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The Greening of Hub Foliage

Originaly published on WBUR

March 5, 2008
Kurt Nickisch (Journalist, WBUR)

BOSTON, Mass. — This morning, Boston Mayor Tom Menino is meeting with a Harvard think tank to talk about ways to make the city more of an environmental leader.

Menino wants a greener image to make the city more competitive in attracting so-called "Green Collar" jobs in the fast growing clean energy industry.

One way Boston is trying to set itself apart is by harnessing more renewable energy from a local resource: New England’s famous fall foliage.

WBUR Business and Technology Reporter Curt Nickisch explains.

CURT NICKISCH: Those fiery leaves from last fall, well, they ended up here: in a mucky clearing in Roslindale, dumped onto drab, decaying mounds.

SUSAN CASCINO: Most of it looks like it’s come in in large leaf bags.

NICKISCH: City recycling director Susan Cascino is climbing up one pile that’s as big as a house, and she’s carrying a huge thermometer. It looks like the kind you’d plunge into a roasting turkey, except this one’s about three feet long.

CASCINO: So I am pushing this thermometer into this leaf pile.

NICKISCH: Cascino steps back, and watches the gauge rack up the degrees Fahrenheit, even on this cool March day.

CASCINO: There we go! We’re at a hundred degrees. Hundred ten. Hundred twenty. So it’s cooking!

NICKISCH: The high temperature shows that microbes are hard at work breaking down these leaves into what the city will later sell as fertilizer.

NICKISCH AT THE SCENE: So right now it’s at 133, something like that, which is basically twice the temperature it is in my house. I would love to have some of this heat!

CASCINO: Well yeah, it’s a form of energy that we can capture. The heat. I think it’s very cool.

NICKISCH: That’s exactly what Boston wants to do — move this whole operation indoors. A multi-million dollar facility would harness the energy emitted by this rotting yard waste, and use that to heat greenhouses on-site — maybe even on the roof. That would cut costs for the city parks department. Burning the compost byproduct methane gas would generate electricity for fifteen hundred homes, says city environmental and energy services chief Jim Hunt.

JAMES HUNT: People think it’s really cool that we can be more efficient with our wastes and put it back to productive use. It’s that old Yankee ingenuity here in New England and in the city of Boston.

NICKISCH: The technologies to do this have been around for years, but no city has ever put all the pieces together.

BRUCE FULFORD: Composting is an art and a science.

NICKISCH: Bruce Fulford is a clean energy consultant based in Boston. He says high-end composting is almost like baking bread. Get the recipe a little bit wrong and it’s not going to rise.

BRUCE FULFORD: So the same thing, you’re not going to get compost, if you don’t add the right ingredients and also bake it properly. Put it in the right oven, even.

NICKISCH: And hire the right bakers. This new facility would need microbiologists, soil chemists, engineers. High paying jobs like those are one reason the project’s got the support of Mayor Tom Menino. It’s part of his bid to make Boston more competitive in the clean energy sector.

MAYOR THOMAS MENINO: We’re really turning Beantown into Greentown. (CROWD LAUGHS AND APPLAUDS)

NICKISCH: If Boston pulls this facility off, it could turn other cities green with envy, says Nora Goldstein. She edits the composting magazine BioCycle. She says most major cities truck their yard waste to compost at remote sites. But now rising fuel costs that’s making the economic case for building such a novel facility in the city.

NORA GOLDSTEIN: People have sort of fantasized about this. So I think, if there were ever a time to give it a go, this would be it.

NICKISCH: Boston is giving it a go — but it’s also got a long way to go. Figuring the financing, settling on a site. But city officials say they’re confident the economic and environmental benefits will pay off… that Boston could soon reap a richer harvest from its fallen leaves.

For WBUR, I’m Curt Nickisch.

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Rose Kennedy Greenway

Photo by Greg MacKay

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