Solar Tompkins Lights Local Green-Energy Initiative; Installers Maneuver in …

July 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Since fall 2013 Solar Tompkins, “a nonprofit community solar initiative focused on facilitating a large sustained increase in the rate of solar power adoption by homeowners and small businesses in Tompkins County,” has been building momentum for its official program, which launched on May 27. Casual gatherings, dubbed “Solar Tours,” led up to the official educations events, which are currently in the midst of pitching an initial no-obligation enrollment offer through July 31.

Solar Tompkins is a private not-for-profit organization, which at this time is funded entirely by a grant from the Park Foundation. Tompkins County applied for the $80,000 grant and the legislature accepted it with a resolution on Dec. 17, 2013. According to the resolution, the grant funds “a project manager for 18 months, expert input, printing costs, database management, and project assessment, with the project manager consulting under contract to the county.” The grant is administered by the county planning department.

According to the Solar Tompkins website, www.solartompkins.org, the program strives to eliminate the remaining barriers to solar adoptions by providing “attractive lower-than-market pricing and a simple process with vetted technology and installation partners.” Solar Tompkins board representatives told the Ithaca Times that more than 500 county residents have enrolled for solar installations thus far, and one last push throughout the month of July is expected.

Solar Tompkins Program Director Melissa Kemp said that before this year, the county had approximately 300 residential solar installations already completed. The organization’s goal is to at least double that figure by the end of 2014. Installations, which typically take a few months to complete, will begin as soon as August and carry into 2015. Kemp noted that the first 15 official educational events have been “fantastic,” with turnouts ranging from 35 to 80 people.

<!–Zoom in
Zoom out –>


“The bottom line,” Kemp said, “is that solar has become way more accessible and affordable. So for a lot of folks, the investment is about a third of what it would have been four or five years ago. And people can go solar in a lot of convenient ways. You don’t just have to put money down upfront. You can do a monthly payment as a loan or a lease, and the take away is, for a lot of folks, they can pay less than they’re paying NYSEG today, and switch to solar.”

The installer partners for Solar Tompkins are Astrum Solar, Renovus Energy, and Taitem Engineering/ETM Solar Works. Astrum is headquartered in Maryland, Renovus and Taitem are local, and ETM is based in Endicott. All three were chosen after an “extensive competitive process.” Kemp noted each installer brings a different experience to the table. Two other companies, Solar Liberty of Buffalo and Halco of Phelps, N.Y., submitted RFPs to Solar Tompkins, but were not chosen as installers. Solar Liberty was chosen as the exclusive installer for last year’s Solarize Tompkins SE (Southeast) program. Adam Rizzo, the president of the company, said to date they have completed 70 of the 108 installations. “There were delays in the NYSERDA incentive program,” Rizzo said. “It took six months to get them all approved; that was pretty much out of our hands.” Rizzo said that the hard winter slowed down his team too. “We focused on ground-mounted systems because being on a roof is a safety risk in that weather and it’s detrimental to the roof.” To speed the Solar Tompkins SE installations, Solar Liberty recently partnered with John Mills Electric, a local electrical contractor. Rizzo included a collaboration with Mills in his proposal to Solar Tompkins.

Rizzo was upset that his company was not selected. “Initially they told us we were local because we were partnering with Mills,” he said. “We were told we were the lowest bid received. We have many happy customers in Tompkins County and no problem with quality.”

Solar Liberty manufactures their own brand of solar panels in Buffalo. They have been in business for 11 years and have done over one thousand installations from western New York to Long Island. They install residential systems—which produce 5 kW on average—and 2 MW commercial systems with a 10 MW system planned for next year. In Tompkins County they have installed systems for several county government buildings, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the city fire stations, and next year will erect a system for the Museum of the Earth.

In the end, according to Rizzo, Solar Tompkins said, “You have enough work. We don’t think you can do any more.” Rizzo said that he argued that the Solarize Tompkins SE installations would be done by the time it was ready to go forward on the Solar Tompkins jobs.

Hal Smith of Halco was somewhat baffled by his failure to be chosen. “The only explanation that we got was that we didn’t get the Tompkins County seal, but we did put that in the proposal,” he said. “We were the first company to be interviewed, myself, an installation person, and a design engineer. In the end Melissa told me, ‘You did all the talking.’ I told her, ‘All you asked were sales questions, so I was the one to reply.’” Kemp had worked for Halco for four years, and Smith thought they had parted on good terms, although he admitted that they had a  “difference in business philosophies.” According to her LinkedIn page, Kemp also worked for Renovus for three years (2009-2011) as project developer, designer and project manager and for Taitem Engineering for seven months in 2013 as a project development manager and as manager of their renewable energy department.

Smith, whose company is based in Phelps, has had an Ithaca area office for 25 years. He took over the customer base of first Jon Hammond Plumbing Heating and then Wheaton Sheet Metal (an HVAC installer). He said he has been doing solar installations for six years and Halco has been named a “top home performance contractor” by both NYSERDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Because of the manifold nature of expertise within his company Smith is able to combine solar with geothermal heating and cooling and retrofitting for efficiency to make homes “net zero,” that is produce as much or more energy than they consume.

According to the Solar Tompkins website, for an average residential customer in New York, up to 69 percent of the cost of a solar PV system is covered by incentives. These incentives include a $1 per watt (W) upfront grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), a federal tax credit of 30 percent, and a state tax credit of 25 percent. As a result of these incentives, “an average family using 7,500 kWh/year can typically purchase a system to cover 100 percent of their current electricity needs for between $5,500-$8,000 depending on whether it is roof- or ground-mounted, or they can lease a system for no upfront cost and pay about the same price per month they are paying to their electric utility today.” Each home’s electricity usage is different, and thus the necessary system size and corresponding cost will vary accordingly.

<!–Zoom in
Zoom out –>

Free standing Panels for shaded house.
(Photo: Cassandra Palmyra)


Kemp said Solar Tompkins is able to provide a 20 percent below regional market pricing through its outreach, and partner pairings, which eliminates “soft cost.”

Both Halco and Solar Liberty are continuing to offer their lower per Watt prices via independent efforts (Solar Liberty calls their marketing campaign “Brighter Tompkins”). Solar Liberty is offering to install systems (before incentives) for $3.05 per Watt, while Halco is coming in at $3.09 per Watt. Renovus, in contrast, was accepted as a Solar Tompkins installer and offered to do their installations for $3.39 per Watt, Astrum for $3.20 and Taitem/ETM for $3.50 per Watt. While Rizzo of Solar Liberty promised a three to four year payback period, Joe Sliker of Renovus spoke of an eight to 10 year period. Both, however, offered a 25-year warranty on panels that should last 40 years.

After state and federal incentives are applied, the price of ETM/Taitem installations falls to 9 cents per Watt and 12 cents per Watt for Astrum installations. In other words, the low pricing offered by Solar Liberty and Halco give the consumer a low upfront price, but no matter which installer does puts in their system the homeowner will recover most of it after they do the paperwork to get their government tax credits and the NYSERDA $1 per Watt grant.

“The cheaper way,” said Sliker, “may result in sacrifices that people will regret later.” Renovus, said Sliker, stays away from less expensive Chinese panels and imports theirs from Taiwan. “We were using only the most efficient solar panels until a year ago,” he said. “Then we decided to use others in order to save money without it being a problem.”

One of the criteria of the Solar Tompkins RFP was that all contractors had to use panels from a standard list compiled by the California Energy Commission. Solar Liberty’s own panels are included on the list. “The three installer partners were chosen,” Kemp explained, “in a friendly, open, but competitive process. When people come to community meetings or go to enroll on our website, they preliminarily select the installer they want to work with. They do so after seeing or hearing who they are—they’re all companies that have met or exceeded our best practices for equipment and installation services, so any of them is a great company to work with, but they do have different personalities. Some do more than solar PV, some are super local, some are more regional. So you just make a decision for what best fits your needs.”

“People have a couple different motivations for it,” Solar Tompkins representative Jonathan Comstock of Caroline explained. “One big one is that we need clean energy. We have a lot of global problems that spin back to the pollution that our energy-hungry society causes. So this [solar power] is one of the solutions and one that people can do individually. People are really hungry to say yes to something that’s a positive step where they feel like they’re making a decision that matters. It’s that feeling that they’re taking responsibility and doing their piece to solve this global problem. Another thing is that it saves people money; it’s economically advantageous. So people not so concerned about the global issues might still want to join for that reason.”

Looking Ahead to 2050

If Tompkins County plans to follow through on its goal of reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, said Deputy Planning Commissioner Katie Borgella, it is a safe bet solar energy is going to be a big part of reaching those numbers.

“Solar is one of the key renewable energy sources that we have access to in our communities,” said Borgella, who is also a Solar Tompkins board representative. “So if we’re going to transition ourselves off of fossil fuels, it’s going to be critical that we take a look at solar, at wind, micro-hydro, geothermal, biomass—those are really the main renewables we have. Solar is really kind of emerging as the leader right now in terms of the resource, its maintenance, its ease, and its ability to be used for so many different situations. It’s gaining huge momentum.”

Discussions to give the community the sense of what needs to be accomplished by when will take place in the coming weeks.

<!–Zoom in
Zoom out –>

(Photo: Glynis Hart)


“We’re working on that right now,” Borgella said. “We’re hoping to have what we’re calling the ‘energy road map’ [this year]. We have an energy consultant on board who is working on that and researching the potential of all of those energy sources and looking at the grid connectivity and storage. We’re having our first steering committee for that this month. What we’ll bring to the community is three to five energy scenarios that will each kind of work within a timeframe of 2030, but we haven’t figured out all the details yet. I think it’ll be sobering when we look at what it’s going to take to reach 80 percent reduction [in greenhouse emissions] by 2050.”

Will Solar Sell Itself?

According to EDF Energy, the largest producer of low-carbon electricity in the UK, the average residential photovoltaic system produces 72 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated (gCO2e/kWh). The panels don’t produce emissions, but their manufacturing process (which accounts for 60 percent of the emissions) and transportation of them to installation generates greenhouse gases. Panels made in the People’s Republic of China have a relatively larger footprint because of the country’s reliance on coal-fired plants for electricity.

Wind-generated power has a carbon footprint of only 11 gCO2e/kWh, hydroelectric power comes in between 10 and 30 gCO2e/kWh, nuclear power at 16 gCO2e/kWh, natural gas at 487 gCO2e/kWh, oil at 650 gCO2e/kWh, and coal-fired plants produce 870 gCO2e/kWh. Carbon capture and storage technology can reduce a coal-fired plant’s footprint to 190 gCO2e/kWh and a gas-fired plant to 170 gCO2e/kWh. (These figures are from EDF Energy; www.edfenergy.com.)

It would figure that if switching to solar energy is both environmentally and economically advantageous, the county should have no problem getting all of its residents to jump on the bandwagon, right? That, however, has yet to be the case. While significant progress has been made and interest is growing by the day, there are still plenty of skeptics that remain.

Guillermo Metz, the Green Building and Renewable Energy Program Coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCETC), serves on the Solar Tompkins board and stressed the importance of shedding that solar stigma.

“It’s a perception thing,” Metz explained. “People don’t understand the technology, but once they do learn about it, and these workshops demonstrate that it’s a very hands-off way to get into saving money and doing something that’s good for the environment. It makes people more aware of their own energy use. The panels sit up there, the inverter works, you don’t have to do anything. People don’t realize how little maintenance is involved. It’s basically non-existent.

“It’s not a demographic per se,” he continued. “There seems to be chunks of people who aren’t aware or just don’t think it’s for them. I think that’s the biggest challenge. Because there’s those that are sort of on the fence, and those are the ones we’re really getting [to enroll] and they’re those that are eager to do it, which are even easier [to enroll]. But there are a lot of people who don’t even think about it or consider it. If they were to at least look at it, I think it’s a pretty easy sell. For the homeowner it’s not making sacrifices, it’s not using less stuff. Solar installations are a fairly painless way to get to a good place.”

Solar Tompkins representative Marie McRae of Dryden and Comstock echoed Metz’s sentiments, both alluding to a solar “tipping point”: at a certain point, the number of residents using solar energy will reach a critical mass and then it will essentially sell itself.

<!–Zoom in
Zoom out –>

A view of the expansive solar panel system atop Tompkins County Public Library.
file


“If it’s such a great thing, why do you even need a program?” Comstock asked. “Why aren’t people just doing it? One of the goals of the program is to make itself unnecessary in future years. If we can change that attitude and make people more comfortable with the technology. If neighbors start telling each other how great their solar installation is, or if everyone gets to the point where they know someone who has done a solar installation, it will get to the point where it’s self-propagating.”

McRae added that Solar Tompkins is hoping “to bring it to the point where we can step out of the way and let the market take over, let the tipping point get to where everyone knows somebody who has solar on their house. Once that happens, we’ll be set.”

The Big Picture

Both Borgella and Kemp admitted that getting enough residents to make the switch to see an impact would be the biggest challenge. Besides convincing them that solar energy is the way to go, there is also the matter of physical limitations.

“Sometimes people just don’t have the right site,” Kemp noted. “They don’t have enough room, or there’s a bunch of trees. All of our homes and buildings were not built with solar in mind. So of those that are interested, that’s most likely going to be the biggest obstacle many will have to overcome.”

If enough people living in Tompkins County do make the switch, however, they might become part of a bigger movement that in theory could have global ramifications.

“The larger picture is about health in our society and the future,” Kemp said. “When we talk about climate change, that’s just a semantic thing. It’s a nice, common buzz word, but it’s really about us and what we want to leave for our kids and whether we want to be able to grow crops here, or if we want droughts and wild fires out west, and all that kind of stuff. This is the beginning of a 15- to 20-year effort to switch our energy from fossil fuels, which are a dead end, to renewable energy. A huge percentage of the county needs to get involved to actually make that shift. This is the first step.”

Here is the remaining schedule for upcoming Solar Tompkins community meetings:

July 9 – City of Ithaca Community Meeting

The Space at GreenStar, 7 to 9 p.m.

July 10 – Caroline Community Meeting

Speedsville Community Center, 7 to 9 p.m.

July 12 – Enfield Community Meeting

Enfield Valley Grange (178 Enfield Main Road), 10 a.m. to noon

July 15 – Ulysses Community Meeting

Franziska Racker Center (3226 Wilkins Road), 7 to 9 p.m.

July 16 – City of Ithaca Community Meeting

GIAC, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

July 17 – Newfield Community Meeting

Newfield Fire Hall, 7 to 9 p.m.

July 29 – City of Ithaca Community Meeting

Tompkins County Public Library , 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Solar Tompkins Lights Local Green-Energy Initiative; Installers Maneuver in …

July 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Since fall 2013 Solar Tompkins, “a nonprofit community solar initiative focused on facilitating a large sustained increase in the rate of solar power adoption by homeowners and small businesses in Tompkins County,” has been building momentum for its official program, which launched on May 27. Casual gatherings, dubbed “Solar Tours,” led up to the official educations events, which are currently in the midst of pitching an initial no-obligation enrollment offer through July 31.

Solar Tompkins is a private not-for-profit organization, which at this time is funded entirely by a grant from the Park Foundation. Tompkins County applied for the $80,000 grant and the legislature accepted it with a resolution on Dec. 17, 2013. According to the resolution, the grant funds “a project manager for 18 months, expert input, printing costs, database management, and project assessment, with the project manager consulting under contract to the county.” The grant is administered by the county planning department.

According to the Solar Tompkins website, www.solartompkins.org, the program strives to eliminate the remaining barriers to solar adoptions by providing “attractive lower-than-market pricing and a simple process with vetted technology and installation partners.” Solar Tompkins board representatives told the Ithaca Times that more than 500 county residents have enrolled for solar installations thus far, and one last push throughout the month of July is expected.

Solar Tompkins Program Director Melissa Kemp said that before this year, the county had approximately 300 residential solar installations already completed. The organization’s goal is to at least double that figure by the end of 2014. Installations, which typically take a few months to complete, will begin as soon as August and carry into 2015. Kemp noted that the first 15 official educational events have been “fantastic,” with turnouts ranging from 35 to 80 people.

<!–Zoom in
Zoom out –>


“The bottom line,” Kemp said, “is that solar has become way more accessible and affordable. So for a lot of folks, the investment is about a third of what it would have been four or five years ago. And people can go solar in a lot of convenient ways. You don’t just have to put money down upfront. You can do a monthly payment as a loan or a lease, and the take away is, for a lot of folks, they can pay less than they’re paying NYSEG today, and switch to solar.”

The installer partners for Solar Tompkins are Astrum Solar, Renovus Energy, and Taitem Engineering/ETM Solar Works. Astrum is headquartered in Maryland, Renovus and Taitem are local, and ETM is based in Endicott. All three were chosen after an “extensive competitive process.” Kemp noted each installer brings a different experience to the table. Two other companies, Solar Liberty of Buffalo and Halco of Phelps, N.Y., submitted RFPs to Solar Tompkins, but were not chosen as installers. Solar Liberty was chosen as the exclusive installer for last year’s Solarize Tompkins SE (Southeast) program. Adam Rizzo, the president of the company, said to date they have completed 70 of the 108 installations. “There were delays in the NYSERDA incentive program,” Rizzo said. “It took six months to get them all approved; that was pretty much out of our hands.” Rizzo said that the hard winter slowed down his team too. “We focused on ground-mounted systems because being on a roof is a safety risk in that weather and it’s detrimental to the roof.” To speed the Solar Tompkins SE installations, Solar Liberty recently partnered with John Mills Electric, a local electrical contractor. Rizzo included a collaboration with Mills in his proposal to Solar Tompkins.

Rizzo was upset that his company was not selected. “Initially they told us we were local because we were partnering with Mills,” he said. “We were told we were the lowest bid received. We have many happy customers in Tompkins County and no problem with quality.”

Solar Liberty manufactures their own brand of solar panels in Buffalo. They have been in business for 11 years and have done over one thousand installations from western New York to Long Island. They install residential systems—which produce 5 kW on average—and 2 MW commercial systems with a 10 MW system planned for next year. In Tompkins County they have installed systems for several county government buildings, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the city fire stations, and next year will erect a system for the Museum of the Earth.

In the end, according to Rizzo, Solar Tompkins said, “You have enough work. We don’t think you can do any more.” Rizzo said that he argued that the Solarize Tompkins SE installations would be done by the time it was ready to go forward on the Solar Tompkins jobs.

Hal Smith of Halco was somewhat baffled by his failure to be chosen. “The only explanation that we got was that we didn’t get the Tompkins County seal, but we did put that in the proposal,” he said. “We were the first company to be interviewed, myself, an installation person, and a design engineer. In the end Melissa told me, ‘You did all the talking.’ I told her, ‘All you asked were sales questions, so I was the one to reply.’” Kemp had worked for Halco for four years, and Smith thought they had parted on good terms, although he admitted that they had a  “difference in business philosophies.” According to her LinkedIn page, Kemp also worked for Renovus for three years (2009-2011) as project developer, designer and project manager and for Taitem Engineering for seven months in 2013 as a project development manager and as manager of their renewable energy department.

Smith, whose company is based in Phelps, has had an Ithaca area office for 25 years. He took over the customer base of first Jon Hammond Plumbing Heating and then Wheaton Sheet Metal (an HVAC installer). He said he has been doing solar installations for six years and Halco has been named a “top home performance contractor” by both NYSERDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Because of the manifold nature of expertise within his company Smith is able to combine solar with geothermal heating and cooling and retrofitting for efficiency to make homes “net zero,” that is produce as much or more energy than they consume.

According to the Solar Tompkins website, for an average residential customer in New York, up to 69 percent of the cost of a solar PV system is covered by incentives. These incentives include a $1 per watt (W) upfront grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), a federal tax credit of 30 percent, and a state tax credit of 25 percent. As a result of these incentives, “an average family using 7,500 kWh/year can typically purchase a system to cover 100 percent of their current electricity needs for between $5,500-$8,000 depending on whether it is roof- or ground-mounted, or they can lease a system for no upfront cost and pay about the same price per month they are paying to their electric utility today.” Each home’s electricity usage is different, and thus the necessary system size and corresponding cost will vary accordingly.

<!–Zoom in
Zoom out –>

Free standing Panels for shaded house.
(Photo: Cassandra Palmyra)


Kemp said Solar Tompkins is able to provide a 20 percent below regional market pricing through its outreach, and partner pairings, which eliminates “soft cost.”

Both Halco and Solar Liberty are continuing to offer their lower per Watt prices via independent efforts (Solar Liberty calls their marketing campaign “Brighter Tompkins”). Solar Liberty is offering to install systems (before incentives) for $3.05 per Watt, while Halco is coming in at $3.09 per Watt. Renovus, in contrast, was accepted as a Solar Tompkins installer and offered to do their installations for $3.39 per Watt, Astrum for $3.20 and Taitem/ETM for $3.50 per Watt. While Rizzo of Solar Liberty promised a three to four year payback period, Joe Sliker of Renovus spoke of an eight to 10 year period. Both, however, offered a 25-year warranty on panels that should last 40 years.

After state and federal incentives are applied, the price of ETM/Taitem installations falls to 9 cents per Watt and 12 cents per Watt for Astrum installations. In other words, the low pricing offered by Solar Liberty and Halco give the consumer a low upfront price, but no matter which installer does puts in their system the homeowner will recover most of it after they do the paperwork to get their government tax credits and the NYSERDA $1 per Watt grant.

“The cheaper way,” said Sliker, “may result in sacrifices that people will regret later.” Renovus, said Sliker, stays away from less expensive Chinese panels and imports theirs from Taiwan. “We were using only the most efficient solar panels until a year ago,” he said. “Then we decided to use others in order to save money without it being a problem.”

One of the criteria of the Solar Tompkins RFP was that all contractors had to use panels from a standard list compiled by the California Energy Commission. Solar Liberty’s own panels are included on the list. “The three installer partners were chosen,” Kemp explained, “in a friendly, open, but competitive process. When people come to community meetings or go to enroll on our website, they preliminarily select the installer they want to work with. They do so after seeing or hearing who they are—they’re all companies that have met or exceeded our best practices for equipment and installation services, so any of them is a great company to work with, but they do have different personalities. Some do more than solar PV, some are super local, some are more regional. So you just make a decision for what best fits your needs.”

“People have a couple different motivations for it,” Solar Tompkins representative Jonathan Comstock of Caroline explained. “One big one is that we need clean energy. We have a lot of global problems that spin back to the pollution that our energy-hungry society causes. So this [solar power] is one of the solutions and one that people can do individually. People are really hungry to say yes to something that’s a positive step where they feel like they’re making a decision that matters. It’s that feeling that they’re taking responsibility and doing their piece to solve this global problem. Another thing is that it saves people money; it’s economically advantageous. So people not so concerned about the global issues might still want to join for that reason.”

Looking Ahead to 2050

If Tompkins County plans to follow through on its goal of reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, said Deputy Planning Commissioner Katie Borgella, it is a safe bet solar energy is going to be a big part of reaching those numbers.

“Solar is one of the key renewable energy sources that we have access to in our communities,” said Borgella, who is also a Solar Tompkins board representative. “So if we’re going to transition ourselves off of fossil fuels, it’s going to be critical that we take a look at solar, at wind, micro-hydro, geothermal, biomass—those are really the main renewables we have. Solar is really kind of emerging as the leader right now in terms of the resource, its maintenance, its ease, and its ability to be used for so many different situations. It’s gaining huge momentum.”

Discussions to give the community the sense of what needs to be accomplished by when will take place in the coming weeks.

<!–Zoom in
Zoom out –>

(Photo: Glynis Hart)


“We’re working on that right now,” Borgella said. “We’re hoping to have what we’re calling the ‘energy road map’ [this year]. We have an energy consultant on board who is working on that and researching the potential of all of those energy sources and looking at the grid connectivity and storage. We’re having our first steering committee for that this month. What we’ll bring to the community is three to five energy scenarios that will each kind of work within a timeframe of 2030, but we haven’t figured out all the details yet. I think it’ll be sobering when we look at what it’s going to take to reach 80 percent reduction [in greenhouse emissions] by 2050.”

Will Solar Sell Itself?

According to EDF Energy, the largest producer of low-carbon electricity in the UK, the average residential photovoltaic system produces 72 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated (gCO2e/kWh). The panels don’t produce emissions, but their manufacturing process (which accounts for 60 percent of the emissions) and transportation of them to installation generates greenhouse gases. Panels made in the People’s Republic of China have a relatively larger footprint because of the country’s reliance on coal-fired plants for electricity.

Wind-generated power has a carbon footprint of only 11 gCO2e/kWh, hydroelectric power comes in between 10 and 30 gCO2e/kWh, nuclear power at 16 gCO2e/kWh, natural gas at 487 gCO2e/kWh, oil at 650 gCO2e/kWh, and coal-fired plants produce 870 gCO2e/kWh. Carbon capture and storage technology can reduce a coal-fired plant’s footprint to 190 gCO2e/kWh and a gas-fired plant to 170 gCO2e/kWh. (These figures are from EDF Energy; www.edfenergy.com.)

It would figure that if switching to solar energy is both environmentally and economically advantageous, the county should have no problem getting all of its residents to jump on the bandwagon, right? That, however, has yet to be the case. While significant progress has been made and interest is growing by the day, there are still plenty of skeptics that remain.

Guillermo Metz, the Green Building and Renewable Energy Program Coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCETC), serves on the Solar Tompkins board and stressed the importance of shedding that solar stigma.

“It’s a perception thing,” Metz explained. “People don’t understand the technology, but once they do learn about it, and these workshops demonstrate that it’s a very hands-off way to get into saving money and doing something that’s good for the environment. It makes people more aware of their own energy use. The panels sit up there, the inverter works, you don’t have to do anything. People don’t realize how little maintenance is involved. It’s basically non-existent.

“It’s not a demographic per se,” he continued. “There seems to be chunks of people who aren’t aware or just don’t think it’s for them. I think that’s the biggest challenge. Because there’s those that are sort of on the fence, and those are the ones we’re really getting [to enroll] and they’re those that are eager to do it, which are even easier [to enroll]. But there are a lot of people who don’t even think about it or consider it. If they were to at least look at it, I think it’s a pretty easy sell. For the homeowner it’s not making sacrifices, it’s not using less stuff. Solar installations are a fairly painless way to get to a good place.”

Solar Tompkins representative Marie McRae of Dryden and Comstock echoed Metz’s sentiments, both alluding to a solar “tipping point”: at a certain point, the number of residents using solar energy will reach a critical mass and then it will essentially sell itself.

<!–Zoom in
Zoom out –>

A view of the expansive solar panel system atop Tompkins County Public Library.
file


“If it’s such a great thing, why do you even need a program?” Comstock asked. “Why aren’t people just doing it? One of the goals of the program is to make itself unnecessary in future years. If we can change that attitude and make people more comfortable with the technology. If neighbors start telling each other how great their solar installation is, or if everyone gets to the point where they know someone who has done a solar installation, it will get to the point where it’s self-propagating.”

McRae added that Solar Tompkins is hoping “to bring it to the point where we can step out of the way and let the market take over, let the tipping point get to where everyone knows somebody who has solar on their house. Once that happens, we’ll be set.”

The Big Picture

Both Borgella and Kemp admitted that getting enough residents to make the switch to see an impact would be the biggest challenge. Besides convincing them that solar energy is the way to go, there is also the matter of physical limitations.

“Sometimes people just don’t have the right site,” Kemp noted. “They don’t have enough room, or there’s a bunch of trees. All of our homes and buildings were not built with solar in mind. So of those that are interested, that’s most likely going to be the biggest obstacle many will have to overcome.”

If enough people living in Tompkins County do make the switch, however, they might become part of a bigger movement that in theory could have global ramifications.

“The larger picture is about health in our society and the future,” Kemp said. “When we talk about climate change, that’s just a semantic thing. It’s a nice, common buzz word, but it’s really about us and what we want to leave for our kids and whether we want to be able to grow crops here, or if we want droughts and wild fires out west, and all that kind of stuff. This is the beginning of a 15- to 20-year effort to switch our energy from fossil fuels, which are a dead end, to renewable energy. A huge percentage of the county needs to get involved to actually make that shift. This is the first step.”

Here is the remaining schedule for upcoming Solar Tompkins community meetings:

July 9 – City of Ithaca Community Meeting

The Space at GreenStar, 7 to 9 p.m.

July 10 – Caroline Community Meeting

Speedsville Community Center, 7 to 9 p.m.

July 12 – Enfield Community Meeting

Enfield Valley Grange (178 Enfield Main Road), 10 a.m. to noon

July 15 – Ulysses Community Meeting

Franziska Racker Center (3226 Wilkins Road), 7 to 9 p.m.

July 16 – City of Ithaca Community Meeting

GIAC, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

July 17 – Newfield Community Meeting

Newfield Fire Hall, 7 to 9 p.m.

July 29 – City of Ithaca Community Meeting

Tompkins County Public Library , 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

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