LANSING, N.Y. –– HeatSmart Tompkins is slowly signing on more and more municipalities across the county to its program in an effort to reduce natural gas usage and promote “clean heat” locally. Its most recent target for the eco-friendly heat technology is the Village of Lansing, which heard a presentation at a Town Board meeting last month. 

HeatSmart Tompkins is a subset of the non-profit “Solar Tompkins” that aims to promote sustainable energy usage in an affordable, equitable way. HeatSmart, much like solar power, touts a cleaner and more energy-efficient alternative to an essential home utility.

On Wednesday, June 16, the Lansing Town Board heard a presentation from Lisa Marshall, program director of HeatSmart Tompkins, on the environmental and financial benefits of using heat pumps to heat local homes, but has yet to make a decision on the matter.

The meeting was held via Zoom and streamed on YouTube, but Marshall gave her presentation in-person to Supervisor Ed LaVigne in the Lansing Town Hall, with other Town Board members listening and asking questions remotely.

Marshall described the heat pumps as technology that does not generate heat, but instead moves it around. Air source heat pumps take in heat from the air outside, while ground source heat pumps take in heat from the ground; the latter system is more expensive but lasts longer and is more efficient.

“It’s the same process that actually keeps the inside of your refrigerator cool, so we know it works,” Marshall said.

Marshall stressed the environmental impact that heat pumps could have with home heating being one of the leading causes of all carbon emissions in New York State at, 30 percent of all carbon emissions after 36 percent from transportation and ahead of 15 percent from electricity generation. Using heat pumps would allow residents to achieve what she calls “beneficial electrification” of heating, as switching to electric-based heating systems instead of fossil fuels would cut carbon emissions even without switching to greener sources of electricity like solar and wind.

Not to mention heat pumps also save residents money on their heating bills. According to Marshall, some residents of Tompkins County paid $3,500 a year for propane heating, and that switching to heat pumps would cut their expenses by one half or two thirds, if not more.

Heat pumps have a variety of applications, not only heating and cooling houses, but also can heat water and dehumidify homes. Marshall said using heat pumps can lead to better air quality inside the home, since they can dehumidify the air, and the emissions from other heating methods can adversely impact the air quality.

Marshall said that heat pumps have other benefits, such as being more convenient for elderly residents, due to being operated with a remote control and not requiring residents to carry pellets or chop wood.

“They are worried about being able to stay in their home as their age,” Marshall said about some elderly residents.

Despite the advantages heat pumps can offer, some residents may find it difficult to invest in the technology, so Marshall mentioned grants that are available, such as Empower and Assisted Home Performance, which grant $10,000 and $5,000, respectively, to qualified residents. The Assisted Home Performance’s eligibility has expanded, going from residents who earned up to 80 percent of the median income for their county, to up to 120 percent of the median, resulting in 70 percent of Tompkins County residents qualifying.

In addition to incentives for residents to install heat pumps in their home, there are also rewards for communities whose residents adopt the technology. Under the Community Campaign for Clean Heat, the first 100 communities to get 10 residents to install heat pumps, even a heat pump water heater, get $5,000 in funds. Marshall said she was excited about the incentives and optimistic about residents adopting the technology.

“Just to give you an example, we’ve already had 25 people from Lansing enroll in HeatSmart this year, and we usually see 30 to 40 percent conversion rate between enrollment and people actually getting the work done,” Marshall said. “If you start a campaign now, the people who are already in our system can also count toward your goal of 10 participants.”

Marshall shared several methods municipalities could use to inform residents about heat pumps, from online methods such as hosting webinars and posting on social media to more traditional methods such as yard signs or press releases. She mentioned the PowerHouse, a mobile miniature house with solar panels, heat pumps and information on clean heating inside that has visited various communities in Tompkins County.

Lansing is not the first community in the region to hear about heat pumps, as Caroline, Dryden, Enfield, Ithaca, Newfield and Ulysses are also pursuing more sustainable energy, and some of those communities have also heard presentations from Marshall and HeatSmart.

Doug Dake, a member of the Lansing Town Board, expressed concerns about heat pumps, citing his background in building houses and having installed them in some of the homes he built. He said that electrifying the heating system, along with providing chargers for electric cars, could potentially risk overloading the power grid, and he was uneasy about fast-tracking the adoption of heat pumps.

Another of Dake’s concerns was whether heat pumps would continue to perform well in sub-zero weather. The further the temperature outside is from the desired temperature indoors, the more difficult it is for heat pumps to heat or cool the home.

“I’m not trying to downplay the system; I actually enjoy the system,” Dake said, “but these are concerns as a builder that I have.”

Marshall contended that heat pumps would help lessen demand for energy, but thanked Dake for his questions. Because  the board had not decided to commit to any action regarding heat pumps, Marshall told the board that there was no pressure to act on her presentation.

“Thank you for  spending the time and for listening to my spiel, I look forward to next steps with the town” Marshall said.

The next Town Board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, July 21, though it is unclear what the timeline for further discussion on this topic may be.