Signs of Sustainability

We have a long way to go, but we're making progress. Here are some signs that we are moving towards sustainability.

September 22, 2014

Get to Know Green Building Strategies

Tompkins Weekly 9-22-14

By Guillermo Metz

Between the time that I write this column and when it hits newstands, the largest climate rally in history will have taken place in New York City. If all goes as planned, at least three busloads of local activists will have lent their voices to the rallying cry to curb carbon emissions by reducing energy demands and transitioning to clean energy sources.

Hopefully, world leaders gathered there to discuss what they should discuss at the next global climate summit (Paris, Spring 2015) will have noticed the hundreds of thousands of people and been moved to finally take serious action on climate change. And, for those in the streets, many of you will have made connections that will take you in new directions or strengthen your resolve to act on one or more levels.

But closer to home, in just a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to gather inspiration for significant steps you can take to cut your own carbon emissions. See what others in your community have done to reduce their home’s carbon footprint during the 2014 Ithaca-Area Green Buildings Open House, Saturday and Sunday, October 4th and 5th.

Extensive use of local and reclaimed materials, renewable energy sources, high-efficiency heating and other appliances, super-insulated construction, passive solar design – it’s all on view during this year’s tour, along with other greenbuilding features such as natural and non-toxic finishes. Now in its 13th year, the tour will feature 18 homes throughout Tompkins County. For a complete listing of sites, as well as a map with all their locations, go to and click on the link for the 2014 tour.

There, you can also find information about an added feature of this year’s event: a Green Doghouse Challenge! That’s right, groups of builders will be putting their greenbuilding know-how to work on tiny homes fit for canine kings. And they will be raffled off at the kick-off to the weekend, Friday, October 3, from 7–9pm at the Tompkins County SPCA, with proceeds benefitting the SPCA and CCE Tompkins. If you’re feeling creative, it’s not too late to enter – click on the Green Doghouse Challenge link at the event web site. And if you’re in the market for an environmentally friendly doghouse, you’re going to want to come early to the opening reception to view the creations and put in your bid!

Tompkins County’s very own SPCA was the first animal shelter in the nation to receive LEED Silver certification. At the opening reception, you can tour the facility, hear from passionate leaders in our community, see a slideshow of homes that will be featured over the weekend, and enjoy delicious local food and beverages. Admission to the reception is by a suggested donation of $20, which includes a wristband for the Open House.

If you plan on touring actual homes over the weekend but can’t make it to the reception, please make sure to purchase your wristband. We’re still charging just $5 for the whole weekend. That’s right, you can see as many homes as you’d like for just $5. You can buy your wristband through our Peaks campaign (there’s a link for it on the event page; there is a small additional charge if you would like wristbands mailed to you), here at CCE Tompkins, or check our website closer to the event date for other locations, including some where you can purchase your wristband during the event. Your contributions help make the tour happen – please consider giving to the Peaks campaign ( (but don’t worry if you don’t have a wristband; no one will be turned away).

Also new this year, for the first time, we are partnering with Boxy Bikes, Ithaca’s electric bike company. Make your tour of the houses truly green by using pedal power with electric assist to help get you up some of the Ithaca area’s infamous hills. Each bike has about a 20-mile range per charge, and some bikes can even take a passenger. Bikes must be reserved and paid for through the Boxy Bikes website: http: They’re just $30 for a 24-hour bike rental. Contact for more information.

Maps showing locations of all the homes on the tour are at our web site, or pick up a brochure – we’ll be getting them out to retailers and public spaces throughout the county the last two weeks of September, or pick up your copy here at CCE Tompkins. Please help spread the word about this year’s tour. Let’s inspire, educate, and entertain the whole community to take action on climate change by making their homes healthier for their families, their communities and the planet. Visit our web site for complete details, and don’t forget to go to our Peaks page. You can even help spread the word through Facebook (search for Ithaca-Area Green Buildings Open House).

Guillermo Metz is the Green Building & Renewable Energy Program Coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. He can be reached at 607-272-2292 or


September 15, 2014

Taking Ownership of Climate Change

Tompkins Weekly 9-15-14

By Wendy Skinner

In the September 1 “Signs of Sustainability” column, Richard W. Franke summarized long-term and continuing evidence of global climate change from a broad range of scientific and technological disciplines. Dr. Franke listed key studies that support the reality of what is happening to our planet. It was an article to be clipped and folded into one’s wallet for future rereading.

Faced with the immediacy of climate change and its consequences, it would seem that, aside from running screaming into the night, we should be vigorously pursuing ways to save our planet. A significant barrier to seeking remedies is not the veracity of scientific evidence, but whether people believe in it.

According to a recently updated report from the Brookings Institution, Americans’ acceptance of the reality of global climate change dropped from 72 percent in 2007 to 55 percent in April 2014. The researchers found that the cold winter of 2013-14 influenced people’s beliefs. This cognitive gap between macro- and micro-observations may be one reason many Americans have been slow to react to the threats of climate change.

An Associated Press poll from earlier this year indicated that people tend to believe in what they can perceive, such as a traditionally cold winter, and to doubt concepts that are further from their experience. Other studies show that somewhere between half to three-quarters of Americans accept the reality of climate change. A prickling question remains, however: Who cares?

A graph with a disturbing dip was published in Scientific American this past Spring. First the good news: In an assessment of 21 different surveys of 200,000 people in 44 states, SciAm reported remarkable agreement across political and geographic sectors. While the numbers were lowest in Utah and highest in Rhode Island, the majority of those polled agreed that climate change is happening and that human actions are part of the cause. A majority also favored government-imposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

The thorn in this rosy picture is that a mere 3 to 15 percent responded that they consider global climate change to be “extremely important” to them personally. Other studies show that many people, among them political leaders, don’t relate climate change to anything that will affect them in their lifetimes—although about one-third of us say we “worry” about climate change.

A challenge for the sustainability leadership is how to move the populace to embrace personal involvement and responsibility. What will inspire individuals to feel more personally involved and to do more than worry?

A Yale University study labeled Americans’ attitudes toward climate change as Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Doubtful, Disengaged, and Dismissive. Of the people in these groups, about a third said they had all the information they needed to form their beliefs. The Yale study also asked participants about their emotional responses to climate change. Words that came up most often from the alarmed and concerned were afraid, angry, sad, disgusted, helpless, and interestingly, hopeful. The dismissive group also used the words disgusted and angry, although probably for different reasons.

Polls and studies are arguably flawed, but based on this sampling from reputable sources, a reasonable conclusion is that while we increasingly know and believe the facts about global climate change, we are reluctant to take ownership.

Wendy Skinner is the director of SewGreen, a not-for-profit reuse, sewing education, and youth jobs program in Ithaca NY.











September 8, 2014

Heating with Wood Pays Dividends

Tompkins Weekly 9-8-14

By Guillermo Metz

Looking out the window, it’s 80 and sunny. But night-time temperatures all summer have periodically dipped into the 50s. Even if there’s no proven relationship between the two, I shudder to think what that means for the coming winter.

With summer, they say it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. With winter, it’s not just the cold but the cost of keeping warm. Last winter was a long, cold one that caught many people off-guard. Particularly for those heating with propane or oil, the high costs of heating put an unexpected dent in many residents’ budgets. But it’s never too late to do something about it.

A winning combination is to make your home as energy-efficient as possible and then heat it with a pellet stove. Typically thought of as a space heater, homeowners around the county have shown that you can heat most of your home most of the year (or all of it) with a pellet stove, as long as the home is energy efficient. For most homes, that means increasing the insulation and air-tightness. Having an energy audit performed is the first step to finding out how energy efficient your home is, and in making it more energy efficient. Energy audits are still free for NYS residents making less than 200% of the median area income. You can find more information at

A significant issue with any wood-burning device is making sure emissions are kept at a minimum. By design, most pellet stoves have lower emissions than wood stoves, and reaching their designed emissions and efficiencies is much easier, since you’re using a much more standardized fuel.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County was going to run a wood stove to pellet stove changeout program aimed at retiring old, inefficient wood stoves for cleaner-burning pellet stoves. Instead, working with agencies at the state level, we are supporting a state-run initiative that aims to do the same thing, with an even bigger rebate. Renewable Heat NY is now offering $1000 rebates for changing out your old wood stove for a pellet stove. You can find more information at In an attempt to help lower-income homeowners with their heating bills, there is also an income-eligible option for homeowners who are heating with propane or oil but who do not have an old wood stove to turn in. And you don’t even have to be the homeowner to apply: if you’re renting a home with an old wood stove, you can (with your landlord’s permission) change it in for a pellet stove and receive the rebate.

At CCETC, we’re also going after some of the worst offenders: outdoor wood boilers. We’re piloting an outdoor wood boiler to pellet boiler changeout program aimed at replacing five OWBs with pellet boilers, with a rebate of $4000 each. Renewable Heat NY will add an OWB changeout to its program in 2015, with homeowners being able to upgrade to two-stage gasification, high-efficiency wood boilers (for an estimated rebate of $3500) or to an advanced pellet boiler (for an estimated rebate of $4500).

Homeowners new to pellets often ask about where the pellets come from and if demand can be met if significantly more people turn to heating with pellets. Most pellets are made almost exclusively from waste wood from sawmills, and though there have been periodic shortages the past few years, there is plenty of local wood to support a growing industry. Last winter was cold. Really cold, much of the time. No one anticipated that, which meant shortages for all kinds of fuels, including pellets. This year, pellet mills are ready. And as the market for pellets grows, the supply side will become even more secure.

Another program we are working on is bringing bulk pellet delivery to the Southern Tier. This will provide homeowners with a scenario much like liquid heating fuels. Someone can deliver pellets to your home on a schedule and put them into a container much like an oil or propane tank. From there, you can use a pail to transfer pellets to the pellet stove. No more picking up one-ton pallets or lugging 40-pound bags.

Perhaps more importantly, bulk delivery will enable larger end-users, from homes to large commercial entities, to heat with fully automated pellet boilers. These very clean-burning, highly efficient appliances can be fed pellets automatically through pneumatic or augured systems so that the end-user doesn’t have to do more than empty the ash pan, often as little as once a month.

Properly used, wood stoves are also a good option for heating, especially if you have a ready supply of wood. But if your wood stove is more than 20 years old, it’s time to upgrade to a newer one. And no matter what vintage your stove, always make sure you don’t burn anything other than clean, dry wood, and a little bit of newspaper to start the fire.

Whether you’ve been heating with wood or wood pellets your whole life or are considering it for the first time, sign up now for our next Learn to Burn workshop, September 10, 6-8pm. We’ll cover the Renewable Heat NY program, how to best buy and dry firewood, what to burn and what not to burn, and all the latest technologies, as well as basic tree identification and woodlot management. Call 272-2292 or e-mail me at to register (there is a sliding-scale $10 fee but no one will be turned away and everyone will be entered for a chance to win a moisture meter).

Guillermo Metz is Green Building and Renewable Energy Program coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.