Study on High Energy Cost Burdens in Tompkins County

We worked with a team of students through Engaged Cornell during the 2016-17 academic year to survey local residents about their energy bills and collect stories about how utility bills affected the household economy, especially for lower-income residents. You can read their report High Energy Cost Burdens in Low-to-Moderate Income Communities to learn more about how our housing affordability crisis is compounded by inefficient buildings and heating systems.

Thanks to Professor Howard Chong and students Kelly Strohm, Sara Hwong, and Elizabeth Barnett for leading the student team on this project.

Can Art Shake Us Out of Our Climate Denial?

In the Finger Lakes, it’s been a summer of extreme drought and repeated heat waves. Elsewhere, fires and floods have displaced tens of thousands. No wonder people feel nervous about what will happen next. But it’s also pretty easy to feel overwhelmed by the complex global nature of climate change, and end up in a kind of daily amnesia in terms of doing anything to address the problem.

James settting up tentWorried scientists and activists have been working for years to break through this very human response – trying to find entry into our inner workings to shift the pattern. At the same time there is a growing conversation among artists, sensitive to the many interlocking problems that confront humanity, that this is not a time for object making for galleries and museums. Instead this is a time for being socially engaged, to use art as a means for culture shifting and problem solving – taking advantage of the way art creates shortcuts into our inner consciousness and rearranges the furniture in there.

Sustainable Tompkins recently hosted Brooklyn-based artist James Leonard on the Ithaca Commons with his Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies. James has created a performance installation that is not complete until someone from the community joins him inside the tent to talk about their own climate future. The circular tent is a neutral muslin on the outside, but a rainbow of colors inside where bits of recycled clothing have been sewn together to create a ritualistic space for contemplating one’s own relationship with the planet’s warming. On the outside of the tent, small paintings of familiar plant and animal species affected by climate change are pinned.

Perhaps the most interesting part of his art is the way he has adapted Tarot cards to offer a “divination” or reading in response to the climate-related question of the person joining him in the tent. Read the rest of this entry »

Energy Expert Joins Finger Lakes Climate Fund Grantmaking Committee

We are so happy to welcome Chris Balbach, Vice President of Research and Development at Performance Systems Development, to the grantmaking committee of the Finger Lakes Climate Fund.  Chris joins Ian Shapiro, Chairman of Taitem Engineering, and Gay Nicholson, President of Sustainable Tompkins, on the committee.

Chris BalbachChris is taking the seat of Mark Pierce, Extension Associate for Cornell’s Consumer Education Program for Residential Energy Efficiency in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis.  Mark served on the Climate Fund grants committee since we started in 2009, and also volunteered his considerable expertise numerous times in various Sustainable Tompkins’ programs on energy efficiency.  Mark’s work is in transition and we will miss Mark’s help on the grants committee, but he promises to stay available to volunteer for public education on home energy.

We are lucky to have Chris join us on the committee because of his detailed technical knowledge and background in training.  He is an expert in using energy modeling and analysis software to analyze the investment potential of existing buildings, with a focus on energy efficiency, building durability and occupant health and safety. An avid proponent of performance verification, Chris serves as an officer and board member of several energy engineering groups.

Our grants team often shares very useful tips on energy issues with the contractors who apply on behalf of low-income residents in our community.  We think everyone wins from this collaboration!

Tompkins County Legislature Hears Comments on Local Climate Action

TC Legislature 12-15-15

(Fossil Free Tompkins organized a rally and speak-out to the Tompkins County Legislature on December 15 to encourage them to act boldly and quickly to eliminate fossil fuel consumption in our county.  More than 60 attended and 30+ provided comments.  Below are remarks by Sustainable Tompkins President Gay Nicholson.)

The Paris climate talks have concluded, and although we can celebrate this initial acknowledgment to stay below 2 C of warming and to at least measure and report emissions, we all know that much more needed to be accomplished at this point in the climate transition.

The next five years will be critical for global climate systems. The next two years of this legislative term must be used to start really digging into the detailed work of emission reductions. Read the rest of this entry »

Energy and Equity Go Hand in Hand


Extreme income inequality, persistent racism, and increasing climate disruption are undeniable plagues of our time. We are fortunate that many people in Tompkins County are working on these issues. Some are advocates for racial and economic justice, such as creating living-wage jobs, removing barriers to reentry from the prison system, and ensuring affordable housing for all. Many others are involved in initiatives to reduce carbon emissions, such as, stopping gas infrastructure development, switching from fossil fuels to renewable sources, and conserving energy in housing, transportation, food, water, and waste. Read the rest of this entry »

Equity, Energy, and the Economy

By Gay Nicholson

Back in 2007, I organized a Sustainable Design workshop for 20 of Ithaca’s entrepreneurs, planners, educators, and green builders. The primary goal of our work together was to identify principles of design that would lead to sustainable community development.

We had a lot of fun that day with our thought experiment, but the thing that sticks in my mind eight years later is our conclusion that all our most powerful design principles could be distilled down to one concept: Everything is Connected. Holism, biomimicry, equity, system dynamics….. the core value underlying all the design principle themes was “Relationships Matter.” Read the rest of this entry »

Building and Heating With the Climate in Mind

Alternatives seminar Dryden Town Hall 2-19-15If you missed our presentation at the Dryden Town Hall on February 19, you can watch a video of our talk thanks to the efforts of Cris McConkey and Eddie Rodriguez.  Eddie ran the camera system and Cris quickly finished up the editing so that we could share the video with those interested in learning the details about how air and ground-source heat pumps work and how they compare to using methane or propane for space heating and hot water.

We are grateful for the introduction by town board member Linda Lavine and our hosts (Dryden Town Board, the Town Planning Board and the Town Conservation Board).  On an exceptionally bitter cold night with plenty of blowing snow, we were glad to see a crowd of about 30 brave the weather to join us. Read the rest of this entry »

The Keystone Principle

Tompkins Weekly 12-22-14

By Gay Nicholson

Back in September, members of Sustainable Tompkins joined the People’s Climate March in NYC to affirm our moral responsibility for reducing carbon emissions and heading off catastrophic climate disruption. We know there is a challenging and lengthy journey to meet that commitment, but the harmful consequences of inaction inspire our resolve. We can’t be afraid of the difficult conversations and points of friction, and must access the courage of our convictions. Read the rest of this entry »

Citizen Power through Communergy Circles


People who care about democracy, local rights, and healthy communities have reason to be concerned about the recent election results. The rapid expansion of shale gas and oil infrastructure across the country will face even fewer obstacles.  Utilities are making a grab for retaining control of the energy system, even as it becomes more distributed. The bill for climate damage is locked in now, and growing. It’s daunting, for sure.

But people are fighting back. They are organizing, learning the ropes, and getting involved. Some are getting arrested, and some are still trying to figure out the playing field. The point is that they are present and accounted for at this moment in history. And they are not alone. They are doing this with others. And that makes all the difference.

Sustainable Tompkins has been helping to organize “communergy circles” by supporting residents willing to act as host and facilitator for a series of conversations about local and state energy and climate issues. Several are underway now, and we are looking for more folks ready to step up and get involved. The process is very open-ended and each group will be different as its members decide for themselves what part of the climate/energy system to work on.

One circle has decided to focus on getting NY to pass the community-owned renewables bill, and for Tompkins County to play a lead role in developing microgrids of locally-owned and controlled renewable energy systems.  Another is exploring how to get their neighborhood enrolled in home energy efficiency and solar energy programs.  ST provides support with briefings on what is going on locally in the energy and climate arena, and resource materials to share with circle members.

Are you ready to step up and get engaged? Is there something you want to work on, or just to think about and explore with others? If so, please get in touch with Gay Nicholson (gay@sustainabletompkins.org) to explore your interest and meet with other circle leaders. This is no time to be on the sidelines.


Children of a Lesser God?

Protest at Crestwood site 10/24/14

Protest at Crestwood site 10/24/14

Sustainable Tompkins stands with the residents of the Finger Lakes Region opposing construction of Crestwood’s methane gas storage in the abandoned salt caverns under Seneca Lake –the heart of a regional economy based on tourism, wine, and farming.  But it seems the citizens of our region are “children of a lesser god.”  At least, employees at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) seem to think so, as they’ve granted a permit to Crestwood for this risky project despite allegations of withholding critical geologic data.

Apparently, a majority of the Schuyler County legislature and Reading town board accept that their constituents don’t have rights to clean air and clean water as they have acquiesced to the interests of out-of-state corporations.  The rail and truck traffic forecast for the depot guarantees significant air pollution in the valley, and the risk of leaks and spills into groundwater or the lake is also very high.  In contrast, four county legislatures and nine municipal boards in the surrounding area have voted against the gas depot because it threatens the quality of life, health, and economic well being of their constituents.

A thorough risk analysis led by Dr. Rob MacKenzie (retired president of Cayuga Medical Center) was done at the request of a Schuyler County legislator.  The risk of a major accident or failure during transport or storage at the facility is estimated at nearly 40% over the next 25 years.  That’s an exceptionally high risk to force upon the residents of any region.   Read the rest of this entry »