Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The Steel Yard continues to innovate. But instead of working with metals, molding ceramics, or making jewelry, the medium for the yard’s latest project is renewable energy.
The industrial arts center in the city’s gritty Valley neighborhood is making an exhibit of a solar array as part of a new renovation. The 50-kilowatt solar canopy will be built into the steel frame of an existing outdoor gantry, an overhead trellis of steel beams once used to move heavy equipment.
The solar project will join existing exhibits in the courtyard, which serve as a symbol of ingenuity and rebirth at the former Providence Steel and Iron Co. Much of the 3.8-acre campus was contaminated by lead-based paint used since the early 20th century to coat steel girders. The cleanup began in 2007 and ended in 2010, after the most polluted soil was removed and the remainder capped with clean fill and permeable pavement.
The $277,000 solar project is part of a renovation to portions of the courtyard and studio. The outside will be landscaped with trees, plants, and rain gardens to contain stormwater runoff. A new facade of steel sheeting covered the exterior of the building and some of the old sheeting was brought indoors to use as insulation. Windows were replaced or repaired, and 400 square feet of materials containing asbestos were removed.
A portion of the solar project will be less visible atop the studio building. In all, the renewable project will generate some 50 percent of the Steel Yard’s power.
“We are aware of the environmental cost of self-expression and the creation of culture,” said Howie Sneider, executive director of the Steel Yard. “We use electricity, we burn fossil fuels, and we have to pay the price.”
Inside is a redesigned studio space with tools and equipment for nine resident-artists to work with blacksmithing, ceramics, jewelry, and other foundry arts. Each year, more than 500 students attend free or subsidized courses. The Weld to Work program, for example, provides job training to the chronically underemployed.
The Steel Yard also builds functional municipal works of art, such as public recycling receptacles, benches, and bicycle racks.
“You may not think of your trash and recycling cans as art but in Bristol they are,” said Diane Williamson, director of community development for Bristol, a town that has commissioned 31 recycling bins and 15 bicycle racks created by the Steel Yard.
The Steel Yard was founded in 2002. Portions of operations were relocated after it received funding for the renovation through a 2014 statewide bond referendum for cultural capital improvements.
The solar project received $54,375 from the state Renewable Energy Fund. The array will deliver electricity to the power grid through a net-metering program. Newport Renewables is the developer of the solar canopy project.