Paul Bernard pauses in the gallery of the Toledo Museum of Art before The Crowning of Saint Catherine. The facilities director is drawn to the masterwork of Peter Paul Rubens for an unusual reason.
“Look at the light. It almost looks like it was recently restored.”
The 17th century canvass is not back from the conservator’s studio. But, it does look especially brilliant in light of the museum’s decision to replace all 1,500 40-watt incandescents in the galleries with 12-watt, light emitting diode (LED) bulbs.
After a trail run nearly sank LEDs in 2013—they didn’t reach the level the museum sets for quality—TMA decided to give them another go. They found a suitable replacement in time for a 2014 exhibit of light-sensitive Japanese prints. The new LEDs met the approval of curators as well as back-of-the-house folks like Bernard who have also seen the museum’s bottom line improve.
“We hit the technology at the point where its come of age,” says Bernard. “Suddenly, it got there.”
The story with LEDs is right on par with Toledo Museum of Art's good sense approach to greening their operation: Reflecting multiple perspectives at once. It explains the single largest decision in this realm—to produce their own power on site.
“When I started, we were a facility with high per-square-foot operating costs,” Bernard explains.
In 1992, when Bernard joined TMA, he noticed that its 300,000 square foot, century old building’s energy use was through the roof.
He found an ally in Carol Binz, the museum’s chief operating officer. Not only have the pair led a 20 year transformation behind the scenes, the greening extended to their personal choices at home.
They started by replacing fans and motors with ones that can operate at variable speeds—unsexy but financially sound stuff. The breakthrough came when TMA needed to replace ancient boilers in 2003. Bernard and Binz were intrigued by a natural gas-fired microturbine. The turbine could produce power and heat for the building in one unit. It promised to double the efficiency of electricity from the grid (which is about 40% efficient because of losses through transmission lines). It was a calculated risk that electricity prices would rise more than natural gas.
Bernard confirms that the microturbines met their projected 4-year return on investment. But, an even stronger selling point for the museum was having reliable back-up power for its 24/7 climate-controlled environment.
At the time, the idea of small power producers was just dawning in Ohio. The state’s Department of Development was offering a grant program for “combined heat and power” which TMA applied for (and won $50,000). Next, they had to convince FirstEnergy that their distributed generation wouldn’t put the utility out of business. Bernard recalls having to drive to Columbus to lobby for one of the state’s first “net metering” agreements, which means if they produce more power than they use, Toledo Edison credits them the difference.
Ten years later and TMA has invested in six microturbines in addition to three, huge installations of solar panels. What was conceived of as a reliable back up became something else on Tuesday, May 21, 2013. That’s the day TMA produced its first “negawatt.” Meaning, it generated power for its entire operation—the Beaux Art main building and an all-glass-clad pavilion that houses its glass art collection—plus more, which they sold back to the grid.
“Now, it happens on a regular basis,” Bernard adds. “Our goal is to be net zero (energy). For a museum, we’re at the forefront.”
Currently, with its combined heat and power burning natural gas, the museum is self-sufficient, but not net-zero (which would mean 100% renewable sources of power). But, between the LED replacements, the microturbines, two 100 killowatt solar panel arrays on the roof and a 300 kW solar canopy shading the parking lot, the museum has generated a quarter million watts of power on the way to saving $500,000 on its utilities.
“While all the energy initiatives have combined to allow us to periodically go off the grid, it was really the parking lot solar array installed in late 2012 that pushed us over,” notes TMA Marketing Director Kelly Garrow.
A federal tax incentive for renewable energy helped reduce some upfront costs and a lease-to-own power purchase agreement on the solar panels, which were manufactured by Toledo’s First Solar, means the museum pays a fixed price per kilowatt with the option of buying the panels at the end of ten years.
“We used to have electric bills that peaked at $50,000-60,000 a month,” Bernard said. “Now we have an $8,000 a month bill. At the end of the day, it’s about dollars.”
The savings go back into the museum’s general operating budget, which means, more education programs or more art purchases.
“In an organization that is primarily donor funded, no one wants to pay for escalating energy costs,” Binz adds. “The savings we have generated over time allow us to continue to provide free access to our collections and the vast majority of our programs.”
When it came time to build their homes, Bernard and Binz wanted to capture some of the same dramatic cost savings. Bernard built an ultra-high efficiency house using insulated concrete forms, state-of-the-art, triple pane windows and a heat-recovery ventilation unit. Binz went with geothermal to provide heat, air conditioning and hot water plus she added solar panels on the roof and extra insulation on a 2,100 sq. ft. ranch house that uses 79% less energy than standard homes. Both use LED lights almost exclusively.
A smaller environment impact does enter into the frame for the museum. They track the tons of carbon pollution reduced from conserving 5 million kilowatt hours of power to date. Ohio EPA considers the microturbines’ impact on air quality negligible, Bernard says, which also means the museum doesn’t have to apply for an air quality control permit.
TMA’s Board Chairman has also seen the light. He is a supporter of expanding onsite generation into wind power, Bernard says. When the museum installed its solar canopy, they extended the power line out to the edge of its property for a wind turbine.
“We decided wind has a reasonable future,” he concludes. “It’s not about getting rid of the utility. We have a surplus today, but we don’t burn it all.”