TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Plans to decarbonize the Tompkins County government’s building stock have a price tag and a target date: $28M to make it happen by 2026.

On Tuesday the Tompkins County Legislature received a presentation from Arel LeMaro, the County’s Director of Facilities, on the Green Facilities Capital Project. The plan only applies to buildings owned by the Tompkins County government. The project was set in motion in 2019 by former County Administrator Jason Molino who tasked LeMaro with forming  plans to “aggressively” decarbonize the county’s buildings and vehicle fleet. 

The full $28M estimate for the Green Facilities Capital Project is included in the county’s 5 year Capital Plan, which the county legislature will be voting to approve along with the county’s 2022 budget. Interim County Administrator Lisa Holmes said that since the Green Facilities Capital Project is already “baked in” to the county’s plans for large scale spending projects, it would likely only change if the county ran into financial trouble in the next five years.

While detailed plans to electrify the county’s vehicle fleet are forthcoming, LeMaro’s presentation detailed the results of a preliminary analysis on addressing carbon coming from the county’s buildings. The analysis comes from the county and Johnson Controls, a corporation which Tompkins County has had a working relationship with since 2003. 

The projects that the county would have to take on to fully decarbonize its buildings are  broken into three categories, the first of which LeMaro called mostly “low hanging-fruit,” such as LED lighting upgrades, power management upgrades for the county’s IT infrastructure, pipe and valve insulations and general building weatherization. 

These projects, which are a part of Phase 1, will be completed by 2023 and already have funding allocated to them. The county approved a resolution on Tuesday to issue up to $6,315,000 of serial bonds to pay for the majority of the $7,315,000 total estimated cost for the first phase of the Green Facilities Capital Project.

Phase 2 and 3 of the Green Facilities project would target more complicated projects and larger upfront investments, like growing the geothermal heat pump capacity at the Tompkins County Courthouse; installing air source heat pumps at the public library; and building out roof-mounted solar on many of the county’s buildings. These projects don’t have money committed to them yet, but LeMaro assured Legislators that with proper funding, “by 2026 we can complete all of these projects.”

With the completion of all three phases, Tompkins County would address an estimated 1,373.3 metric tons of carbon going into the atmosphere every year. That’s close to the greenhouse gas emissions generated by 1,100 passenger vehicles over the course of a year.

Excluded from the Green Facilities Capital Project are improvements to the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport, as well as the to-be Public Safety building, the future of which is still being decided as a part of the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County’s Reimagining Public Safety Plan.

In total, LeMora said that the annual savings the county could see from these investments are estimated at over $422,000. 

Legislator Dan Klein questioned the promise of these savings. He pointed out that the information LeMora presented didn’t include important long term cost components, like the lifespan of each investment, maintenance costs, and the length of time it would take to pay each project back through their savings. 

Klein further warranted his skepticism by citing shortcomings in the saving’s he’s seen from renewable energy investments made in his own home, specifically a solar array and solar water heating panels.

“But I made that decision with my money and based on my values,” said Klein. “I feel a little differently when we’re talking about public money.”

He added, “I support this goal of net-zero [carbon emissions]. It’s just important to me that we keep asking questions about the costs, the payback time, and the costs that we don’t know yet, such as maintenance and replacement and those kinds of things.”

Several other legislators said they wanted to see an item specific cost breakdown for the projects included in the county’s Green Facilities initiative, which LeMora said is planned to be out sometime in March.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn