Signs of Sustainability: Tompkins County Makes Solar History

By Emma Hewitt

On October 18, Tompkins County made history by becoming home to the first official Shared Solar project in New York State. Announced by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority with support from the Governor’s office, it was a landmark moment not only for the state, but also for the numerous local families who now have access to decades of solar power benefits.
Shared solar, which is more commonly known as community solar, enables a group of local residents to purchase solar panels located at an offsite “solar farm.” In participating in these solar farms, residents receive credit on their individual monthly electric bills for the power their panels produce. This power can reduce or even eliminate their electricity costs.

Photo Provided
A snowy aerial view of the community solar project in the Town of Ulysses.

New York state’s first community solar project was developed by locally owned and operated installer, Renovus Solar. The first of its kind, the Renovus Community Solar farm is located in the Town of Ulysses. Owned by a collective of 47 area households, it is comprised of 1,140 solar panels. Together, these panels are capable of generating 359.1 kilowatts of electricity, which is sufficient to power more than 60 homes and local businesses.
Switching to solar is a significant step in lowering our carbon footprint. Solar energy systems emit zero carbon emissions while generating power and reduce our dependence on finite fossil fuels. This project alone is estimated to decrease annual greenhouse gas emissions by 220 metric tons. Such a reduction in emissions is equivalent to the carbon sequestration naturally achieved by over 200 acres of forest, or nearly 6,000 trees. Were we to rely on more traditional energy sources, such emissions are equivalent to burning 235,000 pounds of coal or 24,750 gallons of gasoline.
Member-owners of this community solar project Allison and Jim Myers are quite pleased with their participation.
“We’ve been interested in renewable energy, though it needed to make both financial and environmental sense,” Allison said. “Unfortunately, we learned our roof is too small, it faces the wrong direction, and there’s no space in our yard for a ground mounted system. When we heard about Renvous’s community solar project we thought it could be a way for people like us, not high income folks, to go solar. We’re pleased to find it works for us! Thirty-eight of the panels at Renovus’s first solar farm are ours and we’ve stabilized our energy costs for the next 25 years.”
Renovus Solar partnered with a local non-profit organization, The Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival, to host the project on a piece of land they own. Community solar projects are a feasible way to realize economic and environmental benefit on subprime farmland, underutilized acreage, abandoned hay fields, or over-farmed fields. Leasing land for such projects is an efficient way for property owners and farmers to receive tangible economic benefits from their acreage while positively benefiting the land in the long-term.
With smart oversight, solar farm projects have low environmental impact. In an effort to be as environmentally prudent as possible, Renovus aims to enhance biodiversity on its farms by planting native grasses, which will be managed organically by grazing sheep instead of with harmful pesticide application. To further decrease environmental impact, Renovus installs these projects without concrete so the systems may be easily removed and the land restored to its original state in the future.
Participating in a solar project managed by a local company is not only environmentally sound. It also boosts the local economy through lease revenues to land owners, property taxes and fees to local governments, and savings on energy bills to local residents. Companies like Renovus are providing living-wage jobs locally, and keeping capital re-circulating in Tompkins County as they establish our sustainable energy future.
Luckily, solar power has become increasingly affordable in recent years. This is in part thanks to significantly reduced global prices for solar panels and other components. Moreover, New York state provides both lucrative rebates through NYSERDA as well as state and federal income tax incentives. Together, these rebates and incentives can reduce the cost of owning solar by two-thirds its original price. With energy prices steadily increasing, the cost of doing nothing is arguably getting more expensive.
Renovus’ solar project was the first of two community solar systems to be housed on the GrassRoots’ property. The second project, completed at the end of 2016, is even larger than the first. It is comprised of 1,512 solar panels, totaling 499.96 kilowatts of electricity generating capacity, and is collectively owned by an additional 50 local households. Following these two community solar projects, Renovus’ next endeavor is located in the western part of Schuyler County. This project is currently enrolling member-owners from throughout the region. You can learn more about community solar and Renovus’ other projects at renovussolar.com.
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This is the latest installment in the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. Emma Hewitt is the marketing and communications manager for Renovus Solar.