Category Archives: Energy

What I’ve Learned About Community Solar Farms

Community solar farms became legal in NYS in May.  I had imagined building such a facility at the Keene Transfer Station for a long time.  It is our long-closed and capped landfill, now a mowed field with a fabulous view, the garbage/recycling place and town highway operations center. Capped dumps are used for solar farms in many places so I wanted to look into doing this sort of thing here as a model for other towns to follow.  The town owns the land, it can’t be used for much else and it must remain open, mowed annually to keep trees from growing.  These solar sites need 3-phase power lines in place and Keene has this at the nearby highway department building.

Technically, there is no problem.  After all, panels are on often roof tops without creating leaks, and the problem is similar.  Like a roof, you cannot perforate the liner covering the capped area, so instead the panels are attached to racks that are held down with heavy pre-cast pieces of concrete laid on the ground.  In urban areas where this is done all the time there is no cost penalty.  Out here in the sticks, this is not normal, and equipment has to be brought in to do the work.  There is an extra DEC permit involved in using a landfill.   But with little open land owned by towns in the Park, this could be a viable option.

The problem for the Keene site is that it is too small.  These solar farms are allowed be 2mw, but we only have space for about 40% of that.  The town needs 1/3 of the site’s capacity for municipal power.  What is left can only serve about 50 homes which raises the question of who gets to use it.  A full scale site would serve 3-400 homes.

What is happening state-wide is that businesses are organizing to build such projects in all 10 power distribution regions.  They will spread the fixed costs of operations across thousands of customers. So our old landfill would be a high cost site serving a small number of residents. That is not a recipe for success.

The people who loan money for these projects are hesitant about using dumps. So we spent some time looking for alternate sites.  The town-owned open fields are all in the flood plain, and the financing people won’t fund flood-plain projects because you cannot buy insurance for them.  Other town owned land is forested and more remote.  The cost of removing a forest, and building 3-phase power lines kill the economics of using most forested land.  So businesses are leasing private open fields where power lines already in place.  These large multi-site operators will strive to offer solar PV to everyone.

Your best, cheapest, option will be panels on your own land, or roof.  Adding the cost of someone else’s land will always make community solar more expensive.  It will still be desirable for people with homes in the forest (many in our region), and it may even be 100% financed, but the cheapest option will be using your own land.

The closed, capped, Keene dump is likely still be a good site for a municipal solar PV farm.  It is being looked into.  The town uses power for various buildings, the drinking water systems (we have two), street lighting, and so on.  It may be small enough that it doesn’t need to be on the capped area. But the site is not large enough to use for a 2mw residential solar PV farm.

Other Adirondack towns may have town owned open fields to use, or larger landfills but most will find it hard to come up with a decent site.

The utility amendment to Article 14 that recently achieved first passage had all the ideas about green power stripped out of the early proposal.  Given the threats of climate change, actually giving 10 acres to each of our 102 towns for a solar site would be a wise thing to encourage. This would have needed 1020 acres out of 3 million.  It could have moved the whole Park into the fight to mitigate climate change, fostering a new sense of active environmentalism, participating in solving environmental problems larger than our own.  We have done it before with our successful fight against acid rain.  But not-in-my-backyard wisdom prevailed and our region’s leading environmental advocates decided to oppose any green power at all.    It is odd to live in a place so protected that we can’t actually participate in the great quest to save the planet.  Bill McKibben ran into the same issue years ago when vocally supported building windmills at an old mine site in Johnstown.  They were ultimately denied permits.  He left the region, and moved to Vermont.


Project Update – Are We Getting the Desired Future Or?

You know this pattern:  Lots of people spend tons of time and money developing a plan.  It finishes with a fanfare, then as times passed it is spoken about less frequently.  Eventually people forget about the plan.  Then work begins on a new plan, because, well, we don’t have one. So, with this post we are trying to add something different to the ADK Futures Project, a review of how we are doing vs the 2011-12 vision – remember the vision?

In 2011-12, the ADK Futures Project ran a series of scenario planning workshops.  The desired future was called the Sustainable Life, mixed with tourism and supported by the Forest Preserve.  This also turned out to be most attainable among the scenarios, largely because much of it was already underway.  The broad alignment supporting the vision was what surprised people.  Now it is February 2016.  What has happened since July 2012?  How does it compare to the desired vision?

We have been collecting data, news items, press releases, reports and such since July 2013 and now have roughly 1000 items. We associate each item to its related event(s).  Over time one begins to see trends suggesting what is getting done, and what is not. Some events have lots of news, on other events nothing has happened, and some are clearly never going to happen.

The short conclusion is, wow, we sure are making a lot of progress on a broad range of fronts. Historic expansions of the Forest Preserve have been made.  Realignment of the health care system has been done.  Building out broadband and cell service is ongoing, making progress each day.  The renewal of Champlain Valley farming is gaining momentum.  The State and private sector have invested a lot of new money in recreation and tourism facilities.  And on and on.  It is very impressive, especially given the fact that no one is organizing, coordinating, or leading all this work.   It is happening, it seems, with the willing collaboration and distributed effort of many people to get where they collectively want to go.  Maybe this is democracy in action in the most positive sense of the word.   It is actually quite incredible.

There is too much information for a post.  We have written an update that organizes recent developments by theme.  For example, Agriculture, Recreation, Energy, Transportation, Arts and Heritage, Healthcare, and more, are each separate topics, where news related to the events used in the 2011-12 workshops has been aggregated and written as a short narrative.

The update is based on data collected, organized and posted here.  You can check on the data, follow the links and find out more about the progress we have made. We try to keep ‘evidence’ to things that actually happen; not ongoing debates but how the debates conclude.  We try to keep it complete.  A grant is made.  A project is started, finished or abandoned.  The APA makes a decision.  Voters pass something.  You get the idea.  Even with this approach, we already have about 1000 items of evidence.   Let us know via email of missing data, including a link to the evidence we should cite.  Thanks!

Click here for the PDF file of the update document.



Why is minimizing our carbon footprint so difficult?

Near the end of the December 2014 workshop on Adirondack region responses to climate change, someone asked a really good question.  Why was the “(C)Sustainable Life” scenario in the ADK Futures workshops of 2011 and 2012 considered most desirable AND most attainable while the “(A)Minimize our Carbon Footprint” scenario in this new workshop was considered most desirable but LEAST attainable?

A big difference between the two scenarios was the level of government, especially Federal government, intervention required.  The new scenario explicitly requires that governments put a price on carbon to create the necessary economic incentives to spur rapid adoption of clean energy.  Participants had already expressed their lack of faith in the top-down government led approach to capping emissions and thus it was consistent to believe that this regional scenario would be unattainable – Federal government is not functioning well today and no improvement is expected.

Another factor in our view is that the new scenario explicitly called for solving the harder parts of actually getting emissions in the region down by 80% of 2005 levels by 2040.  The older “Sustainable Life” scenario was much vaguer about doing good things to reduce our carbon footprint.  In the new scenario we focus on how to move away significantly from dependence on fossil fuels for transportation using a combination of electric and hydrogen vehicles coupled with efforts to reduce the total number of miles driven, a much more demanding scenario.

The new scenario posits that, over the next 25 years, regulations are enacted that put a price on GHG emissions all over the world.  The logic goes that the perception of the seriousness of threat of destructive climate change later in the century will increase during this period as the science will improve and impacts on the climate system begin to manifest themselves.  Large-scale change in the energy system requires engaging market forces by making energy sources that emits GHGs expensive relative to those that don’t.  As carbon prices increase, the rural northern lifestyle would be penalized because it consumes more transportation and heating energy than urban living.  Seeing this coming, the region can work proactively to minimize our fossil fuel use so are not impacted much as GHG prices increase.

Clearly the Adirondack region would not be the only part of the country hurt by placing a price on GHG emissions.  States that are big suppliers of fossil fuels (e.g., Wyoming, West Virginia, Texas, Louisiana, North Dakota, etc.) would see their economies hurt as their markets shrink.  It seems clear that to get a carbon tax adopted, those hurt by it will have to be compensated in some way.  This is how our political system works.  One idea, for example, is to grant most of these funds collected back to individuals and small businesses as a ‘carbon dividend’.  Thus, rural life might not be as hurt as thought at first glance, and adoption of such a tax might not be impossible after all.  It depends how the revenues are used.  Still, global adoption of carbon taxes in some form is hard to imagine as easily attainable.

Other aspects of this new scenario minimizing our carbon footprint that might be difficult to imagine are an almost complete abandonment of heating oil in favor of biomass, solar thermal, geothermal or electric heat.  Biomass for thermal is a competitive option vs heating oil in our region. In its Renewable Heat initiative, NY State is targeting replacement of old wood stoves largely for health reasons.  But soot and other black carbon particles are also a driver of climate change as they settle on arctic snow fields and cause them to absorb more solar energy.  The State will pay you to remove and dispose of your old wood furnace, AND give you a grant to buy a new state-of-the-art unit.

Lastly, the new low carbon scenario called for more clustering of our residents in fewer towns where people walked and biked more.  By living closer together, and closer to work, we drive less.  Clustered homes and businesses could share a district heating system.  Also, as storms worsen, we can better fortify and upgrade key community infrastructure (communications, water, power, fire, EMT, etc.) in the larger towns, not in every town.  Communities where people know each other and see each other daily are stronger, more cohesive than communities where most people live outside of town, isolated from each other.  Once again this raises the specter of smaller remote, more marginal, Adirondack towns fading away, a possibility that was raised before in the ADK Futures workshops and something that is widely rejected.

This new low carbon scenario is primarily about efforts to mitigate the impact of our emissions.  One certain contribution we make is keeping our forests healthy and functioning as a major carbon storage system.  Assuming a push to reduce emissions gets into gear nationally, we can benefit from cost reductions in new technologies as they are adopted widely, just like everyone else, e.g. electric and hydrogen vehicles.  But developing and testing new technologies will happen elsewhere.

To expect the Adirondack region will be a leader in mitigation is almost certainly a stretch, except for maintaining our forest carbon storage.  But we can do our part. A common argument against aggressively mitigating our region’s GHG emissions is that we have a negligible impact on the global situation.  But most regions could say the same – no place matters much, but everywhere matters – and therein lies the conundrum.  Creating a global economy that doesn’t depend on wrecking the atmosphere and the oceans requires everyone, everywhere, to make changes, including us.   To have these changes in energy use adopted widely in the region, we will need to get more people to see the consequences of not acting.  At the State level, there is recognition of the need to act.  At the county and local level less so, but talk about storms and you find support.  Getting local leaders, citizens and youth to the point of being aware of the problem, and participating in sensible changes, remains our biggest opportunity.

Summary of Results of First Adirondack Regional Responses to Climate Change Workshop

On December 11 and 12, 2014 a diverse set of 32 scientists, policy makers, government officials, non-profit leaders and concerned citizens mapped out different ways in which our region might respond to the threat of disruptive climate change. As we did for the ADK Futures project, we are using a scenario planning approach in which we consider multiple plausible outcomes for 25 years from now and map out pathways to get to them using events that could happen between now and the outcome horizon.  The full documentation of the workshop is available.  Here we present a summary of results.  Future posts will explore some of the issues raised.

The issues and options with regard to climate change are notoriously complex and because what we do will be affected by what happens elsewhere, we can’t just consider scenarios at the regional level.  Therefore, we set the context for our regional thinking with two sets of global scenarios.  First, we presented 5 scenarios for how the global climate system might evolve over the next 25 years.  These global climate scenarios are labeled:

  • C1: Gradual Change
  • C2: Faster Change
  • C3: Pause Ends
  • C4: Non-Linear
  • C5: Unpredictable

After some discussion, we asked the participants to rank order these climate scenarios from most probable over the next 25 years to least probable.  Here are the results:

global climate ranking table result

The result is pretty clear:  the most difficult to deal with climate possibilities (C4 Non-Linear and C5 Unpredictable) are the most likely (tied for first) and the most benign ones are the least likely.  Get ready for more bad weather.

Next, we presented 5 scenarios for the human race might respond to the threat of climate change at the global level.  Climate change is a problem whose worst consequences can only be prevented by global action.  These global response scenarios are labeled:

  • G1: Governments in Gear
  • G2: Bottom Up Progress
  • G3: Private Sector Leads
  • G4: The Oblique Path to Progress
  • G5: Panic!

Again, after some discussion, we asked the participants to rank order these climate scenarios from most probable over the next 25 years to least probable.  Here are the results:

global response ranking table result

This result puts most faith in the private sector(G3) and bottom up efforts (G2) and has the lowest expectations of success for top-down, national government-led efforts (G1).  This is realistic but it isn’t clear that we can avert damaging climate change without G1 and a truly global solution.

With this as context, the workshop focused on 6 scenarios about how the Adirondack Region responds over the next 25 years. These regional responses are labeled:

  • A: Minimize Our Carbon Footprint
  • B: Prepare for the Worst
  • C: Hyper-Green Human Refuge
  • D: Climate Change Laboratory
  • E: Don’t Panic
  • F: Reaching a Regional Tipping Point

After almost a full day of analysis and then a spirited half-day of plenary debate, we asked the participants to rank order these six regional response scenarios on desirability and attainability, just as we did with the Adirondack Futures endstates in 2011 and 2012.  Here are the results:

regional after ranking result

Unlike in the Adirondack Futures result (which we said at the time was highly unusual), the most desirable outcome here A, where we lower our carbon footprint, is the least attainable. Why this is so will be the subject of a future post. The scenario that got the most endorsement for action in the workshop is B, the one focused on proactive adaptation with the expectation of serious climate change in the future.  Scenario C, which says the region will be a winner on balance because of climate change, was viewed skeptically. The narrowly focused science and research scenario D was viewed as difficult to pull off and didn’t address enough of the region’s needs.   Scenario E that took a pragmatic, measured approach was seen as easy to do but undesirable.  Scenario F in which the region is badly wrecked by climate change was obviously undesirable but received a fairly high attainability score.

The end of the workshop was devoted to sketching out ways in which multiple endstates and layers of endstates might be integrated into a more complete roadmap for the next 25 years and beyond. One synthesis depicted change over time at both the global climate level (top), global response level (x-axis) and regional level (bottom).

adk cc synthesis diagram

The climate will worsen, eventually changing non-linearly.  The G2 (Bottom Up) and G3 (Private Sector) global responses predominate at first followed by more of a G4 (Oblique) approach and then finally as the climate worsens still, G1 (Top-Down) kicks in.  Regionally there is a lot of focus on mitigation and clean energy (A) especially as the private sector brings the costs down.  The intensity of our regional efforts will follow the triggers of the global scenarios with B (Adaptation) and C (Human Refuge) dominating over time. Seems likely that B and C will end up dwarfing everything else as the climate gets bad. In their view, D (Laboratory) is flat over time and so is E (Don’t Panic).  You continue to do smart, practical things (E) and you do great science although funding might be tighter in the future as money goes to adaptation.

In future posts we will dig into specific scenarios and their implications.

Report Available on First Climate Change Response Workshop

On December 11 and 12 we held our first workshop in a new series about how the region responds to the threat of disruptive climate change.  Despite a big snow storm the two days prior, 32 people made it to Paul Smith’s College to spend two days examining six alternative scenarios for how the region might respond.  Although there are some tweaks to make to the starting framework, in general the group found the framework useful.  We plan to hold more of these workshops starting sometime in May 2015.  We would like to develop a half-day version as we did in the original ADK Futures workshop series.  In the weeks to come we will be writing a few posts about issues and conclusions raised in this first climate change workshop.  For now, you can read the full report on the workshop.

What We Learned at the Clean Energy Conference

NCCECWe spent the past couple days at the North Country Clean Energy Conference sponsored by ANCA.  It was a great opportunity to learn a lot about a wide variety of approaches to energy conservation, generation and regulation.  We came away amazed by the creativity and innovation that is happening in the energy sector.

Here are a variety of things we learned at the conference.

Public Projects Everywhere

Many municipalities have implemented or are in the planning stages for clean energy projects, typically putting in solar cells to generate electricity (known as photovoltaics or PV systems) or biomass systems for heating.  There was a presentation by Fred Monroe about their positive experience with PV in Chestertown.  Fred noted that even though some of their PV systems are installed at the side of the school playing fields, the panels don’t break when hit with a baseball or soccer ball.  It’s good to note they are pretty rugged.  Another presentation showed how a number of towns along the St. Lawrence River (Ogdensburg, Clayton, Gouvenour and others) have collaborated on a single contract to procure and install PV systems at 15 to 25% savings.  The Thousand Islands Central School also participated.  The projects are pitched to residents as a way to save money and stabilize energy costs.  The  green benefits are a plus but not the motivator.

Biomass Bandwagon

Biomass energy is widely accepted as an important way of reducing fossil fuel use.  There were a number of projects described, the largest of which is the major ReEnergy conversion of a coal-fired power plant to biomass fuels at Ft. Drum.  You can argue about whether using biomass to generate electricity is wise as a general policy due to efficiency issues, but this reuse of an existing facility seems poised for success.  The plant went operational just over a month ago and has been harvesting wood since February.  The key point is that ReEnergy’s commitment to sustainable harvesting of biomass is real and serious.  For example, they are buying state-of-the-art logging equipment and leasing it to some of their loggers supplying the plant so that they can do low impact collection in the forest. They are also in the midst of planting thousands of acres of shrub willow, which can be harvested sustainably every three years. This facility is able to generate enough electricity to meet the needs of 55,000 homes.  It will be an important part of the Army’s commitment to move to more renewable energy sources.

There was also a very impressive presentation on the North Country School’s use of wood for heating using a variety of different technologies and fuel types from cord wood to pellets to chips.  They are currently saving over $50,000 a year in fuel costs.  They are also doing other things to reduce energy use such as switching to LED lighting, green roofs and some PV systems.

The success of biomass in larger, institutional applications has not been matched by success in the residential arena.  There are many concerns about the viability of home biomass including issues of safe storage of pellets and emissions profiles.  Overall, there remains significant prejudice against heating with wood in the general public, some of which derives from old wood furnaces that do belch smoke and particulates and would create a public health problem if used even more widely.  But the new biomass furnaces are very different and the technology is able to lower emissions levels below heating oil.    More education on why the new technologies are clean, safe and carbon neutral is still needed.  It was suggested that NYSERDA set aside a percentage of all grant funds for outreach and education.

Looking at the longer-term effects of major use of biomass, we see nothing but benefit to the North Country.  Developing a new and growing market for wood from our private forests is necessary to counter the steady decline in demand for wood for pulp mills as paper use tapers off – biomass energy will keep our logging industry viable.  The low-grade wood that feeds a pulp mill is equally suitable to feeding a pellet plant.  Biomass collection can also be a cost-effective adjunct to existing harvesting for saw logs, using tops and branches.  Sustainable harvesting of low quality trees from a forest can improve the value of the forest over time, reversing the decades of “high grading” that has occurred in many of our norther forests.

Solar: Do I Have a Deal For You

There are lots of companies out there that want to bring you no-money-down deals for converting to PV or biomass.  The idea is called operational financing.  The company essentially funds the capital cost of the system using the savings from the project.  Usually the company buys the equipment and then enters in an agreement with you to sell you the power or the heat they generate at a reduced price over what you are paying now.  But the majority of the savings go to pay back the install cost.   For schools and municipalities, the company can take benefit of the tax incentives that non-profits cannot use, further increasing the attractiveness of the deal for all.  It appears that more companies are entering this green energy financing in our region.

The State is setting up a billion dollar “green bank” to provide wholesale funds to companies that would set up individual deals with businesses, municipalities and maybe even home owners.  If you have the capital to invest on your own in these green technologies, then your savings will be bigger and start accruing immediately.  But if you don’t, the operational financing approach allows you to make the conversion, go green, and get some savings.  For many, a stable, known cost of energy is a benefit even if it doesn’t represent huge savings off today’s prices.

Community Net Metering Is a Game Changer

There was a lot of talk at the conference about a regulatory change in the works that is called Community Net Metering.  The current situation for someone that installs a PV system is that the electricity produced is fed back into the grid through your own electric meter.  The energy you produce is netted out against what you use, watt for watt,  hence the term net metering.  In this way you can actually reduce your electric bill to zero (but not below) if you have a large solar array.  But the panels need to be near your meter.

Community net metering (also called Virtual Net Metering) allows the solar panels to be remote from your meter, tied into the grid at a different location through a different meter, and yet have the electricity generated net out against what is billed through your own meter.  The purpose of such a set up is to establish a community power production facility and allocate the energy produced to various subscribers and have them get the same benefits as if the energy production was co-located at their personal location.  This program is funded by on charge on everyone’s electric bill, so this is a way to allow everyone to benefit, even a house in the woods.

The immediate implementation would be community solar farms where a large number of solar panels are located at one place and individual home owners or businesses can subscribe to the service.  This would allow buildings that are not favorable for placement of solar panels to benefit from a conversion to solar energy.  A prime opportunity is set up one of these solar farms on closed town land fills.  You can’t build on these landfills but you can put solar panels on them (since the panels are designed to go on roofs, they can easily be sited on a capped land fill without having to penetrate the earth).  It is estimated that only about a quarter of all homes in the US are suitable for placement of solar panels.  So this kind of community set up could unlock a whole new round adoption of PV technology.

But the idea could apply to other forms of alternative power generation too.  If you were the operator of a hydro facility such as the one in Wadams or St. Regis Falls, you could use this community net metering to directly sell your power to nearby customers rather than just wholesaling your power to the grid.  Towns in Europe buy a large wind turbine and allocate its power to individual homes in a similar fashion.

The community net metering approach is fully operational in Vermont and Massachusetts and more restrictive versions of it are in use in a few other states.  The bill (S.4722-2013) before the NY State Senate to enable this is modeled after the one in Massachusetts.  There are many details to work out but there is hope that this can be approved before the end of the year.  Betty Little, our Senator, is the sponsor of the bill and needs to get email supporting S.4722:

New York State Strongly Committed to Clean Energy

NYSERDA, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, is funding all kinds of research and development in clean energy, especially solar.  They are funding utility-scale solar generation projects of multiple millions of kilowatt hours as part of the effort to increase the amount of energy produced from renewables in the State.  The old Benson mines site in Clifton-Fine could be a great site for such a utility-scale solar array.

The State clearly has more policy changes planned in the energy arena.  There is a strong commitment to moving to more distributed power production both to lessen the need for further investment in long-distance transmission but also to improve reliability.  It feels like the 1970’s when we started to dismantle the old, centralized telco systems in favor of distributed systems oriented toward high-speed data. We will see the energy industry move away from centralized, large-scale generation to a more diverse approach that features many distributed generation approaches.  Policy needs to be set so that the existing large players don’t impede progress toward a more flexible and reliable approach.  Distributed power production makes a great deal of sense.

The Zero Waste Stream Company.  Casella May be in Our Future

Some of the presentations drove home the idea that moving to clean energy has positive business benefits.  You save money, improve your image, and possibly participate in new market opportunities.  There was a great presentation by Casella, the waste management company headquartered in Rutland VT and operating for our region out of Plattsburgh.

Because of their large-scale investment in single stream recycling or what they call zero sort, recycling levels at their customers go up typically by 25%.  They really accept almost everything and make it as easy as possible.  But their commitment to sustainability is company-wide. For example, they are converting their truck fleet to compressed natural gas (CNG), which is a huge improvement over the diesel engines  in terms of cost, emission, sound levels.  They are also collecting the methane generated at the 7 land fills they operate and using it to generate electricity or heat a nearby building.  Next, they want to use it to power their CNG truck fleet.  Capturing this methane not only displaces other fossil fuel use but it also prevents this very powerful green house gas from entering the atmosphere.

New Micro-Hydro Technologies Coming

There were presentations about a couple of new micro-hydro technologies that can generate steady streams of electricity in smaller stream situations.  One was called Hydrocoil.  It is a turbine designed to fit inside a 6 inch or 12 inch pipe and generate 1.5 to 2 kW.  It has many applications.  You can put it directly in a stream or feed it with a pipe on land.  But you could also use it in the pipes draining water out of a water tower or in a large building.  Imagine all the potential energy that could be tapped with a simple, flexible, plug and play technology such as this.  This company is still trying to get financing so that they can scale up for production.  They are located in Potsdam and expect to actually manufacture in the north country.

Do you have an old, unused, spring house on your land?  Or a small brook?  There was another, much smaller scale, micro-hydro system presented that would be suited to these situations.  It was incredible simple.  The presentation on it is found here.  Look at the one called “Big Energy from Small Systems”.  We have seen something like this before, called the Stream Engine, from Canada, but this is from Morrisville State College, part of the SUNY system.

Biodigesters in Dairy Land

Although we didn’t spend a lot of time in sessions on the topic of biodigesters we did learn that the main application here is likely to be on dairy farms for processing cow manure.  These systems can generate power that is fed right back into the dairy operations, reducing the waste problem and lowering energy costs.  With the growth in dairy farms, there should be a good market for this technology.

Electric Vehicles have a Big Future

There were hints that electric vehicles (EVs) will be part of our green energy future in the North County.  Although general purpose use of them is still not viable, there are situations where they make sense even now.  North Country school converted a big dump truck to a smaller electric vehicle that the use on campus to transport trash and other materials on the campus.  The mainstream EVs like the Chevy Volt, the Nissan LEAF, and the Mitsubishi i-iEV have a range of at least 60 miles now and are suitable for many people’s daily commute.  If you have solar panels generating your electricity and you use it to charge your EV battery every night, then you can include the gas you didn’t use in your calculations on payback for the solar system.  Gas is a lot more expensive than electricity (you almost certainly spend more per year on gas than you do on electricity) and hence using your PV to charge your EV instead of just offsetting your electricity bill represents a much higher value application.  It can cut the payback period for your panels in half.

Over time batteries will improve further and the range of these EVs will increase somewhat.  If we have a large number of EVs someday (20 years from now) their batteries could become an important part of the way the distributed grid operates.  Turns out that a fully charged EV battery could power your house for a number of hours.  No need to spend on a backup generator any longer.  The grid could use all these batteries for load leveling, charging them up when it has extra capacity and drawing on them to meet peak needs.  All this would have to be managed by very sophisticated software that took into account individual preferences and constraints, but it could be done.  Next year’s Clean Energy Conference will feature an entire track on transportation and how we move off fossil fuels there.

Thank you to ANCA and conference director Dan Mason (yes he’s Dave’s brother) for helping us all move closer to a green economy.

What is happening with economic issues?

Like all things economic, there are two views to express:  there is good news and bad news.   (Note: this doesn’t cover tourism and recreation where a lot is going on and will be covered in a separate post.)

First the good news

The idea of an ADK Venture Fund has been the subject of volunteer effort and an excellent and a large experienced advisory group.  This group raised the money to hire two people.  Reviews during the summer will get to a go/no go decision.  If we can do this w/o State funds in the first round, and prove it will work, then a second round might involve State development monies.  To be clear, the goal of the current effort is to prove that money making private sector ventures can be built here.

The Adirondack Partnership is working with two grants aimed at finding and assisting specific projects.  This is the follow-on work to ADK Futures.  Project principals are encouraged to engage with this effort now by using this survey:  Fill in what you can and ask for the help you need.

The construction of broadband is continuing all over the Park.  There is a new project in Indian Lake called Adirondack Teleworks that is hoping to get the teleworker job model going there.

There is movement on the energy front.  There are several schools on biomass boilers now and other bio-thermal projects are being built in Old Forge, Blue Mtn Lake, and 4 in the Albany area.  The pellet plant in Malone is being up graded for energy efficiency.  In other energy news, a bill (S. 4722) has been introduced in the NYS Senate to allow community net metering, similar to the law in Massachusetts.  This will allow people with homes in the forest (most of us) to buy solar panels that are grouped nearby with panels owned by others.

Global Foundry’s chip fab in Malta (Saratoga) is up and running with 2000 people.  Another $2.3 billion is being spent on an expansion.  There is rumor of another company building a chip fab in the region but no specifics have been released.

Bombardier in Plattsburgh makes subway cars and they have won large multi-year contracts with New York City, Chicago and San Francisco resulting in an expansion.  Nova Bus in Plattsburgh won a contract for 300 buses for the Chicago Transit Authority.

The Town of North Elba and the Village of Saranac Lake won a $463,000 grant to develop a comprehensive plan to revitalize the two areas.  The idea of joint planning looks good to us.

Lake George has a big ($545,000) “gateway” project to improve walk-ability, safety and water quality.  Lake George is also working on a revitalization plan, but with a budget of only $38,000.  Lake George is also considering zoning changes to allow a rebuilding and upgrade of the core village up to 4-6 stories.

Now the bad news

The last gas station (a Wilson Farms shop) in Wilmington is closing soon.  There might be a buyer hiding somewhere, but they have not surfaced.  Drivers will have to go to LP or Jay for gas.

There are reports that the remaining food store in Long Lake now plans to close off-season.  That leaves a Stewarts open in winter, but no other market.

The branch bank in Newcomb is closing.  People will need to go to Long Lake where there is another bank branch.

Federal workers at the Ray Brook prison are being laid off due to the sequester.

Protect’s lawsuit has stopped work on the the resort project and related renovations in Tupper Lake.  It appears the suit is about the permit process, suggesting the actual project is legal from a zoning perspective under the law since that was not challenged.  Now that it is in the legal process, there are no clues about when or what the next steps might be and there is no public involvement.  Even if it moves ahead legally at some point, like any business, it isn’t a sure-fire bet that it will be successful.

North Country Sustainability Plan

On January 23 we attended the summary presentation of the North Country Regional Sustainability Plan at the Wild Center.  This is an effort out of NYSERDA, modeled after the Regional Economic Council process, to create an overarching plan for improving the economic and environmental health of the State.  Like the broader economic councils, this effort was organized at the level of 10 regions across the State.  The North Country effort was led by Essex County and included Hamilton, Clinton, Franklin, Lewis, St. Lawrence, and Jefferson counties.

The place to start is with that over-used word sustainability.  The key idea is that our communities, economy and Park lands are managed and used in such a way that finite resources are conserved and reused so that they will be available to future generations. This includes finding ways to be more efficient, i.e. using fewer resources, as well as using more renewable resources like the sun. Implicit in this definition is the need to limit green house gas (GHG) emissions which are the root cause of climate change and tied to non-sustainable use of fossil fuels.

But sustainable, especially when applied to our communities and economic systems, also carries the connotation of strong, resilient and self-reliant.  When it feels like many of our Adirondack towns are shrinking, sliding into oblivion and need regular infusions of aid from Government, the economy doesn’t feel very sustainable.  One professor from Paul Smiths, Brett McLeod, suggested we talk about creating durable communities.  We like that and suspect it will go over much better with many North Country residents than sustainable, which unfortunately is also associated in some people’s minds with liberalism, climate change and a plot by the UN to take over all private property.

The sustainability plan, whose development was led by the team of ANCA and the consulting firm Ecology and Environment (E&E), was based on two main pieces of input.  The first was a detailed inventory of current green house gas emissions in our region.  This will serve as a baseline for both prioritizing future efforts and for measuring success at reducing our use of fossil fuels.  The second input came from a fairly large-scale public outreach and stakeholder engagement effort.  We participated in a couple of working group sessions as well as a major input session that brought all seven working groups together in an information sharing day.

The GHG inventory has lots of interesting data and some good news for our efforts to become a greener economy.  Because of the large amount of hydro and wind based generation of electricity, primarily in the St. Lawrence river valley, 94% of the electricity that flows through the power grid is generated from renewable sources.  This doesn’t include the electricity that is generated by small-scale solar, wind or geothermal.  This is a great place to start on a sustainability plan.  Looking at our non-transportation energy use, 30% of the energy is produced by wood for heating, but this only contributes 1% of the GHG emissions.  Meanwhile, fuel oil represents 35% of our energy use but contributes 48% of our GHG emissions.  Similarly natural gas is 30% of energy use and 40% of emissions.  Thus, a major strategy is to substitute biomass heating systems for those based on fuel oil and to some extent natural gas.  At the residential level, there is a lot to be gained by converting the 39% of homes heating with fuel oil to high-efficiency wood burners, and this is a centerpiece of the ADK Futures strategy.

The real problem is in energy use for transportation, which accounts for 40% of our GHG emissions (residential energy use accounts for only 17% of the total) and 42% of per capita energy consumption.  Three quarters of this is for basic cars and trucks on the road.  Farming, forestry, snowmobiles, ATVs and recreational boating account for 21% of transportation-related emissions.  Strategies for reducing emissions due to transportation are much less clear as our large distances in the North Country require a lot of driving.  Long-term efforts to encourage clustering of both businesses and residences in towns can help to promote walking, biking and use of electric carts.  Unfortunately, the data says that in our region, the number of people living in a city or town center went down from 53% in 2000 to 46% in 2010.

The real key will be getting people to use alternatives to single occupant vehicle traffic by building up bus systems and creating support systems for ride sharing. Surprisingly, the study estimated that 18.5% of commuters in the North Country travel via car pool, public transit, biking or walking. Presumably most of this is in the larger towns and cities outside the Blue Line.

In our view, the GHG emissions due to transportation within the Blue Line can only come down significantly when we have affordable electric vehicles that have sufficient range to meet the needs of our dispersed region.  Since our electricity is almost entirely based on renewables, this can be an effective long-term strategy.  Use of biofuels may also be significant if technical breakthroughs increase the efficiency of their production.

The stakeholder input effort was organized into seven working groups with overlapping and inter-related issues:

  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Livable communities and land use
  • Economic development
  • Materials management (i.e., recycling as much waste as possible in an energy efficient  way)
  • Water management
  • Working landscapes (agriculture, forests, recreation)

The proposals in these groups are very similar to those developed through the ADK Futures process:  encourage more local food and local energy production, cluster development in town centers, use the land productively but in a sustainable manner for farming, forestry and recreation, protect the quality of our water, plan at the larger level of watersheds, use new technologies for water treatment that are energy efficient, and increase reuse and recycling of waste, especially for organic waste through composting and digesters.

The data again has some interesting points.  Energy usage by farms has not been a focus before and there is great potential to make them more efficient as only 1% of farms have ever done an energy audit.  Although our solid waste disposal per person is 22% less than the State average, we are 4x less effective at recovering materials from the waste stream.  DEC currently estimates that a quarter of the water bodies in the North Country are impaired in some way with pollution, invasives, acid rain, etc.  34% of North Country communities are considered “food deserts” by the USDA, i.e., you have to travel over an hour to get to a supermarket.

We certainly applaud this major effort and look forward to seeing it refined into more concrete proposals for new investment, education and incentives from the State.

Biomass: Some Hype, Some Hope

Usually when the topic of biomass comes up in our various discussions around the Park, everyone is gung ho and nod their heads positively.  Biomass is an important component of the ADK Futures strategy for both lowering our carbon footprint and keeping employment in the forestry sector.  It is also an important component of the North Country Regional Economic Development Strategy.  The Northern Forest Center also has made biomass heating a focus of new market development.  We are told that there is a lot of interest in biomass as a renewable, low net carbon contribution fuel source at the State and Federal level.

So, how big is this new market and how does that compare to our forest’s production?  There are a few researchers who have been looking at the numbers and one we have recently talked with is Dr. Charlie Canham, who is a Senior Scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY.  Charlie’s detailed work looks at like available supply and at the efficiency with which various kinds of wood supply can be converted to energy of various types. He looks are the entire Northern Forest; State level detail is the best available.  Charlie concludes that, regionally,  only very modest portions, in the 5% range, of most energy markets could be met through biomass fuels, but there are a few that could be more significant. One that is promising is using biomass for heating.  Specifically, base load heating for larger buildings like schools, government offices, prisons, etc.

Because pulpwood prices are so low, and our available wood supply is not sufficient to substitute a lot of fossil fuel, Charlie worries that a real boom in biomass might lead to unsustainable harvesting of forests and that would negate much of the carbon emission benefit of the fuel.  The image of trains loaded with pellets leaving the region come to mind, but it is never going to happen.  Pipeline natural gas will keep the use of biomass contained to areas like the Park with plenty of wood and no gas pipelines.  Also, there are other government estimates that are higher than Charlie’s. So we’re not currently worried about over using our working forest.

The proposed use of biomass in the ADK Futures strategy is actually pretty limited.  We propose to focus on converting from fuel oil to biomass heating systems in the Park using the modern gasifier furnaces that emit little in the way of smoke and pollutants.  We propose to meet the heating needs of the 130,000 people and large buildings within the Blue Line.  Most of the Park is never going to get gas lines, and this makes it a good market for locally sourced biomass as a heating fuel.  The idea that train loads of pellets with head from the region to replace coal in power plants is never going to happen, but biomass will be a great low cost local heating fuel for Park residents.

Using biomass for electrical power production in co-gen facilities is a good thing, but it isn’t likely to do well in plants just generating electricity and dumping the heat – it is too inefficient to compete with hydro power capability in our region.  The ReEnergy project at Ft. Drum is a large 60 Megwatt power plant.  It was built as a coal fired co-gen plant but the steam distribution part of the system failed and has been abandoned.  It will burn wood, including whole tree chips, wood waste from sawmills, crop fuels like willow, and other material like shredded tires. It will probably be a one-of-a-kind facility in the region, although the company has a dozen plants burning various fuels elsewhere.

The other point that Charlie and we agree on is that it is reasonable, over the next 25 years, to expect one or both of the two remaining pulp mills in the region will close.  Their closure won’t be for lack of wood, but for the decline in printing paper markets.  We will need new pulpwood markets just to keep the current logging industry in business.  Luckily biomass heating using pellets requires the same pulpwood now going to our two pulp mills (Ticonderoga and Glens Falls).   We need these markets to buy our low value trees, leaving higher value trees to grow into saw logs for later harvests. Think of these markets as providing funding for weeding our forests periodically.

The best feed stock for biomass heating is pellets produced from pulpwood, not debris from logging operations.  There is an argument that it is best to leave logging debris on the forest floor as the carbon is better sequestered that way and the material decays to provide nutrients for the next generation of trees. It is ugly, but most forest operations are ugly. Removing the entire above ground biomass of a forest may look better, but is not as healthy for the forest.  Finally, logging waste makes lousy dirty fuel and it is expensive to collect.

If the pulp mills close, we can imagine the possibility of re-purposing a pulp mill to synfuel production, similar to ethanol from corn, but that is a long way off.  So, it feels like expanding biomass heating in the Park now is a good way to get us on the path to continued productive use of our working forests in renewable, low carbon energy markets of the future.

There is going to be temptation for many land owners along the way to deviate from sustainable harvesting practices.  Some may be unwise enough to let saw logs get diverted into energy.  The industry, DEC and NYSERDA need to think now about the kinds of monitoring programs that will need to be in place to warn us that we are loosing the carbon emission advantage that we set out to achieve with these conversions.  We also have to win the war against invasive pests that could seriously destroy significant portions of our working forest.

For more info specifically about biomass in the Park, we recommend Jerry Jenkins book, Climate Change in the Adirondacks, The Path to Sustainability, pages 122-125.  Reading this section will answer a lot of questions.