the first session of the track, "Whole Systems in Action," which featured a moderated conversation between Orr and commentator Chris Martenson, author of the recent book, The Crash Course. Orr and Martenson addressed questions about such topics as the role of technological development in confronting climate change and the politics of lifestyle change in an age of limits.

During his speech and subsequent conference session, Orr happened to mention two projects with ties to UVM: UVM Professor John Todd's wastewater-treating living machine for Oberlin's Lewis Center and Gund Institute Founding Director Robert Costanza's Solutions journal.

For the next session, I headed over to the Policy track to hear from one of the authors of the (in)famous Manomet study on biomass energy and greenhouse gas emissions, along with a wood pellet manufacturer and an official from Massachussetts' Department of Energy Resources. The overview of the Manomet study summarized its methodology and findings and went more or less unchallenged by the session's audience. Despite the study's conclusions questioning the across-the-board carbon neutrality of biomass, the audience was much more animated by the next presenter's report on new biomass systems proliferating throughout Europe than they were interested in the nuances of biomass sourcing. A point of consensus, however, was a particular interest in biomass for combined heat and power systems, which Manomet indicated was more likely to produce greenhouse gas benefits sooner than some other applications.

Wednesday's sessions ended for me with a look at the synthesis of aesthetic beauty and clean energy generating functionality by a group of theory-minded urban energy designers. Titled, "Beautility," the presenters drew on the work of Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language, to argue for the application of biomimetic principles to the aesthetics of low- and renewable-energy design.


I started Thursday by spending some time on the trade show floor, perusing the latest technological innovations in building insulation, PV, solar thermal, geothermal, energy management, and more. Vermont was well-represented, with a large AllEarth Renewables presence featuring the AllSun Solar Tracker, seventeen of which have recently been installed on UVM's campus, and booths for Marlboro Collage and Yestermorrow Design/Build School, which has an academic partnership with UVM.

At mid-day was the excellent second plenary, "Women of Green," in which female NESEA members at the beginning, middle, and veteran stages of their careers discussed their various paths, ambitions, and the challenges they've faced. It was a lovely, honest, and lively discussion of what it means and what it takes to approach the field with passion and dedication that I'm sure was just as inspirational to the men in the audience as it was to the women.

Rounding out my afternoon were sessions on progress in fuel cell technology for providing baseload and auxillery power (very important to a future energy portfolio with an increased share of renewables) and on the positive impacts of cohousing on social, economic, and environmental sustainability, with Burlington's own cohousing project as one of the featured examples.

All in all, as I left my first NESEA experience, I felt much like I'd imagine I would after miraculously sighting her Scottish namesake: excited, a bit overwhelmed, and eager to tell everyone I met all about it.