Energy Program a Smart Idea

A new countywide program to offer geothermal and airsource heat pumps, as well as energy-saving home improvements is now moving forward...

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Matt Johnston, HeatSmart program director, is confident local homeowners will switch to this renewable energy alternaitve.
Matt Johnston, HeatSmart program director, is confident local homeowners will switch to this renewable energy alternative.

By Pete Angie via Tompkins Weekly, 8/10/15

A new countywide program to offer geothermal and airsource heat pumps, as well as energy-saving home improvements is now moving forward. HeatSmart Tompkins is a program of the non-profit Solar Tompkins, which recently hired program director Matt Johnston. The project is similar to the successful solar energy collaboration which gave Solar Tompkins its name and helped reduce the cost of residential solar panel installation in Tompkins County, but also has key differences. “It’s not quite as sexy as putting PV [photovoltaic solar panels] on your roof,” says Katie Borgella, Tompkins County Deputy Commissioner for Planning, who serves on the Solar Tompkins board of directors. Johnston similarly notes that the technology, unlike a shiny solar array on one’s roof or in the yard, is located in basements and is largely out of sight.

The HeatSmart program has a goal of at least 100 systems installed. This is a lower target than was set for the solar panel program, due to this technology being less well known. The trajectory for the program follows the same concept as the solar panel program, with potential installers submitting proposals, including costs, to be reviewed by Johnston and board members. When installers have been selected, public meetings will be held to educate homeowners about the benefits and costs of air source and geothermal heat pumps for heating and cooling their homes, as well as for producing hot water. Through the meetings and other avenues the public can connect with installers. Contracts will be signed between individuals and the installers for work to begin. “Cost is going to be a major issue for county residents,” Johnston says, adding that making these systems more affordable is a primary objective. Currently proposals are being accepted and reviewed, and installers are being vetted through interviews, confirming credentials and following up with references on past work. Only three installers will be selected and Solar Tompkins is looking for those with a strong track record for this type of work, not just those who wish to get into the business for the first time. Johnston and Borgella weren’t willing to comment on which installers are being considered at this time, as the selection process is still underway.

Residents will be able to choose from three main offerings: geothermal, also called ground-source, heat pumps; air-source heat pumps; and home envelope improvements in insulation and air sealing. Each of these options presents a number of additional choices to be decided upon by the individual and contractor, such as installing an airsource system for the entire home, or room by room. Savings cannot be accurately projected until all proposals have been reviewed and installers selected, but Borgella notes that Solar Tompkins’ similar process was able to reduce the cost of residential solar panels by about 20 percent. “There haven’t been many of these done nationally yet,” says Borgella, and she is excited to see how HeatSmart develops.

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