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Where energy is concerned the political environment between Lansing and much of the rest of Tompkins County has become difficult and adversary. With economic stress like the devaluation of a power plant and mall within the Town's borders, there is increasing pressure to increase the tax base by attracting new businesses and developments. Lansing representatives say the stalling of a gas delivery pipeline, a moratorium on natural gas, and the higher cost of alternative energy is slowing or outright preventing projects from being developed here. Proponents of extending the moratorium indefinitely say that alternatives like heat pumps can and should affordably pick up the slack so no new natural gas capacity is needed. A new study supports this view. It demonstrates that for home heating heat pumps are equal in cost to natural gas installations.
"It is a reasonable question: by continuing a moratorium by preventing natural gas from coming to Lansing, are we penalizing developers and homeowners by forcing them to pay more in construction costs or more in energy costs?" says Taitem Engineering, PC founding partner Ian Shapiro. "Our study says no."
Shapiro, a respected expert, author, and lecturer on energy solutions, produced the report along with Umit Sirt and Vaibhavi Tambe, also of Taitem Engineering. The report has been made public and has already received wide attention with permission from the Park Foundation and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, the entities that commissioned the study. While Shapiro admits he is an advocate of heat pumps, he says the report is a scientific look at the efficiency and cost of heat pumps in a typical range of residential heating by looking at code compliant but not necessarily energy efficient new construction bracketed by townhouses on the low end of the scale and luxury custom built homes on the high end.
"In my report I am saying you won't pay any price premium for heat pumps today," says Shapiro. "It's about the same, especially in a town house. In a luxury house I still think that heat pumps are slightly more. I have a confident projection that within a few years air-source heat pumps in all residential will be measurably lower in cost. The cost reduction is so rapid and so measurable."
Shapiro says that even as recently as five years ago his answer would have been the opposite. But with improvements to the technology and growing adoption of air-source heat pumps the economy of scale is such that the cost is at least equal to a new natural gas installation in townhouses, and only slightly higher for a custom home on the high end.
"It puts heat pumps in the lead, not just technically, but financially," he says. "There's another very important development. In the case of HeatSmart, where you have an existing heating system and you are going to the trouble to remove that and put in a heat pump... were you to now have natural gas our report says you will see savings from natural gas, and those savings are small. In fact there might well be a long payback, so as a financial investment compared to oil or propane it's a no-brainer. It makes a lot of sense. But that is a comparison for existing buildings, and the focus of our study is on new buildings."
Shapiro notes that there have been significant technological improvements in a myriad of energy products, and that wide-spread adoption has meant astronomical price drops.
"We've seen an incredible revolution in the last five years with LED lighting, for example," he says. "It uses 85% less energy than incandescent. It uses about 30% less than fluorescent. It is revolutionary. A (LED) light bulb used to be $15 or $20, and now I can get it at Wegman's for $2.25 or something -- it's a little bit more than an incandescent bulb, it lasts ten times longer. It doesn't have any mercury as fluorescent did. It lights immediately, even outdoors on a porch. So suddenly there's this revolution in lighting that has a ripple effect. It means we no longer need as much solar PV (Photo Voltaic), for example, to serve a house or an office building."
In a proposal NYSEG sent to the PSC (Public Service Commission) in late January, and supported by the Tompkins County Energy and Economic Development Task Force (EEDTF), NYSEG would extend a moratorium on new natural gas customers indefinitely, while encouraging less gas use by existing customers and installing a compressor to service existing customers more reliably. Part of the idea is to free some of the existing gas capacity for new businesses that require natural gas, perhaps for some industrial use.
Shapiro points out that some natural gas customers are already reducing their gas consumption. He says the HeatSmart program is resulting in homeowners voluntarily removing heat gas loads that could be redirected to business uses where natural gas is specifically required.
"It is a voluntary program 100% paid for by the homeowners, in which people have been voluntarily been converting from natural gas to electric heat," he says. "The rate at which we have been doing HeatSmart is not enough. It would absolutely have to be scaled up. But this is a program that has not required any investment whatsoever. If we said let's get serious about this and let's incentivize it, even at a low level, there is not only a chance, but a strong likelihood that we could scale it up."
He says the benefit to Lansing would be expanding economic development and new industry, while helping meet county, state and national energy goals. Tompkins County's own 'energy road map' strives to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Shapiro says this is not just an idealistic dream, but something that is equally affordable to natural gas installations today, and will become more economical than natural gas heating within only a few years.
"Today it's about the same and I'm really expecting it to be less," he says. "When it is reliably less, and I'm predicting that to be within a few single years, I don't think anyone in their right mind will be putting in furnaces with boilers."
The politics of the 'heat pumps now vs. natural gas as a transition fuel' debate come down to this: the kind of fuel isn't the issue. The issue is providing the kind of fuel developers want and making it affordable. Neither side claims to want to stunt development in Lansing. Both sides would be in agreement on heating new residences with heat pumps if both sides were convinced that the absence of new gas capacity will not make developers think twice about building in Lansing today. As it stands many Lansing officials feel County and surrounding municipalities have 'ganged up' on Lansing, supporting a permanent moratorium on new gas capacity in the town but not elsewhere in the county.
If the PSC adopts the plan NYSEG submitted contractors will have little choice but to install heat pumps or other technologies that may include more expensive propane in what may turn out to be an unrealistic hope that natural gas will some day be available. The alternative Lansing/Freeville Reinforcement Gas Pipeline Project a natural gas distribution pipeline proposed to bring gas from a pipeline in Freeville along West Dryden Road to Lansing is still on the table if the January proposal is not accepted. Shapiro met with New York State PSC (Public Service Commission) officials Monday, and reports that the PSC is not opposed to the compressor solution, but that it is not enough.
"What the temporary head of the Public Service Commission said yesterday is he's open to it," Shapiro says. "It can not be the only solution. There has to be a larger solution that he can defend for his rate payers. That is the current political discussion."
Shapiro says that while heat pumps are not the answer to every problem, the technology and cost today make heat pumps equal to or better than gas furnaces for new construction. He adds that the newer technology means local jobs in a growing field.
"The name of our company stands for 'Technology As If The Earth Mattered'," he says "We are driven by an interest in the environment. I am equally driven by economic development. We built a company with almost 50 people for that reason. when we started a solar service five years ago I said I'm not going to start a solar service that hires people when we get a job and then lays them off until we get the next job. We're going to build a business that is stable. That is our model -- good and consistent jobs."
Several Lansing projects accounting for almost 900 new living units are currently underway or in the planning phase. If developers are convinced by this study and their own experience in pricing heating solutions, new residential development in Lansing should not be negatively impacted.
"This report is intended to be scientific," says Shapiro. "I'm not trying to sugar coat anything. In many areas we gave natural gas the benefit of the doubt. I did not burden the gas installation cost with an infrastructure. NYSEG will only provide 100 feet of gas. Beyond that they're going to start charging for the gas infrastructure. We did not penalize these developments with that cost which could drive those installation costs up. We tried to be as neutral as possible."
That takes care of residential projects, but what about industrial needs? Much has been made by Village of Lansing Mayor Donald Hartill and Lansing Supervisor Ed LaVigne of Macom's decision to locate a major expansion in Massachusetts, rather than expanding their facility in the Cornell Business and Technology Park in the Village of Lansing. Locating here would have brought 100 new jobs to the area. The industry part of the issue may be more problematic if the moratorium continues.
"There is a second part of the study that's under consideration that would be commercial and industrial," Shapiro says. "We're expecting things will fall out a little differently."
But the current study brackets new residential development, and that represents a large portion of current Lansing projects.
"Can we not do residential developments in Lansing because of the lack of natural gas?" Shapiro asks. "I think the reasonable conclusion from our study is that this should not be holding you back. In fact, there are some substantial potential benefits. From what we are seeing not only locally, but statewide and nationally is that people are adjusting to this rapidly changing technology instead of political circumstances. It's almost moving faster than firms like ours can keep up with. It's moving so fast, both technologically and politically."