Above: The solar panel installation on the roof of the Millvale Food + Energy Hub.
The Millvale Food + Energy Hub, formerly and affectionately known as the Moose, has converted 112 E. Sherman St. into a place for equitable community development to grow.
The 10,000-square-foot building is anchored by owner New Sun Rising and tenants Sprezzatura, 412 Food Rescue, The Food Trust, and FracTracker Alliance. Chosen for their missions that align with the Millvale and Triboro Ecodistrict plans, these dwellers reinforce the Hub’s sustainable origins.
When the property was purchased in 2017, the goal was to help advance Millvale’s vision to become a “self-reliant urban solar village, and foodie paradise known for hyperlocal production” said Scott Wolovich, Executive Director at NSR.
It was an “aspirational concept,” Wolovich said, but increasing resiliency through a solar microgrid, fresh food access and growing capacity are important pieces of Millvale’s EcoDistrict Pivot 2.0 plan. Originally there were plans for a rooftop greenhouse, but the cost of the structural reinforcements needed was impractical. That determination quickly ignited ideas of “what could happen up there from a solar standpoint?”
“We were connected with the Energy GRID Institute at the University of Pittsburgh and discussed the possibility of developing a microgrid onsite,” Wolovich said.
To make it happen, NSR worked with a handful of partners from locally owned and operated small businesses to nationally recognized organizations.
Allegheny County companies Perfect Electric and Steel City Energy Conservation were brought in to install the circadian rhythm lighting and electrical, while EIS Solar engineered and installed the customized DC microgrid system including the solar panels and battery packs.
“The monitoring system is more advanced than a typical system we produce,” said Ian Smith, Director of Residential Consultations at EIS Solar. Smith said the project hit a point where he invited engineers into the conversation because of the level of complication and customization to integrate the batteries with the microgrid.
To build the microgrid, the components needed to be bought separately and then unified with the SigmaSmart System, which allows everything to “talk, listen and be coordinated together,” Wolovich said.
The SigmaSmart System was created by Sigma Luminous, a national company that sells products through the electrical distribution market working with manufacturer sales representatives like Gary Britcher of Steel City Energy Conservation.
Robert McCoy, Director of Sales at Sigma Luminous for the Eastern Region, said the Millvale Hub is the first non military and non university project his company has been involved in.
“It’s a very industrialized product that is used in a nonindustrial application when you think about it with the [10,000-square-foot] Food + Energy Hub, and that’s what’s different about it,” McCoy said.
McCoy said the SigmaSmart System allows information to be collected on how much solar power is being generated by the solar panels, is monitoring the circadian rhythm lighting, which changes the color of the lights in correlation with the sun to save energy and improve mood, and is also monitoring the HVAC system and the rest of the power flowing through the building.
“All the things this little Moose lodge can do and what it entails, I’ve never seen anything that did that much in such a small space,” McCoy said. “To be honest, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
As a grad student at the Center for Energy at the University of Pittsburgh, Michael J. Rooney, Program Officer at Hillman Family Foundation, advised Wolovich on the Moose project and conducted a high level feasibility study around what could be done with the space from an energy perspective using research and development software from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Considering the hardware that went into the building, a handful of vendors were explored to supply specific components for the microgrid such as the batteries, energy inverters, monitoring, and solar panels. There were deeper conversations with possible companies who would provide the controls, but by the time vendor selection came around, two leading companies that had been identified by the Energy GRID Institute to supply the controls were no longer producing solar microgrid hardware, Wolovich said.
“The introduction to Sigma Luminous happened at a very critical time in the project,” Wolovich said. “We had opened up our search for the right vendor and talking with [McCoy]… there [was] a shared spirit of creativity in terms of building automation and educational opportunities.”
McCoy said after meeting Wolovich and learning the story behind the ecodistrict revitalization plan, he understood that the project was larger than the building itself.
Because the Hub now contains a DC microgrid, it’s able to provide uninterrupted communication and coordination out of the building during emergencies when the public grid may be down. If there is a flood, something that Triboro communities are familiar with, and the power goes out, the facility is able to continue running cooling and heating systems, refrigeration, lighting, provide internet, and become a shelter for Millvale during emergency communication efforts.
Millvale is also considered a food desert, and having 412 Food Rescue and Sprezzatura in the building has helped combat the lack of fresh, affordable, and healthy meals by serving thousands of community members each month.
Hana Uman, Program Director of Special Programs & Projects at 412 Food Rescue, said the organization’s Co-founder and CEO Leah Lizarondo began conversations in 2016 during the Launch Millvale incubator about partnering with NSR in a larger capacity.
412 Food Rescue has been working with food retailers and nonprofits since 2015 to recover food, which would otherwise go to waste, and redirect it to food insecure communities. According to its 2018 Impact Report, 412 Food Rescue has currently salvaged over 2.5 million pounds of food that was redistributed to families in need.
Still, Uman said there are times when they can’t get produce to these areas fast enough, which led to finding space at the Food + Energy Hub to process and can produce for the Good Food Project.
“The goal is to stabilize the surplus of food that 412 receives and transform it into meals and other products to benefit our nonprofit partners and communities as well as our organization,” Uman said.
Ed Anderson, Culinary Manager at 412 Food Rescue, said his goal is to achieve zero waste status at the Moose by composting what cannot be canned, pickled, or prepared as a meal. He said he also envisions the space as “the next step for 412’s special projects, like food education programs and offering a comprehensive curriculum to nonprofit partners specifically targeting parents and caregivers of young children.”
Over the summer, Anderson cooked lunches for the Millvale Community Library’s Summer Food Service Program, which is federally funded and provides free meals for children 18-and-younger. Jennifer Saffron, owner of Sprezzatura, also provided meals for the program and is nestled next to 412 in the commercial kitchen they share inside the Food + Energy Hub. In November, Saffron will be opening a cafe at the Moose.
“Working in collaboration to develop a solar-powered building that supports different kinds of businesses has been a real learning experience—how much sun do we need to power up an oven that feeds thousands?” Saffron said. “There is more to discover, no doubt, and we can work together to community problem-solve for a sustainable catering and cafe kitchen, and a more sustainable future overall.”
Wolovich said Zaheen Hussain, Director of Sustainability at NSR, had brought forward an interesting point when they first began looking at the intersection of energy and food systems.
“As you have a more resilient clean energy system, you can actually increase food access by controlling the rent for food tenants through savings from the microgrid. This allows them to pay it forward by partnering with the Gardens of Millvale and participating in the Millvale Community Library’s Summer Food Service Program,” Wolovich said.
Phase two of the Moose renovations have begun this fall using a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to remodel the lower level of the building and add an access ramp, which will make way for food storage and processing facilities as well as support from the Triboro Ecodistrict and Henry L. Hillman Foundation on a renewable energy workforce development training center.
It’s been a heavy lift with many helping hands getting the Millvale Food + Energy Hub where it is today and it is pushing the possibilities in the areas of sustainable technology and innovation. Rooney said, in his opinion, the reason there aren’t more buildings like the Moose is because of the amount of time and level of creativity it took to bring all of the moving parts together.
“Scott basically project managed the building and his ability to do that and do it well was remarkable and made the project happen,” Rooney said. “Without that someone carrying the torch on a lot of these hard things, it doesn’t get done.”
Interested in touring the Millvale Food + Energy Hub and learning more about DC Microgrids? Attend “DC Microgrids in the Pittsburgh Region” on Tuesday, October 22 at the Moose. Attendees will hear from a panel of experts from organizations like EIS Solar, Steel City Energy Conservations, Perfect Electric, and others leading the development of DC Microgrid technology in the Pittsburgh region.