Tompkins County Communities Embrace Solar Power

Solarize Tompkins SE helps residents of Dryden, Caroline, and Danby convert to solar water and electricity...


By Joanne Cipolla-Dennis, via Tompkins Weekly, 05/26/14

Solar House

Last fall a group of volunteers from Dryden, Caroline and Danby sat at Jonathan Comstock’s kitchen table in the Town of Caroline and formed a grassroots organization called Solarize Tompkins SE. A dozen locals committed to educating three towns by holding multiple public forums to show how affordable solar power is if properly implemented on a community-wide basis.

Solarize Tompkins SE volunteers served by vetting installers to ensure residents would receive high-quality solar panels and receive proper installation. The program selected two installers who met best practices such as offering a living wage, and a commitment to a diverse workforce. An additionl two local installers will be added this year to handle the number of expected customers.

During the vetting volunteers focused on local installers in an effort to create jobs in Tompkins County. They also wanted to ensure prices accommodated low- and middle- income households. “We are proud to be among leaders at the front edge of an exciting program. We address barriers to cost and education by building confidence in mature reliable technology that is not yet familiar to most households,” Comstock says.

Comstock, Mark Witmer, also of Caroline, and Marie Mcrea of Dryden, along with about 10 others, collectively spent more than 1,000 hours volunteering to bring the program to their towns. Other volunteers were Mary Aliyce Kobler, Judy Pierpont, Guillermo Metz, Camille Doucet, Dominic Frongillo, Eric Banford, Simon St Laurent, Tom Seaney, Deborah and Joanne Cipolla-Dennis, John Reed, John Burger, Julie Hansen, David Ritchie, Don Barber, Steve Nicholson and Matt Cooper.

Solarize Tompkins SE’s success is “overwhelming,” according to Comstock, who chairs the meetings. He reports that 109 solar panel arrays have been sold or leased through the program. A significant benefit is that homeowners get a solar energy evaluation at no cost, which determines if the location is suitable for optimum sun light exposure, a cost savings of roughly $200.00.

Solar Liberty was selected as the solar array installer and is nearing completion of the latest linstallations. The average solar array was 6 kw, and with state and federal incentives applied residents purchased the systems for as little as $4,080 (approximately $3.56 per watt) or leased the same system for $46 a month. Residents chose from ground-, pole- or roof-mounted panels, which were the most popular choice in this program.

A pole-mounted 5kw 16-panel array was installed in Dryden to provide power for an 1,800-squarefoot home. From late December through mid May those solar panels generated 1085 kw more than what the home used. The owner leased the system for $46 per month and it was installed at no additional cost by Solar Liberty. The homeowner is now banking power as the excess goes back to NYSEG’s grid. The homeowner is paid a wholesale rate at the end of the year for the power not used.

Residents who lease can opt to purchase the system at any time, and all maintenance is provided by Solar Liberty until the lease expires or the system is purchased. The buy-out of the 5kw array with a 10-year lease is less than $2,500 if purchased at the seven-year mark. The lifespan of the American-made solar panel is at least 20 years. Renovus Energy was selected to provide installation of 36 solar hot water systems for domestic use. Solar hot water systems are not part of this year’s Solar Tompkins program but can be purchased through local installers.

The Energy Collective reports renewable energy generation was led by solar power and wind energy, representing 31 projects and nearly half of the total green jobs outlook, with more than 13,300 new openings— more than any other sector.

Mark Witmer is program director for Solarize Tompkins Se and Melissa Kemp is program director of Solar Tompkins. Both positions were paid for by a grant from the Park Foundation and supported by the Tompkins County Legislature.

A primary benefits to solar power is that it stabilizes consumers’ monthly energy costs for heating, cooling and electrical power. Switching to solar means homeowners and business are safe from rising fuel prices. Using solar power also reduces the amount of toxins in the atmosphere causing climate changes, as there is no venting necessary in solar power as there is in carbon based fuels.

Local volunteers say the importance of reducing negative impacts of climate change in their community was a driving factor in committing to the project. Solarize Madison sparked Solarize Tompkins Se and now residents in at least four other New York State counties have initiated their pilot programs to switch to solar.

Residents of Groton, Lansing and Newfield have expressed interest in the project, and this year the entire county is encouraged to participate in the new version of Solarize Tompkins. Starting May 24, Groton and Lansing will hold meetings on the issue, followed by Ulysses and Caroline on May 31.

Kemp is organizing public outreach based on her experience of installing solar systems in the county for nearly a decade “The greatest success lies in the readiness of the people of Tompkins County to switch to solar. It is thrilling that our overwhelming success was the result of a volunteer effort,” Comstock says.

Volunteers for this year’s Solar Tompkins are Katherine Borgella, Roxanne Marino, Marie Terlizzi, Stefan Minott, Brain Eden, Linda Mizer, Julie Schroder, Leslie Schill Marie McRae Guillermo Metz and Mark Witmer on the Solar Tompkins Board and dozens more helping to organize outreach to each town in the county.

For more information on the county-wide Solar Tompkins program and upcoming events, go to Questions should be directed to

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