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Hydronic and Solar Equipment Aid Quest for Energy Independence

April 1, 2009
Portsmouth Abbey School is home to Rhode Island's first and largest utility-scale wind turbine.

Located along the shores of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, Portsmouth Abbey is a 500-acre coeducational Catholic Benedictine boarding and day school for students in grades 9 through 12. Although its alumni include Robert and Edward Kennedy, as well as some of America's most accomplished physicians, educators, and entrepreneurs, the school increasingly is becoming known for its environmental savvy.

Portsmouth Abbey School is home to Rhode Island's first and largest utility-scale wind turbine. Installed in 2006, the turbine rises 240 ft above a grassy bluff, a stone's throw from a U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon prize-winning house donated to the school by the Rhode Island School of Design in 2007 and installed in 2008.

According to Brother Joseph Byron of The Order of St. Benedict, who is known on campus as “Brother Joe,” the wind turbine and solar house, combined with other energy initiatives, fit nicely into a new earth-wise endeavor.

“It involves students, staff, resource management, and — somewhat unexpectedly — broad outreach among people, businesses, and institutions who have sought us out as sources of information and expertise,” Brother Joe said.

In addition to meeting 40 percent of the school's and monastery's electricity needs, the Vestas wind turbine has been a source of educational opportunity and a catalyst in the pursuit of cleaner and more efficient ways to produce energy.


The green movement at Portsmouth Abbey School began 12 years ago, long before the concept of “green” entered the global consciousness.

“Improvements to the environment are within our reach,” Brother Joe said, “but we've got to be purposeful and united. … A guiding principle of the Benedictine monks is to serve as stewards of the land. We take that calling very seriously.”

One of the largest consumers of electricity in the area, with an annual fuel budget that seemed to grow exponentially, the school invested in equipment and materials that have substantially reduced its energy use.

“It's allowed us to put money aside for a wide variety of purchases, weighing multiple projects on merit …,” Director of Operations Paul Jestings said. “Every savings we see is invested back into the school. It's an approach that's enabled us to avoid an energy crisis, something that many schools, unfortunately, are now seeing on the horizon.”


In its first year of operation, the wind turbine, which generates 1.2 million kwh of electricity a year, reduced the school's electrical-energy use by 40 percent. By displacing retail-rate electricity purchases, valued today at about 13 cents per kilowatt-hour, this pumped $220,000 into the school's budget. The energy dividend grows each year through electricity-cost savings, electricity sold back to the grid, and renewable-energy credits.

Initially, school administrators expected a five- or six-year payback on the investment.

“Today, we expect to see a net gain, with full payback, after just three-and-one-half years — by somewhere around September of next year (2009),” Brother Joe said. “At that point, it'll all be profit to be pumped into our ongoing efforts to reduce the school's carbon footprint.”

Any excess energy that is generated is sold at a wholesale rate to the electric grid and shared with the greater community.

The school's green measures include the replacement of incandescent lighting with energy-efficient fluorescent lighting, the use of electric cars for maintenance and security, the purchase of truckloads of insulation, connection to sophisticated energy-management systems, and the installation of hundreds of thermopane windows and new high-efficiency hydronic equipment and solar heat technology.

“We're also looking now at photovoltaic cells, geothermal heating, and cooling and water catchment,” Brother Joe said.


Concern about the environment was not all that sparked the green movement at Portsmouth Abbey.

“We had maintenance issues,” Jestings said. “Boilers and water heaters just a few years old were breaking down. I'd call manufacturers to hear the old refrain, ‘Sorry, your equipment is just past the warranty period.’”

Jestings' search for new suppliers led him to Viessmann, a hydronic- and solar-equipment manufacturer.

“We now have 52 Viessmann products at the Abbey — boilers, solar equipment, thermal-storage tanks, and water heaters,” Jestings said.

The newest Viessmann product at the Abbey is a liquefied-petroleum-gas-fired Vitodens 200 boiler that is intended to serve as a backup heat source for the in-floor heat system installed in the basement of the solar house. A solar-to-thermal-storage-cell system will serve as the primary heat source.

In every mechanical room at Portsmouth Abbey are Grundfos circulators moving solar, hydronic, and even turbine-supplied electric heat to radiators, heat exchangers, and radiant floor systems.

Jestings said he was won over by Grundfos' wet-rotor design.

Grundfos units “use the fluids they circulate to cool and lubricate the pumps,” Jestings said. “All of the other circulators we had experience with before had bearing and gasket failures, requiring routine, expensive maintenance. These pumps are installed, and then we can forget about them. …

“Grundfos refers to the life-cycle cost of equipment,” Jestings continued, “pointing out that sturdier, better-designed equipment that may cost more on the front end saves a lot through product reliability and longevity. We've seen many years of success with their pumps, so we standardized on their circulators.”


After learning of the energy savings at Portsmouth Abbey School, Vatican Radio, the broadcasting station of the Holy See, interviewed Brother Joe for a program called “Going Green,” which speaks of the Vatican's increased efforts to play a leadership role in reducing carbon emissions and combating global warming.

“Our costs for fuel oil and electricity were going through the roof — particularly oil at the start of the last heating season,” Brother Joe said. “Without the wind turbine, which provides electricity for various uses here, including energy for heat, and the new hydronic and solar equipment, we'd be facing some real tough decisions. Collectively, they're saving us. …

“And we're not done yet,” Brother Joe concluded. “Far from it. Solar-photovoltaic and geothermal equipment are on the list. More solar heat arrays and thermal-storage tanks. Some remaining older boilers to replace — all are parts of a greater plan.”