A Small New York Town Plans a Profitable, 100% Renewable Energy Future

With advances in technology, the pathways to 100 percent
renewable energy are becoming clear. As a result, the central
challenge has become less about how to get there, and more about
how to pay for it.

The Town of Marbletown, in New York’s Hudson River Valley, is
finding that problem is solving itself.

Marbletown is a town of 5,500 people covering 55 square miles on
the edges of the Catskills and Shawangunk Mountains, containing the
hamlets of Stone Ridge and High Falls. Despite its small
population, Marbletown has two advantages that most other
municipalities around the country lack: a community choice
aggregation policy and a lack of natural gas.

These two features are enabling this New York town, where this
author resides, to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity, while
also saving money.

Potential savings in annual energy costs for Marbletown
residents and businesses from conversion to 100% renewable
electricity.

Renewable electricity at reduced cost

Enabled by New York’s Reforming the Energy Future intiative,
Marbletown recently joined the Renewable Highlands Community Choice
Aggregation (CCA) program. The CCA will take the place of the
town’s electric utility, Central Hudson, as the default electricity
provider in New York’s deregulated market. The CCA will procure
generation for the town. Central Hudson will continue to provide
electricity delivery, service and billing. Customers also have the
opportunity to opt out of the program at any time, but should have
little incentive to do so. 

By leveraging the power of group purchasing electricity, the CCA
administrator and the town expect that it will be able to provide
100 percent renewable electricity at a reduced price compared to
electricity supplied by Central Hudson. If it turns out that the
CCA cannot obtain electricity on advantageous terms, the town can
leave the CCA at no cost and no further obligation.

When the Marblehead CCA begins operating in early 2019, the vast
majority of electricity used by the town’s residents will come from
renewable energy resources, while lowering their costs. 

Saving money with building electrification

Another thing going for Marblehead — though it may not appear
to be the case at first — is its lack of access to natural gas.
This lack of natural gas infrastructure enables Marbletown to
cost-effectively leapfrog to all-electric buildings, in the same
way many countries in Africa were able to leapfrog costly telephone
infrastructure when wireless phones became available.

Cold climate heat pumps and heat pump water heaters are the cell
phones to natural gas’s landlines. The 2018 report The
Economics of Electrifying Buildings
from the Rocky Mountain
Institute (RMI) compared the life-cycle costs of cold
climate air
source heat pumps
(ASHPs) with conventional heating with and
without air conditioners in five cities: Oakland, Houston,
Providence and Chicago in a number of scenarios. 

Economic modeling of cold climate air source heat pumps by Rocky
Mountain Institute.

They found that ASHPs were usually more cost effective than
natural gas in new construction, and always more cost-effective
than fuel oil or propane heat in the one city where those two fuels
are used: Providence, RI.

I spoke to Mike Henchen, a manager with RMI’s electricity
practice and one of the authors of the report, to find out how
these economics would translate to Marbletown’s climate. He says
that the two most important factors in translating the ASHP results
from Providence to Marbletown are the somewhat colder climate and
the differences in the prices of electricity and fuel oil. 

RMI’s modeling found that, because of the colder climate in
Chicago, the ASHPs studied are 15 percent less efficient at
producing heat from electricity in Chicago than in Providence over
the course of a typical winter. 

According to the National weather service, Providence’s typical
winter daily temperature ranges from 24F to 40F. For Chicago, that
range runs from 15F to 32F, while the typical range in Marbletown
is 21F to 36F. Hence, Marbletown’s climate is nearly midway between
that of Providence and Chicago for the purpose of winter heating.
Hence, we can expect that ASHPs will be around 7 percent less
efficient for producing heat in Marbletown than in Providence.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA),
average retail
electricity prices
are 16.3 cents per kilowatt-hour in Rhode
Island. In Marbletown, electricity currently costs about 13 cents
per kilowatt-hour (not includeing expected savings from the CCA).
The EIA number for New York state as a whole is 14.5 cents. 

A spot check of heating
oil prices in Rhode Island
and the
Lower Hudson Valley region of New York
also finds that
Marbletown heating oil prices are approximately 20 percent higher
than those in Providence. 

With electricity 20 percent cheaper in Marbletown than
Providence, and fuel oil approximately 20 percent more expensive,
these price differences will completely overwhelm the slight
reduction in ASHP efficiency caused by Marbletown’s colder
climate. 

The cost savings from heating with an ASHP as compared to with
fuel oil should be about 30 percent greater per unit of heat than
in Providence, due to a combination of lower electricity prices and
higher fuel oil costs. Where fuel oil-to-electric conversions are
cost-effective in Providence, in Marbletown they are
compelling.

Electric vehicles

Unlike with heating, Marbletown has few advantages in the
transition to electric transportation. As a rural town, most
residents are completely car-dependent for they every day needs.
One advantage we do have is being located in the center of Ulster
County. The county government has been a leader in the installation
of EV charging stations at county facilities, and it makes these
charging stations available for public use as well. 

The town also used a state grant to install an EV charging
station at the town Community Center. Marblehead
is working with the neighboring Town of Rosendale
to install an EV charging station at our shared municipal offices,
and are helping two local non-profits to install EV chargers on
their premises.

New York State has a generous grant program for EV charging
stations, but the program requires the use of networked commercial
stations. In at least two instances, this has made the grants more
trouble than they are worth, when the stations turned out to be
incompatible with the limited local cell phone network.

Town leaders believe the state grant program could be much
improved if it also provided much smaller grants for the
installation of non-networked charging stations more suitable to
rural areas. The current program is overly focused high speed
charging along key transportation corridors to the neglect of level
2 charging at destinations like workplaces and recreation areas,
like hiking trails.

Seasonal mismatch

Another difficulty of transitioning to 100 percent renewable
energy by converting heating loads to electricity is seasonal
mismatch. Heating loads peak in the winter. At Marbletown’s 42° N
latitude, the town gets only nine hours of daylight in midwinter,
but 15 hours in midsummer. This, combined with a much lower sun
angle, leads to solar installations producing only one half to one
third as much energy in January as in July.

Lower solar production in winter, combined with higher winter
electricity demand for heating, will eventually move New York’s
peak electricity demand to winter from summer. Solving this problem
of seasonal mismatch will be easiest if we start planning today by
minimizing winter peak demand and looking for renewable electricity
sources that have significant production during the coldest winter
months.

Many possible solutions to seasonal mismatch will have to be
addressed outside of Marbletown’s borders. The state is pursuing
the
deployment of 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind
, and has
significant hydropower resources. More hydropower is imported from
Quebec.

Long distance north-south high voltage DC transmission projects,
such as the proposed
Atlantic Wind Connection
, would not only enable the connection
of large amounts of offshore wind power, but would also allow for
the import of renewable electricity to New York in the critical
winter heating season. In addition, the lines could export excess
solar generation to areas with more significant cooling loads in
the summer.

Local resources

Marblehead has no wind resources of interest to wind power
developers. Other than solar, its local renewable energy resources
are hyrdopower, and biomass.

The town has numerous small streams and an existing run-of river
hydro plant, which its is looking at developing and upgrading with
a local developer, Current
Hydro
. One small stream we are looking at dries up during most
summers, but it has such a substantial drop that it forms a
beautiful waterfall in the winter. The local property owners cannot
see it from their houses, and they worry about trespassers falling
and hurting themselves on the ice. Making this
attractive nuisance
safe by using the water for hydropower
would be a great way to both solve a potential liability problem
for the landowners, while also producing renewable electricity when
it is needed for heating.

Many town residents currently save money by heating with wood
stoves, rather than fuel oil. Encouraging the adoption of more
efficient wood pellet stoves and advanced wood boilers can also
reduce winter electricity use while lowering pollution from less
efficient, older models. The state has generous
incentives
 for the installation of advanced wood heating
systems.

RMI’s Henchen suggests that the town can also “minimize the
winter peak through weatherization.” Focusing on the best
heating technologies can also greatly reduce the peak load. The
best cold climate ASHPs will use one third as much electricity over
the course of the winter as electric resistance heating, and a
little less than half as much on the coldest days, when they are
least efficient and heating needs peak. By focusing on replacing
resistance heating with more efficient technologies, winter heating
loads can be reduced, leaving room for more fuel oil-to-electric
and propane-to-electric conversions.

Incidentally, Central Hudson just launched $750 instant rebates on
two models
 of hybrid heat pump water heaters costing $1,299
without the rebate. Their rebates
on smart thermostats
can also help shift heating and cooling
loads away from peak hours.  Their existing rebates on ASHPs are
here.

Next Steps

Many policy
recommendations
for transitioning to 100 percent renewable
energy involve utility and incentive programs that are beyond the
purview of a rural town of a few thousand people. But we are not
entirely without policy levers, either. The town issues building
permits, and has control over building and zoning codes, although
changes in building codes require and exemption from the
state. 

The greatest limitations on what the town can do are the labor
and expertise of its small number of employees, none of whom have
time on their hands to sit around twiddling their thumbs. 

This limited capacity is augmented by volunteers on the town’s
committees and commissions, the most relevant one in this case
being the Environmental Conservation Commission (ECC), which I have
led since 2014. The flip side of Marbletown’s small size is that a
few volunteers like those on the ECC can have an outsized impact.
My team and I have moved Marbleown from the middle of the
environmental pack to one that has drawing positive attention
statewide.

Potential paths to 100 percent renewable energy considered by
the Marbletown Environmental Conservation Commission

Here are some of the steps the town has already taken to move
the town towards 100 percent renewable energy.

  • Completed an inventory of energy use in the town [PDF
    presentation
    ].
  • Removal of approximately a third of the town’s streetlights,
    and the replacement of the remaining lights with LEDs.
  • A ban of hydraulic fracking.
  • Installation of EV charging stations (noted above)
  • Obtaining a $50,000 grant for the energy retrofit of the town’s
    Community Center.
  • Joined the Renewable Highlands CCA
  • An LED lighting retrofit at the Town Highway Department
  • Participated in a Solarize campaign that resulted in sixteen
    residential solar installations in the Town and thirty additional
    installations in the other two participating towns and beyond.

Current and planned future projects include:

  • Connecting several local non-taxable organizations with a solar
    developer willing to lease their rooftops for community solar
    developments.
  • Working with a small hydropower developer to investigate
    upgrading the local utility-owned hydropower plant to increase its
    production, as well as to assess the viability of small hydropower
    installations where local streams cross town property and
    right-of-ways.
  • A (mostly symbolic) ban on natural gas connections and
    pipelines in the town.
  • Modifying the cost of building permits to favor building
    efficiency and electrification, and to favor heat pumps over air
    conditioners that lack heating capability.
  • The adoption of
    New York’s stretch energy code
    when it is finalized.
  • Working with local solar installers build community solar on
    municipal property and local nonprofits, such as churches and
    emergency responders. 
  • Encouraging local solar installers to include a 240 volt outlet
    for EV charging as part of solar installations.

Burdens create opportunities

Weaknesses can also be strengths. The high cost of heating with
fuel oil and propane has long been a burden on Marbletown
residents. Now, it is a strong incentive to switch to a more
modern, much more economical, and much cleaner source of heat with
cold climate ASHPs. Advances in electric vehicles are enabling
similar savings in transportation.

These compelling economics are enhanced by strong support for
clean energy by New York State and Ulster County.

All together, these developments are setting the town of
Marblehead on a path to a prosperous, clean energy future. 

Source: FS – GreenTech Media
A Small New York Town Plans a Profitable, 100% Renewable Energy Future