Tilling the Sun: Local Jewish Organizations See Gains on Energy Conservation

“As part of our corporate mission and vision, which is deeply rooted in the teachings of Jewish culture, we strongly believe that it is important to be good stewards of the environment,” said Ben Gershowitz, vice president of facilities at The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, when asked about his organization’s efforts to conserve energy and reduce their environmental impact. “It is important to the community that supports us, and we want to clearly demonstrate our passionate support of environmental sustainability initiatives and behaviors.”

In the face of a less-than-predictable energy market and ongoing concerns about the long-term consequences of climate change, several of the Baltimore Jewish community’s major institutions have been doing their part to promote environmental sustainability and reduce their reliance on traditional forms of energy like fossil fuels. And with some ambitious plans to offset the energy requirements of its facilities, The Associated appears to be leading the way.

roof top solar panels

The Associated began the greening of its facilities in 2008, according to Gershowitz, initially focusing on what it viewed as “low-hanging fruit.” This included implementing recycling programs and eliminating plastic water bottles at The Associated’s facilities, as well as sponsoring a consortium through which The Associated and other Jewish institutions, such as synagogues and day schools, are able to leverage their buying power on the purchase of gas and electricity.

The Associated also sponsors a “Green Loan Program,” which makes $500,000 available to nonprofit groups looking to improve their energy efficiency, Gershowitz said.

Perhaps The Associated’s most ambitious environmental initiative, though, involves its effort to establish “an aggregate net meter solar farm for Associated-owned buildings,” Gershowitz said.

The energy generated by such a solar farm would be pumped into the main power grid, which would assist with grid capacity and reduce the necessity of building new power plants, Gershowitz said. He estimated that the energy generated by the solar farm would offset 50% of what is used by The Associated’s facilities, which would in turn take the form of a credit from the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company.

The Associated is currently working with MD Energy Advisors as a consultant to find and negotiate with a developer who would be willing to construct the solar farm, Gershowitz said. In his view, the developer would fund the construction of the project (estimated at $2.5 million), while The Associated would agree to purchase power from the solar farm for 20 to 25 years.

Currently, the greatest obstacle to the solar farm involves zoning restrictions, Gershowitz said. “This type of zoning requires public hearings and support from the community and local jurisdiction, which has proven to be difficult,” he said. “People are concerned about the way the farm will look. They don’t want to look at acres of solar panels in their backyard, so to speak, so it is an understandable challenge.”

If zoning was approved and a developer found, however, Gershowitz estimated that the solar farm could be constructed within 12 to 18 months.

Meanwhile, COVID-19’s impact on The Associated’s efforts to reduce energy expenditures has been minimal, or perhaps even positive. “We are saving on our utility costs now that most of our buildings are closed to the public,” Gershowitz said. “Where possible, we have turned equipment off and lowered the building temperatures to unoccupied levels. Swimming pools’ temperatures have been lowered as well.”

As far as the solar farm is concerned, the facility was still in the concept phase when COVID-19 hit, with zoning approval still out of reach, Gershowitz said. As such, progress on the solar farm has only been slowed somewhat by the epidemic.

roof top solar panels

The Associated is not alone in its efforts to make the transition to renewable energy, however, as the Pearlstone Center is also interested in making the switch. In addition to “participating in The Associated’s solar farm, Pearlstone is also working on building solar panels on our lodgings, and to put a small solar field in one of our pastures,” said Joan Plisko, Pearlstone’s community sustainability director, who has a Ph.D. in environmental systems engineering.

Pearlstone views the intended solar field as both a means of power generation and an educational opportunity, Plisko said, adding that they “envision our sheep to be grazing beneath our solar panels, and we see that as symbolic of how farming and solar energy production can coexist.”

Pearlstone is hoping to generate 100% of its energy in the form of renewables, Plisko said, with 75% originating from The Associated’s proposed solar farm, and the remainder coming from its own on-site equipment.

Pearlstone’s other environmentally conscious actions include the installation of electric vehicle charging stations, LED lights, and building automation systems that monitor and adjust heat and air conditioning as needed, according to Plisko. Of particular interest might be its solar water installation, which reduces propane consumption by 30% while providing Pearlstone’s kitchen with heated water.

Additionally, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation has also been taking part in the effort to go green. According to David Weiss, BHC’s controller, “There are two ways of saving energy. One is by accurate scheduling. The other is by devices that use less energy.”

To that end, BHC has been focusing on the “low-hanging fruit” of energy conservation, which includes replacing older fluorescent lights with LEDs, along with installing thermo pane windows, window seals, and improved weather stripping, said Weiss.

BHC also makes use of wireless energy scheduling devices, designed to automatically alter the temperature of a room based on necessity. “If comfortable occupancy temperature is 70, and kids go out to the playground, it goes down to 67 or 66,” Weiss said. “As soon as they come back in, it comes back up.”

BHC also considered the possibility of installing solar panels for the facility, but found that they would not be feasible to install. “The kinds of roofs that we have, we can’t install solar panels,” Weiss said. “But we are exploring off-site solar sourcing.” Weiss further explained that BHC has been working closely with both Gershowitz and Plisko on this issue of solar energy acquisition, saying that they “work together as a team.”

Regarding BHC’s overall success on energy conservation, Weiss said that they had “picked all the low fruit. Any other savings is going to be hard.” Nevertheless, that low fruit has reaped significant dividends, as BHC currently uses only 40% of the energy it did 20 years ago.

Taken together, the efforts of BHC, Pearlstone, and The Associated represent a significant step forward in the community’s efforts toward energy conservation and environmental sustainability.

“By practicing good environmental stewardship…we hope to make the world a better place now and for generations to follow.”

Ben Gershowitz, vice president of facilities at The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore