Gas to glass

The glass and ceramic work created at the EnergyXchange is powered by decomposing trash — methane from a former landfill.
The glass and ceramic work created at the EnergyXchange is powered by decomposing trash — methane from a former landfill.

The EnergyXchange in Burnsville is in the innovation business. Built on the site of a former landfill, the complex includes four greenhouses, three cold frames, a retail craft gallery, a visitor center, clay studio and glass studio. And most of it's fueled by decomposing trash. Methane, that is.

Glassblowing and ceramics studios are notorious for their high energy consumption. The high temperatures required to melt glass and fire kilns demand a strong power source. This makes both forms perfectly suited to an alternative energy solution. But a question has been looming recently: when will the methane run out?

John Boyd, president of Mayland Community College, commented about the uncertainty of the methane supply. “You can ask 12 people and get 12 answers. Or I should say, you can ask 12 people and get 15 answers.” Although he reports that there are not yet any problems as a result of a dwindling methane supply, “It’s good business to think ahead.” Since this type of facility is experimental, there are few precedents.

Mayland Community College was one of the original partners that began brainstorming the facility in 1996, but about 15 months ago, a process began to absorb the organization as a subsidiary of the college. “It appeared to be more financially feasible to keep EnergyXchange operating if we could move it underneath the college,” Boyd says. And so, the organization will cease to be a separate 501(c)(3). Its board has disbanded, and a new advisory committee was developed to direct the organization’s future.

According to Boyd, the first order of business for the EnergyXchange is to make it financially solvent. The facility had been sourcing the majority of its revenue from grants and is supplemented through revenue from its horticultural program.

However, as with most nonprofit fundraising, it’s difficult to acquire grant funds for operating needs. Even though the facility is now moving under the umbrella of the college, it will not be supported by state or county taxes and must be self-supporting. As a result, the horticulture program will continue its expansion so as to increase revenues. According to Boyd, “we believe that we’ll come out of this stronger financially, and we will come out as a destination point for people who want to come see it.”

A larger initiative is being underway at the EnergyXchange location. The Estatoe Regional Center for Science and Crafts is the new site name for the three organizations that will share the same locale: EnergyXchange, the Gardens of Mayland and the Blue Ridge Star Park and Observatory. To establish the new observatory, the Samuel L. Phillips Family Foundation made a $51,000 grant in 2012 to fund the purchase of a 34-inch telescope for the observatory which Boyd believes to be the largest public telescope in the state.

The EnergyXchange will continue to explore alternate energy sources to fuel its facilities. In 2009, a kiln was constructed on-site to burn discarded wooden pallets as fuel for ceramics firings. Boyd spoke of exploring firing kilns using discarded frying oil as well as relying more on solar energy for heating. Along with expanding the energy sources, Boyd is looking to expand its craft facilities to include blacksmithing and weaving.

Gina Phillips, president of the Phillips Family Foundation, applauds Boyd’s changes. “He undertook a joint effort among the arts community, the community at large and the college to encourage greater crossover and integration,” she says. As to the site expansion to include an observatory, Phillips says, “It was a perfect fit even though it did require a leap of faith that the idea would amass critical buy-in from the community.” She continues, “But a leap of faith was what enabled the EnergyXchange to exist in the first place. To build upon the lessons learned from the first effort and branch-off into a new direction seemed worth the risk.”

For more information visit energyxchange.org.

— Steph Guinan can be reached at stephguinan@gmail.com.

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