Ithaca, N.Y. — A Tompkins County goal to reduce carbon emissions countywide by 80 percent by 2050 may simply not be realistic amid a local housing and development boom, one official said at a City Hall meeting on Tuesday.

The Tompkins County Legislature has called for an annual two percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions to achieve the 80 percent drop. County officials still believe they can reach that target and are currently working toward doing so.

But Heather Filiberto, vice president and director of economic development services at Tompkins County Area Development, said Tuesday that she thinks the county may need to reassess if the 80 percent goal is realistic given a growth spurt in both housing and local business.

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“Can the county implement a plan like that? That requires not only significant energy saving measures, but that’s going to reduce what we actually use?,” Filiberto said in a committee meeting of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency.

“There needs to be a dose of reality: I don’t want to come across as anti-sustainability … but there’s just a mismatch between the energy reduction goals and the needs that are driving housing and development.”

Planner’s response

The goals of reductions in carbon emissions and continuing economic development should not be thought of as in opposition, said Ed Marx, commissioner of planning for the county.

“We do believe it’s possible to accommodate growth and meet the long-term emissions reduction goal,” Marx said in an interview with The Voice Wednesday morning.

“I wouldn’t say we have to choose between those goals but we need to be cognizant of the impacts of one on the other.”

Marx said, for instance, that the county could push affordable housing developments backed by renewable energy resources to meet both objectives.

Still, Marx recognized that “it’s an ambitious and challenging goal for everyone.” An 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions “is not one we set arbitrarily — it’s the one science is telling us is critical to reach.”

“We don’t have every answer in hand, but — given the consequences of not reaching it — it seems like we need to be making every effort to do so,” Marx said.

What’s being done?

Marx said the county is currently working on an “energy road map” to guide its efforts.

That plan — being put together with the help of a steering committee of experts and community members, as well as a consultant from Cornell — is likely to feature some combination of energy solutions spanning from wind power to solar power to “micro-hydro” (water) power.

For now, it’s hard to tell how close the county is to meeting its goal — an emissions inventory hasn’t been done since 2008. A completion of a new emission inventory in 2015 “will give us a better idea of where we stand,” Marx said.

Marx said there were many reasons to be encouraged by the progress of the last few years, including the falling price of renewable energy solutions and Cornell’s newly opened solar farm.

“The answers are emerging and we need to continue to pursue them,” Marx said.

Here are five steps already taken by the county to reduce carbon emissions, as detailed in its 2014 comprehensive plan:

1 — Creating “energy performance contracts” with Johnson Controls to improve energy efficiency of government facilities.

2 — Installing solar panels on nearly all Tompkins County facilities.

3 — “Adopting green fleet, green building, and other green government policies.”

4 — Creating a “Municipal Electric and Gas Alliance” and piloting a program to provide “long-term, price-certain electric energy to its members from renewable sources.”

5 — “Transitioning to bio-diesel for the County Highway fleet.”

Filiberto: Energy demand must be met

Filiberto, the TCAD official, said that she agreed that the 80 percent objective is “a wonderful goal and we should be striving to get there.”

But she worried that officials could be too driven by pursuing environmental objectives that can’t be solved by Ithaca alone — and that the local economy would suffer as a result.

“The mission of the planning department is to plan for the infrastructure needs to maintain a healthy community, and part of that is housing and walkable neighborhoods and infill development … and creating jobs for our populace,” she said.

Filiberto made a few points:

1 — Demand for local housing is huge

“We have demand for housing and we have demand existing in the community for adequate housing,” she said.

These housing units will take energy to build and more energy to sustain.

The county’s 2014 comprehensive plan makes the need for more housing in the area clear.

“Nearly everyone in Tompkins County is either in need of affordable housing themselves or knows someone in need,” it states.

2 — Solar power won’t cut it.

Filiberto said solar power technology simply isn’t productive enough to meet the area’s energy needs currently or in the short-term.

“If we cover the entire county with solar panels, it would not be enough to (power) Borg Warner alone,” Filiberto said. (Marx said he wasn’t sure if this was accurate.)

3 — Businesses will flee without energy

Filiberto said many local businesses, including those in the Cornell Business and Technology Park, have plans for major expansions that come with significant energy demands.

With some of these businesses attracting investors from Silicon Valley and Boston, they need to be able to grow within certain time frames.

Those businesses will simply set up satellite offices or move their operations altogether if the county doesn’t provide the necessary infrastructure to meet their energy needs, Filiberto said.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.