Leon County Extension Office goes Off-the-Grid

Sep 14, 2012

For nearly one-hundred years, Florida’s County Extension offices have been a great place to learn about growing green.   Tom Flanigan reports it may not be too long before those same offices will be the place to learn about GOING green.

Back in 1913, Florida was a much more rural place than it is today.  The state’s top business was agriculture.  But most farms were far-flung and isolated.  It was hard for farmers to be up on the latest scientific ways of cultivating crops.  That’s why and when, says Leon County Cooperative Extension Director Kendra Zamojski  her organization came to be.

“Our mission at Extension is to take the research from the University of Florida out to the people in the community through education, a lot of times through interactive education opportunities like demonstration sites or demonstration gardens.  So it’s very fitting I think that this sustainable demonstration center is here at the extension office.  Sustainability is not new to us.”

But the extent of sustainability that’s now built into the Leon County Extension Office is new.  Over the past few years, the fifty-year old building has been extensively revamped to become as energy independent as possible.  A nearly half-a-million dollar Florida Clean Energy grant made it all possible.   One of those very much involved in the project was Maggie Theriot, who directs the county’s office of resource stewardship.  She says the goal was to produce a structure that was a “net-zero” consumer of commercial electricity.

“Over the course of a year on average, this building will produce as much energy as it consumes.  So on a gorgeous day like today, we’re producing excess energy and feeding back to the grid.”

That grid connection also works in the other direction on cloudy days when the output of the fifty-three solar panels drops below a certain level.   And even cloudy days won’t affect the building’s heating and air conditioning system.  That’s because, Theriot says, it’s run by a geothermal circulating water set up instead of the standard arrangement of compressors and heating strips.

“Our earth here in North Florida averages about 68 to 70 degrees   year-round.  So we’re using the earth in this geothermal system to do a lot of the heavy lifting, so on a hot summer day, the earth is cooler than the air around us so that water in the pipe goes down, gets naturally cooled by the 68-degree earth and returned to the building at about 70 degrees.”

And Theriot says there’s another City utility the property really doesn’t make much use of anymore.
“We have a 40,000 gallon capacity rainwater cistern, catching the rainwater from the building’s roof, storing it until our demonstration gardens are dry and in need of that water, and then we pump it back onto the gardens instead of using potable water that needs to be treated and going through a storm water and waste water system.”

The combined power and water savings, extension officials say, will easily work out to many thousands of dollars a year.  Perhaps one of the people most impressed by the project is State Representative Alan Williams, Democrat from Tallahassee.

“As the ranking Democrat on Energy and Utilities for the Florida House of Representatives, it’s projects like this when we see PowerPoint presentations and status reports; all those are good in committee.  But when you’re out and you can touch it and feel it, it’s phenomenal.”

Williams has long been trying to get his mostly Republican colleagues more supportive of sustainable energy and conservation.  But that’s been tough because of the current political divide when it comes to those kinds of things.  He sees this project as a real-world example of how going green can save green, a topic of much interest to those lawmakers devoted to smaller, cheaper government.  And Williams also sees the net-zero concept supporting another GOP objective.

“We know from recent events that we see in the Middle East – even in the past couple of days – why it’s even more important to have energy independence and to have it right here in our own backyard.”

Given all that, Williams thinks he may have be able to sell the idea of making more of the state’s county extension offices showcases of sustainability to his legislative colleagues.