Tompkins County Mobilizes for Renewable Energy

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Tompkins Weekly 10-7-13

By Jon Harrod
What happens when a community mobilizes around a green energy future?  Tompkins County is about to find out.  A broad-based movement, made up of local governments, academic institutions, businesses, non-profits and private citizens, is transforming our energy system.  While renewables currently make up a small percent of our energy supply, rapid changes are coming.  The phase-out of fossil fuels over the next few decades, once considered a far-fetched goal, has begun to feel like it might be within reach.

The dropping price of photovoltaic (PV) panels, coupled with generous incentives and tax credits, has led to rapid growth in solar-generated electricity.  Since 2003, annual PV installations in Tompkins County have increased tenfold, and total capacity has increased more than thirty fold.  A trip through town on Rt. 13 takes you past several large arrays—on two banks, a grocery, a bakery, and a car dealership—and several more are visible within a few blocks.  In the first neighborhood at EcoVillage, community-owned PV provides 60% of the residents’ electricity.

Still, despite a decade of strong growth, less than one percent of county homes have solar panels.  A volunteer initiative, Solarize Tompkins, seeks to increase that number by making the process of getting panels as streamlined and affordable as possible.  The Solarize model involves community outreach, negotiation of bulk discounts, and financing to reduce up-front costs.  A pilot project in Caroline, Dryden, and Danby is underway, and the initiative plans to go county-wide next year.  Solarize Tompkins expects to generate 400-500 new installations, more than doubling the county’s PV capacity.

Local governments and educational institutions are also embracing solar energy.  Cornell has installed PV arrays on Day Hall and the Cornell Store and is planning a much larger installation in Lansing.  The Snyder Road Solar Farm, which will have 6766 panels and will supply about 1% of Cornell’s electricity needs, is scheduled to go online in 2014.  Over the last few years, TC3, Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, and the Towns of Ithaca, Caroline, and Dryden have installed significant PV arrays.
As solar installations increase, the Black Oak Wind Farm in Enfield comes closer to reality.  According to project manager Marguerite Wells, construction will begin in spring 2014, with the wind farm operational by next summer.  The seven turbines, each 250 feet high at its hub, will generate enough electricity to power 4,000 homes.
Research, development, and manufacturing of wind turbines are taking place here in Ithaca.  Weaver Wind Energy seeks to build “the world’s most reliable small wind turbine.”  Weaver Wind installed two prototypes in January, and expects to have its turbines certified by 2014.

The Fall Creek Gorge is an active source of hydroelectric energy.  The Cornell Hydroelectric Plant, built in 1904, has undergone recent upgrades and now provides about 2% of Cornell’s electric needs.  Meanwhile, the City of Ithaca is capturing and burning biogas from sewage to power its wastewater treatment plant.  The biogas system, together with efficiency upgrades and a PV array, allows the facility to produce 60% of its energy needs, up from 25-30% a few years ago.
While renewable energy ramps up, improvements in lighting, appliances, windows, insulation, and heating/cooling equipment are reducing energy demand.  A small office building on Albany St. provides an example of the way that efficiency and renewable energy can be combined.  Between 2002 and 2012, Taitem Engineering installed a series of efficiency upgrades, eventually reducing energy use by 60%.  (My company, Snug Planet, insulated the walls and attic and sealed air leaks.)  In 2012, Taitem installed PV on the roof, bringing the building close to zero net energy consumption.

The projects mentioned here are only a few among many.  More complete listings can be found on the websites of the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative ( and Cornell Sustainable Campus (  The Get Your Greenback Tompkins website ( has logged over 30,000 steps taken by individuals to cut their energy use, go renewable, and reduce their impacts in other ways.  These efforts, some large and visible, others quiet and small, show a groundswell of support for green energy.  Taken together, they may represent the largest mobilization Tompkins County has seen since WWII.  One of the mottos that came out of that conflict, sometimes attributed to The Army Corps of Engineers, is, “The difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a bit longer.”  In Tompkins County, the impossible may happen sooner than we think.

Jon Harrod, owner of Snug Planet, gets his greenback by insulating and weatherizing homes.

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