ITHACA, NY – On Tuesday, Tompkins County planners presented “The Tompkins Energy Roadmap,” a plan to achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.

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The report was several years in the making, starting with some projects done by Cornell students in 2011 through 2013. In 2014, an official steering committee was appointed, led by Cornell professor Max Zhang and including local government and economic leaders, energy and sustainability experts and engineers.

The presentation, given by Tompkins County Planning Department Comissioner Ed Marx and Deputy Commissioner Katharine Borgella, started by addressing the question of, “Why here?”

Borgella pointed toward recent studies that indicate that ice sheets are melting quicker than originally anticipated by climate scientists, noting that here in Tompkins the biggest concern is the potential flooding associated with climate change.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Why are we doing this at a county level?,” and the answer is that somebody has to step up and do this work, and we live in a community that has a lot of support for these kinds of studies,” Borgella said.

She pointed out that the plan also has local benefits, including some economic benefits. It keeps money spent on local energy projects and provides jobs that can’t be outsourced since it requires local people to do engineering and construction work. Additionally, it could help improve local health and comfort while also making the county more resilient to the changing climate.

The Roadmap

The Tompkins Energy Roadmap consisted of three parts:

  • Assessing the potential of local renewable energy sources
  • Assessing the potential for energy efficiency and demand management to reduce energy demand
  • Identifying scenarios for how both energy demand and greenhouse gas emission goals could be met by 2050

The study concluded that, in spite of the fact that Tompkins County has no exceptional renewable energy resources, it is possible to achieve those goals.

The table below shows what percentage of the demand that existed in 2008 could be met by Tompkins’ renewable energy sources and what amount could be reduced by demand management strategies:

The Roadmap also outlines cutting emissions from vehicles by transitioning light-duty vehicles to electric vehicles as well as utilizing public transit and car sharing to reduce overall miles traveled. The Roadmap concludes that all 37.6 million gallons of gasoline used in 2008 could be replaced by electricity, though that would increase electricity demand by 21 percent.

Following the roadmap

Borgella clarified that the Energy Roadmap isn’t a specific plan or set of action steps toward actually achieving those goals, although it does include some recommendations. It doesn’t attempt to address the bigger questions of how to incorporate renewable energy into the greater grid, nor does it attempt to predict future energy costs or innovations.

That said, the four elements discussed by the Roadmap include the following:

  • Improving energy efficienty in buildings
  • Moving from grid-supplied electricity to local renewables
  • Move from natural gas to heat pumps and biomass heating
  • Move from gas-powered vehicles to electric and reduce overall miles driven

The report also shows that even if Tompkins took no action on this, federal- and state-level initiatives to reduce emissions would still result in a 31 percent reduction by 2050. However, in order to meet the county’s more lofty 80 percent goal, action needs to be taken locally.

As shown in the table above, there is some “wiggle room” in how to approach these goals. For example, there is theoretically more than enough wind or solar energy supply to meet the community’s energy needs. While actually meeting all those needs by one method may not be practical for a variety of reasons, it indicates that through a combination of methods the 80 percent reduction goal should be doable.

The Energy roadmap recommends the following, among other goals, by 2050:

  • 35 percent reduction in energy use in existing buildings through retrofits and upgrades
  • construct new, energy efficient buildings that aim for a 70 percent reduction over the national median for comparable buildings
  • keep overall vehicle miles at the same level, despite population increases
  • reduce natural gas usage by 50 percent by exploring other heating options
  • Reduce demand from grid electricity by 24 percent
  • Develop at least 50 percent of identified solar energy production potential
  • Develop at least 20 percent of wind energy production potential
  • Develop at least 20 percent of identified micro-hyrdo energy production potential
  • Transition at least 50 percent of light-duty vehicles to electric (at least 33,500 vehicles, approximately)

The County is currently working toward meeting the goals it set for a 20 percent reduction in emissions by 2020. The Roadmap recommends setting interim goals for 2025, 2030 and appropriate intervals thereafter.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.