Ask the Expert: Everything You Need to Know About Sustainable Energy

September 30, 2021

Sullivan County Democrat – “A Sustainable Tomorrow”, A Quarterly Publication of DRS
By Heather Brown, Coordinator Office of Sustainable Energy Sullivan County

In the first of a series, Ask the Expert will attempt to inform and educate readers on the importance of sustainable energy and what lies
ahead in the future as more of our nation’s energy is generated through renewable energy.

Where is investment most needed to secure Sullivan County’s current and future energy needs?
The past decade has seen a remarkable surge in the clean energy industry. It has been exciting, and also a bit overwhelming as new technologies emerge at a very rapid pace. With increasingly affordable options available to American households (the cost of solar installations has fallen by 69% since 2011 in New York State), we are seeing much higher rates of participation in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. The significant progress in the transition toward a clean energy future is certainly something to be proud of. But there is still a massive amount of work in front of us, and a large portion of that work centers on improving one of the most critical pieces of infrastructure in our society – the electric grid.

Regardless of whether your electricity is generated by a solar field, a wind farm, or a natural gas power plant, it all relies on the same network of transportation from the power source to our homes and businesses. New York State’s electric grid is a truly remarkable
example of the power of human ingenuity. It is also old and, like other infrastructure such as water, sewer, and roads, it is in desperate need of investment. Our energy future demands infrastructure that is flexible and resilient – flexible enough to accommodate emerging technologies and resilient enough to keep our communities powered in the face of more frequent extreme weather events.

The three utilities that provide electric service to Sullivan County residents and businesses – NYSEG, Orange and Rockland, and Central Hudson – have all begun the long and expensive process of updating their infrastructure to ensure a secure energy future for the communities they serve. More aggressive tree trimming programs, updates to substations and distribution circuits, grid hardening initiatives, and an increase in manpower are all examples of our local utilities’ commitment to improving local infrastructure. These initiatives need the support of the communities they serve, as those communities will benefit from a more resilient grid capable of handling an expanding and increasingly diversified base of ratepayers.

It appears Sullivan County has been active in developing solar arrays and community solar projects. How has this helped the community and do you envision Sullivan County being a template for other counties across the state to follow?
The most significant contribution to the development of community solar projects, outside of the private sector, came from the Sullivan
County IDA. The Sullivan County Solar UTEP model, which is now used by many IDA’s throughout New York State, provides the financial certainty that a company requires to secure financing for the project, while also ensuring that the host municipality and other taxing jurisdictions are fairly compensated. This program is a key piece of the groundwork laid in order to make community solar a success in Sullivan County.

New York State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act set ambitious goals including a 70% reduction in greenhouse emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, 100% of energy generation from renewable energy sources by 2040, a 600 trillion BTU increase in statewide energy efficiency, and a carbon neutral economy by 2050. How has Sullivan County addressed these goals?
It is important to take a multipronged approach to addressing the energy needs of Sullivan County, as there is no silver bullet to achieve the goals put forth by New York State. The County has made progress on both making our operations more energy efficient while also identifying cost effective opportunities to purchase electricity from clean, renewable, and New York based sources. That starts with measuring what we want to manage, so every year we benchmark our energy use at all County facilities to get a detailed picture of energy consumption, fuel sources, costs and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. That way we can quantify the results of our energy efficiency efforts and the tangible benefits of our renewable energy projects.

Sullivan County worked with the New York Power Authority on several energy projects during the past six years. The first project involved the replacement of lighting, HVAC and boilers as well as a building management system at the Sullivan County Government Center in Monticello, NY. Upon full implementation of this project the County saw a 33% improvement in the Energy Use Intensity (EUI) of the building. In other words, the building is using about one third less energy per square foot now than it was prior to project implementation. Since the success of the first project, the County has continued its partnership with NYPA and pursued energy efficiency projects at several other major facilities.

Sullivan County is also securing electricity from renewable resources. Currently, the County receives approximately 26% of the electricity required for County operations from a solar project in Liberty, NY. And in the not-to-distant future, we hope to begin receiving an additional 40-45% of our electricity needs from a small hydroelectric project. In 2018, Sullivan County teamed up with NYPA once again along with the Towns of Tusten, Fallsburg, Thompson, and Bethel to address our street lights. Each of these municipalities took the necessary steps to purchase the street lights from our utility and convert them to LED lights. There were several benefits to pursuing this project, not the least of which is a projected 60% reduction in costs associated with the energy usage and maintenance of the street lights.

Sullivan County has also installed its first two Level II Electric Vehicle Charging Stations at the Sullivan County Government Center. As the number of electric vehicles on our roads climbs at a steadily increasing rate, and as car manufacturers continue to announce
expansion of the electric vehicle offerings available in the United States it is important to ensure that the necessary support
infrastructure is in place.

Broadband availability has always been an issue in Sullivan County, given our rural nature and rugged landscape. How is the Sullivan County Office of Sustainable Energy addressing these issues?
The issue of broadband has been identified as a top priority of the Sullivan County Legislature, and resources from multiple departments
have been tapped in order to make affordable highspeed internet a reality for all county residents and businesses. For our part, OSE has been directed by County Manager Joshua Potosek to aggressively pursue grant funding that will support the development of a countywide broadband network. In my capacity as Coordinator, I have also been tapped to assist with the newly formed Sullivan Broadband Local Development Corporation.

SUNY Sullivan was one of the first institutions of higher education in NYS to use geothermal heating and cooling to help save money and
energy. They also have a solar array to help offset their electrical energy needs. What other plans are in the works at SUNY Sullivan to further their goals of being a leader in sustainable energy?
SUNY Sullivan is currently in the midst of an exciting project to replace and update many of its building systems. Sullivan
County has worked very closely with SUNY Sullivan and engaged NYPA to craft an energy project that will replace and update aging infrastructure with modern and efficient technology. Based on the findings of a 2019 Facilities Master Plan completed by the College and an energy audit conducted during the summer of 2020, the project includes replacement of aging and inefficient boilers and heat pumps, updating the building control system, upgrading its lighting to LEDs, improving the building envelop with new windows, replacing energy recovery ventilators to improve fresh air ventilation, replacement of the domestic hot water system with more efficient technology, and addressing the culinary exhaust controls. It is an ambitious program, but a necessary investment in a campus that has gone too long without meaningful investment in its building infrastructure. The project will result in significant savings on maintenance costs as well as a reduction of more than 800,000 kWh in electricity usage and 51,000 gallons of propane.

Several Sullivan County towns, such as Bethel and Tusten, are at the forefront of sustainable energy, including electric vehicles, LED lighting and recycling. How have their efforts made a difference in Sullivan County?
Sullivan County is the proud home of not one, not two, but three Bronze Certified Climate Smart Communities (CSC) including the Towns of Bethel and Tusten in addition to the County itself. This has stamped Sullivan County as a leader in the sustainability field in Upstate New York. The cooperative effort maximizes our success by capitalizing on the different actions towns and counties have the authority and resources to accomplish. The work we do in the Sullivan County Office of Sustainable Energy is meant to make County operations and our surrounding community more sustainable, resilient, healthy, energy efficient and environmentally responsible. And we do this in a way that allows our community to remain true to its history and identity. For example, one of the action items completed as part of our CSC
certification involved support for and promotion of local farmer’s markets. Access to locally grown food is a very important piece of
creating a healthy and resilient community – it benefits our local farmers, reduces costs and emissions associated with product shipping, and connects people to fresh and healthy food options. And given Sullivan County’s history in agriculture, this was clearly an area that we wanted to focus on when it came time to shape our pathway toward certification. It was especially gratifying when those efforts won a special mention at our Bronze certification award ceremony, because it celebrates an important part of our community character.