Working toward zero

Highlights Foundation net zero energy project

Posted 7/29/20

MILANVILLE, PA — Eric Johnson and George Brown have a big goal to meet by 2021. That’s the deadline they’ve given themselves to transform their energy management of a 1,300-plus …

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Working toward zero

Highlights Foundation net zero energy project


MILANVILLE, PA — Eric Johnson and George Brown have a big goal to meet by 2021. That’s the deadline they’ve given themselves to transform their energy management of a 1,300-plus acre retreat center in Wayne County and reach either net-zero or net-positive energy usage.

The energy-saving mission is being undertaken by the Highlights Foundation, the charitable leg of Highlights for Children magazine, which operates in Honesdale. About 10 miles outside of town, the foundation hosts writers’ retreats and workshops on its Boyds Mills campus, encompassing a gathering place known as “the Barn,” 21 cabins, a lodge and a farmhouse.

Johnson, great-grandson of the founders of Highlights for Children, calls it his “mission in life” to get North America off of fossil fuels.

“I’ve been interested in energy conservation, efficiency, power quality, off-grid power management and implementation of Smart Grids at utilities across the country for a long time,” he said. “Because of my passion for all of these things, my relationship to the property and my mission-oriented family, this project was really a simple choice.”

Brown, Johnson’s cousin and executive director of the Highlights Foundation, said that environmentalism has been important to their family for generations.

“This family property at our retreat center has been a part of Eric and my family going back to 1867,” he said. “And our great-grandparents started conservations back in the 1950s with tree plantings, and forest management and cleaning up trash along the streamside.”

The foundation is already using geothermal energy and is investigating how to utilize microhydropower in the future. But the most recent and visible step it has taken toward its net-zero target has been this month’s installation of a 33,300-watt solar panel array on the roof of the barn. Annually, the system will generate about the same amount of electricity as four average American homes in a year, averting about 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere in that time.

Highlights formed local partnerships to make the installation come together, including Sustainable Energy, Education & Development Support (SEEDS) and solar energy contractor Buselli Solutions. Brown said that it was a “great community project.”

Johnson drove about 1,800 miles from Denver, CO to take part in the installation in Boyds Mills, and he said that working with the SEEDS volunteers was inspiring.

“Honestly, there were 80 and 70-year-olds on the roof every day, and this is no chump change roof; it’s a 45-degree pitch,” Brown said. “This group of people—it’s so inspiring what they’re up to in life.”

Brown also gives credit to his father Kent Brown, for “having the vision” to have the building constructed at the proper specifications and positioning to accommodate a solar system. Jack Barnett, a board member of SEEDS who has worked closely with Highlights on the net-zero project, said that the foundation followed the right steps necessary before making the switch to solar.

“The most important thing is to first conserve and reduce your electricity use, and the Highlights Foundation has done that,” Barnett said. “Where you mount [the panels] and the amount of sunlight that falls on that spot year-round is really important too. Unfortunately, a large number of people’s existing homes just don’t really make sense for solar... but it can be done.” For residents considering making the switch to solar, Barnett noted that the cost of solar equipment has dropped by 70 to 80 percent in recent years.

Compared to neighboring states, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not offer many incentives for renewable energy. Not surprisingly, Johnson said that the foundation will not qualify for any rebates by installing the solar system. They do expect to see a savings of about $2,300 per year on energy costs, however.

“In my view, there are more components [than financial] to the return on investment, like the educational components and stewardship of the land that we’re focused on,” Johnson said.

Barnett said the team has a few smaller-scale, energy-saving projects scheduled for this year, and that the lofty goal of reaching net-zero energy use by 2021 is “definitely feasible” for the foundation. Part of the project’s end vision is to educate future visitors and writer’s workshop attendees about renewable energy.

“The goal there is to help people walk away from their experience at the Highlights Foundation not just with the craft that they’re studying, but with a vision of what the future could look like free of fossil fuels,” Johnson said.

Brown added that the project also fits into Highlights’ core belief—stated in every month’s publication—that “children are the world’s most important people.”

“Delivering to children a bright future, and the opportunity to have a future, through our sustainability efforts: it’s at least a step toward believing in that mission that children are the world’s most important people.”


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