Leasing the Sun: Tompkins Towns Take Advantage of Deal to Go Solar

In an effort to move toward energy independence and save taxpayers money, many municipalities in Tompkins are going solar...

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By Shawnee A. Barnes via the Ithaca Journal, 7/30/13

ITHACA — In an effort to move toward energy independence and save taxpayers money, many municipalities in Tompkins are going solar.

This spring, a handful of towns took advantage of a low-cost solar leasing program through Solar Liberty out of Buffalo and backed by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to install solar panels on their municipal buildings.

Solar Liberty is one of the largest NYSERDA-approved solar installers in the state. There were no upfront costs and Solar Liberty maintains the panels for 15 years.

Danby is the latest municipality to jump on board following Dryden and Ulysses.

More are following suit, with the town and city of Ithaca in the process of implementing similar measures.

Danby installed its ground-mounted panels next to the historic town hall. As of July 8, they are up and running.

“Our utility bill is guaranteed to go down,” said Matt Cooper, the town’s code enforcement officer who worked on the installation. “We make lease payments that are less than what the electricity bill would be.”

The lease payments are $110 per month, said Cooper, and although it’s still early, the savings are estimated to be $1,435 per year.

“It’s partly financial, but the (town) board members are also interested in sustainable energy and construction. There’s a philosophical interest in doing it as well,” he added.

The town is looking to put solar panels on the fire department as well, this time through Solarize Tompkins SE (Southeast), which is working with Danby, Caroline and Dryden, and individual residents, to offer discounts through a group purchasing model to bring down costs.

More than 280 households have enrolled in the Solarize Tompkins purchasing program, according to its website.

The move toward renewable energy is not new in the county — solar panels were put up on the county library in 2000 — but the trend has picked up speed over the last few years.

The towns’ efforts to go solar is part of a larger regional goal and fits into the county’s goal, adopted by the legislature in 2010, to reduce green house gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

In 2012, the county was awarded $1 million by NYSERDA to develop an action plan called the Cleaner Greener Southern Tier Regional Sustainability Plan.

Since then, the county installed solar panels on seven of its buildings, including the Department of Public Works, the Human Services Building and Annex, county Court House, the Health Department and the Emergency Response Center building at the airport.

The panels cost $14,000 annually to lease from Solar Liberty, said County Planning Commissioner Edward Marx. The gross annual savings is $27,000, so that’s $13,000 in savings a year, according to county officials.

The Town of Dryden installed its solar panels in May on the Town Hall and highway garage. The cost to lease the panels is $400 a month for both buildings.

The arrays are sized accordingly to cover the annual electricity output of each building, said Maureen Hanagan, of Solar Liberty.

The Town Hall has a 24-kilowatt array, and the highway garage has a 46-kilowatt array. The solar panels produce enough electricity to cover 30 percent of the Town Hall’s electric bill and 100 percent of the bill for the town’s highway garage, said Dan Kwasnowski, director of planning in Dryden.

Last year, the town received a grant through NYSERDA for an energy efficiency audit to see where they could decrease their emissions.

“It’s a great deal,” Kwasnowski said of the leasing program. “It’s expected the town will save $15,000 over the 15-year lease.”

For Ulysses, installing solar panels fits into the town’s vision for sustainability, said Town Supervisor Liz Thomas.

“It would guarantee our electricity costs for 15 years,” she said. “We banned (hydraulic fracturing), and we want to move toward more sustainable energy,” she said.

The town will pay $98 a month for the panels on the Town Hall and $125 for the highway garage. The monthly payment is commensurate with what the town paid in electricity a month, Thomas said.

In 2009, the Town of Ithaca hired a sustainability planner to conduct a greenhouse gas inventory and identify the ways the town as a whole can reduce its carbon footprint.

A solar feasibility study, and a community energy action plan, are under way to pinpoint the best locations to put solar arrays, said Sustainability Planner Nick Goldsmith, who came on board in 2012.

The town has been working toward a goal to reduce 30 percent of its energy consumption by 2020.

“If we lead by example, then people are more willing to get on board,” Goldsmith said.

The City of Ithaca is currently installing 25-kilowatt solar arrays on the Central Fire Department and Ithaca Youth Bureau buildings. The roofs of both buildings are being repaired and Solar Liberty will install the panels in the coming weeks, said city engineer Brooks Hendrix.

Municipalities can be an example for individuals and business as they see the cost savings and decrease in energy consumption, said Hendrix.

“I think it’s very important that as municipalities start reducing their carbon footprint, it will simply push people into the right direction. ... It will start people thinking about it more globally instead of just personally. A little bit can go a long way,” he added.

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