- By Dan Veaner
|Lansing officials say the moratorium on new natural gas customers in the Town is delaying key development projects, or causing developers are abandoning plans to build in Lansing. But what if enough gas capacity could be relinquished by existing users to service new industrial projects that absolutely require it, and alternative heating were feasible today for new residential and commercial projects?
"We found out that the only area where projected development could not be accommodated as far as we could tell from the utilities perspective was the gas in the Warren Road area," says Tompkins County Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability Ed Marx. "Then we asked out consultants to look at the options for accommodating development there. There were a couple of conclusions. One, residential development is occurring without gas. It can occur, and we tend to think it's not just there -- it's elsewhere. Major developments are occurring all over the community without gas. So gas is not the constraint for residential development."
With the current moratorium on new natural gas customers in Lansing and a proposal before the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) to extend it indefinitely, the only way to extend natural gas capacity to new developments would be to convince existing users to switch to alternative heating sources in particular. Marx says that if New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG) and the County offer attractive enough incentives to existing area natural gas customers, it could free enough of the existing natural gas capacity in Lansing to serve those new industrial projects that absolutely require it.
"The preliminary analysis suggests we can do this," he says. "We could free up enough gas for those uses that need it, and, quite frankly, there are very few. And at the same time we could accomodate residential development that may want to occur in the area with alternative systems, just like what's happening with the Village Solars project right now... and many others. So is the Maplewood development at Cornell, which is town homes and apartments heated 100% with air source heat pumps. 400 units there. City Center, a high rise with 192 units is going to be air source heat pumps. So the projects are happening. In fact we've heard from one architect who says all of their projects are going with air source heat pumps now, because it's more cost effective to do it that way."
Another study recently released by Taitem Engineering found that new developments can install air-source heat pumps as economically as natural gas installations with the added advantage that heat pumps can cool as well as heat. Even if enough natural gas capacity can be freed in a timetable that doesn't hold up new development, there are two obstacles. The first is a political rift between Lansing officials and other representatives around Tompkins County over a county task fource's endorsement of the NYSEG plan to cap gas capacity in Lansing (but not elsewhere in the County because the infrastructure is only deficient in Lansing).
The second has to do with education and incentives. Marx says elected officials, planning and code officers, and developers throughout the county need to learn more about alternatives that are proving to be competitively priced and just as good or better than natural gas. At this stage, that means heat pumps.
"We believe there is an opportunity to create, through a program that would allow existing customers to take advantage of some incentives to increase efficiency through converting over time of certain residential and commercial properties to non-gas alternatives where they are viable and make economic sense." he says. "It would free up enough gas for those kinds of customers that would really need the heating qualities of natural gas for some particular reason -- processing or something else. The conclusion was that seems like that is feasible, but it's really just a first look at feasibility. Using standard efficiency gains of 11% per building we would free up enough for all of the growth in that area on a moderate growth scenario, which is the most likely one. We would free up the need for industrial growth on the build-out scenario. So that seems feasible to do. It doesn't answer to all the steps you would have to do at this point."
A number of developers are considering propane as a natural gas replacement, with some saying the idea is that it would be easy to convert those installations to natural gas once it does become available. But propane is dirtier than natural gas, more costly, and needs to be transported in tanks by road, rather than by gas delivery pipelines underground. While small propane installations still make sense for cooking and/or gas fireplaces, the big-energy item is heating.
"First of all you've got to take residential and commercial and industrial separately," Marx says. "On the residential side there's really no good reason for anybody to build with propane. It costs you more and it's less convenient. Why would you do it?"
He says heat pumps are the better alternative.
"I'm confident based on what I see happening all over the place that that's not a constraint to residential development," he says. "If it's a constraint , maybe the developers or the individual homeowners need to be educated more to understand this better, because the ones that have been educated seem to be making this decision."
Marx says commercial building has the same issues, and that the same principals apply to office buildings. Where they don't apply is special industrial uses such as clean rooms or specific industrial processes. But Marx says that the demand for natural gas for those unique purposes is smaller than you might imagine.
"We did a study for the proposed county industrial park north of the airport, off Warren Road, and found fairly small demand," he says. "So that's probably not where the majority of the development is going to come from, but we do think if this process proceeds and NYSEG comes up with this incentive program and approach to freeing up natural gas, we can free up enough to meet the industrial needs.
He also points to a project underway in the airport area off of Warren Road. The Computing Center's new building will be heated and cooled with heat pumps, with a small propane installation to fuel an emergency generator that will keep the computers running in the event of an electricity outage. He says projects all over the county, including
"We projected out ten years in both cases on how much you could free up and what the demand would be. We found we could do more than that. One would expect if it started immediately and you started getting projects going it could free up enough that new projects coming along that needed it would have access to it. But that remains to be determined, and we need a program and a set of policies to make that happen. That won't happen until the Public Service Commission decides which way to go with this."
The County is seeking financing to renovate its airport terminal in the near future, and Marx says gas consumption can be reduced there by 50% to 60%. he says along with other county buildings in the area even more natural gas capacity could be freed, and notes that the County can reduce its ongoing energy costs by doing this by 40% by replacing gas heating with heat pumps.
"You look at it today and you can reduce that energy consumption dramatically and reduce costs at the same time," he says. "That, I expect, we'll be doing in the next two or three years, and that will be one chunk of the gas that's not in demand any more. I believe other large commercial and private owners -- we can work with the occupants of the technology park and start looking at opportunities that may exist for them. So it's going to be a multi-faceted effort. It's going to require a lot of partners. But I believe we have a decent chance for having a successful program. But we need the PSC to authorize NYSEG to go to the next step to accomplish that.
The NYSEG proposal has two parts. The first is to install a compressor in Lansing that will steady the flow and make gas delivery more reliable to existing Lansing customers. The second is to develop a program and offer incentives to existing customers to reduce or eliminate their gas usage, making it available for new industrial development that absolutely needs it. Marx says NYSEG has been concentrating on getting the PSC to favor the first part, and is unlikely to flesh out the second part until they know the proposal is acceptable to state officials.
"Assuming they went with the compressor solution and then an RFP to reduce gas demand elsewhere in the system, they would presumably offer some kind of incentives to folks and see what came forward," Marx says. "Not everybody needs to respond, but for some people it might make a lot of sense to respond. If you have a large apartment building that's infrastructure is starting to become aged, it might be a good opportunity to take advantage of. Every year about 5% of houses typically have their systems age out. Those are the people you'd be targeting, and identifying an incentive that's sufficient to stimulate the change that we would want to see."
Marx says the NYSEG proposal makes more sense than an earlier proposal to build a natural gas delivery pipeline from freeville to Lansing through the Town of Dryden because when companies build pipelines they expect to use that for 40 years.
"If we're still using that amount of gas here in 40 years, we will have failed in terms of fighting climate change. There's no question in my mind that we will have failed," he says. "We can not justify a 40 year investment in fossil fuels anywhere any more, in my opinion. If you can do short term things that serve a certain need that may be OK, but to make large 40 year investments in fossil fuel infrastructures is a misuse of resources that should be directed toward things that we can actually use in 40 years."
He adds there are opportunities to work with large existing commercial facilities that could potentially see some advantages.
"It's got to be cost effective, no question about it," he says. "It's got to be worth doing. There is a range of things, everything from helping people improve insulation and air sealing, which can certainly save gas use if they're using gas for heating - to people that need to completely replace systems, or can actually realize some savings, even by doing that after the cost of replacing them."
The County hopes to establish a 'Business Energy Navigator Program' later this year that would provide assistance to businesses whether they're expanding or building a new facility. it would provide some free energy consulting to help them understand what the options are in terms of systems, cost differentials, and what it might mean for their building plans specifically.
He says his department would work with Tompkins County Area Development (TCAD) to make connections with businesses early in the planning stages so the availability of specific energy sources doesn't delay new projects. Marx also says that despite the political rift over natural gas, his department will be reaching out to elected officials in both the Town and the Village to try to set up a time to brief them on findings in this and other studies. Next will come a closer relationship with planning departments in the local municipalities and reaching out to area developers. Marx says that whatever differences county, town, and village officials have over the natural gas issue, they can be resolved.
"I think at some point we've just got to say what can we do together that moves things forward," he says. "That's what we would like to do, to try to figure out ways to work together, to move things forward, solve problems as they emerge as best we can, because there are going to be issues, not just in Lansing, but other places with energy infrastructure. It's a changing environment we're dealing with."