ITHACA, N.Y. –– On Saturday, August 7, Historical Ithaca’s Significant Elements store will receive a visit from Get Your GreenBack Tompkins’ PowerHouse, a mobile miniature house that demonstrates sustainable heating and power practices in an effort to “reduce our community’s carbon emissions, and create a socially just local economy.” 

The idea for the PowerHouse was initially conceived in 2015, as a mobile display to reach people in rural regions who might not be willing or able to travel in order to see the energy saving measures for themselves.

“It’s so much more effective when you can go to where people are at rather than expecting somebody to come to you.” Karim Beers, Campaign Coordinator for Get Your GreenBack Tompkins, said.

Fast forward and the PowerHouse is now a reality. Construction on the PowerHouse began in January 2020, but ended up being placed on hold in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Construction resumed that May, with a reduced crew –– Lead Builder Mark Pierce and some assistants as volunteers –– despite the pandemic making building supplies scarcer and more expensive. By August, most of the work was finished, and the project was finalized in October. 

The PowerHouse is about the size of a typical camper at about eight feet wide, 24 feet long and 13 feet tall. There are posters and other displays about sustainability and energy savings on the walls, and the PowerHouse is powered by solar panels and lithium batteries, and heated by an air source heat pump, a sustainable heating technology that many local communities, such as Enfield and Lansing, are considering or actively promoting.

The project cost roughly $65,000, although local groups, such as Significant Elements, donated building materials and labor.

The PowerHouse, which weighs roughly 12,000 pounds, can be transported by truck.

Get Your GreenBack Tompkins has taken the PowerHouse all over Tompkins County and as far away as Cortland in order to spread awareness about sustainable heating. However, the display is not free –– people or organizations can request a visit from the PowerHouse, and the fee is $200 for the first hour, $100 for every additional hour and $3 per mile from Ithaca.

“We’re always happy to work with folks to try to figure out ways to fund this,” Emily Belle, Get Your GreenBack Tompkins’ Community Energy Outreach and Advising Program Leader, said, “but for it to be a sustainable tool, we have to generate some revenue.”

Susan Holland, Executive Director of Historic Ithaca, said the upcoming visit from the PowerHouse is worth it, as she hopes the experience will be educational for current and prospective homeowners and will promote what a sustainable home might look like, how it would work and how much it would cost, as well as what incentives for sustainability are available.

“Even if you’re not ready to do it, you can educate yourself by seeing the PowerHouse and sort of seeing what that’s going to look like for you ultimately,” Holland said. 

Holland added that the goal of the PowerHouse also plays into Historic Ithaca’s mission of renovating old homes, especially to make old buildings more energy efficient, in turn sparking a natural interest in educating people about making their own homes more sustainable.

“It seemed like a natural fit for us to work together,” Holland said.

Making homes more sustainable is especially important, as New York State’s residential sector accounts for 30 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing energy consumption also reduces how much residents pay for their energy, which can be a significant financial burden for some residents.

“We find people who are in situations of choosing between buying food and paying their utility bills, and that’s not a place anyone should be in,” Belle said.

Tompkins County has many old homes that are rather energy-inefficient due to poor insulation, with many leaking three times as much air and heat as current building codes allow. Nevertheless, Beers said any improvement in this regard would make a large difference.

By retrofitting old homes rather than demolishing them in order to build new and more sustainable ones, Historic Ithaca hopes to save money and energy.

“You don’t knock them down because they can’t achieve that carbon emissions (standard),” Holland said.

Belle hopes to use the PowerHouse to show people that making their homes more sustainable is easier than they think, and will have benefits for them and the planet. So far, she is confident that the PowerHouse is effectively conveying that message.

“People get drawn in because it’s a tiny house, that it’s very cute and colorful,” Belle said, “and then when they get inside, and we start to have a conversation, it’s very cool for folks to realize that they don’t need to change their lifestyle entirely in order to live more sustainably or save money.” 

The PowerHouse’s efforts to spread awareness will continue, as it is also scheduled to make a stop at the Museum of the Earth from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, August 15. For more information or to arrange a visit, go to https://www.tinypowerhouse.org/