solarTompkins County Commissioner of Planning Ed Marx was in the Village of Lansing Monday to tell Village Trustees about solar panels on seven county buildings.  Trustees considered putting solar panels on the roof of the new $1,079,644 village hall currently under construction, but found the purchase cost prohibitive.  But Marx says that an arrangement the County holds with a private company to lease solar cells saves the County almost twice what it pays for the lease.

"I wanted to hear more about how the County acquired solar capacity on some already-built buildings on a lease basis," said Trustee and Deputy Mayor Lynn Leopold. "Even though our building is well under way toward completion, I, for one, don't want to rule out the possibility that we could do the same in some way."

In 2011 Tompkins County signed a 15 year lease agreement with Buffalo based Solar Liberty.  The company guaranteed that savings on electric bills would more than pay for the cost of leasing the panels.  Tompkins County pays about $10,000 per year for the lease, but saves almost $20,000 by using solar power, netting between nine and ten thousand dollars in savings annually.  Most of the buildings are estimated to get about 15% of their energy from the panels.

This project does not include the solar panels installed on the Tompkins County Library in 2002.  That project cost over $1 million with about half the expense covered by a grant.  To date the cost to the County has not been made up in savings.  But according to a site that monitors the installation the library system's solar panels have reduced emissions of carbon dioxide by over 913 tons which the site says are equivalent to planting nearly 188 acres of trees or not driving 1,907,517 miles.  In the past twelve months it generated 96 kW.

By the end of 2012 solar panels had been installed on the County's two human services buildings, and the Health Department, Emergency Response Center, Public Works and Board of Elections buildings.  Installation will be complete when panels are installed on the Public Safety building on Warren Road later this year.  Marx says the solar panels are American made with the rack-frame systems manufactured in Buffalo.

"The County entered into an agreement to lease solar panels on seven buildings.  They've been installed in all but one of those buildings," Marx said.  "The Public Safety Building is having some roof work done and panels will be installed there as soon as that work is completed.  We installed them on every county building that has a suitable roof."

"The nice thing about the lease was that our responsibility was extremely limited.  We had to make our roofs available, but the company did all the assessment of the roofs for suitability for solar panels, and adequate sunlight to produce enough energy to make it workable.  They gave us an estimate of expected monthly electrical generation.  The only thing we did have to do was make sure our buildings were structurally able to hold the panels.  We didn't have to make any improvements to the buildings.

At the end of the 15 year lease the County will have the option to purchase the panels or renew or end the lease.  Five of the buildings can produce 20 KW of power, which was the maximum allowed by the New York State Energy Research and Development (NYSERDA) in incentives at the time they were installed.  Two buildings can produce over 40 KW.  The equipment is net-metered to determine costs and benefits.  The company received federal tax credits and NYSERDA grants to offer the lease to the County.

"You're getting the savings," Marx observed.  "You're increasing solar energy use by being a user.  It's on your building so it's publicly visible.  Even though we don't own it we thought it was a good thing in terms of leadership and visibility of the County trying to use renewable energy where we can."

Three years ago the trustees considered putting solar panels on the roof of the current Village Hall, but found the cost prohibitive.  Mayor Donald Hartill says more incentives and programs are available today, so it may be worth looking at it again.

"I think it's worth looking into," Leopold said.  "I'd love to see us look at it.  We thought about it for this building but it wasn't going to be worth the money."

Leopold said it might be possible to get the price down by joining with other buyers as a group called Solarize Tompkins Southeast is doing in the towns of Caroline, Danby and Dryden.  A Solarize Lansing group has also begun meeting at the town community center to use that strategy to make solar more affordable to town homeowners.  The Lansing group's next meeting is on October 22 at 7pm.

Trustee John O'Neill said he would be concerned about being stuck with obsolete technology at the end of a 15 year contract.

"I 'd be concerned about the aesthetics of the new building," said Planning Board Chairman Mario Tomei.  "It's such a nice looking building.  To put panels up on the roof (would harm the look of the building)."

"My view is quite the opposite," Leopold replied.  "I see it as wasted space.  I look at a roof and say why in the heck aren't there panels up there?"