The Atlantic Chapter Municipal Toolkit

By: Bob Ciesielski, Chapter Energy Committee Chair
Gale Pisha, Chapter Legislative Committee Co-Chair
Ellen Cardone Banks, Chapter Conservation Chair

The signing of the New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act by Governor Cuomo on July 18, 2019 positions our State at the forefront of developing renewable energy based on solar, wind, and hydro and energy efficiency measures to counter climate change. Local support is an essential factor in reaching our State’s goals set forth in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. In order to spread the word of how successful renewable energy and energy efficiency projects can be on a local level, our Chapter’s volunteer members and National Sierra Club staff have worked in collaboration to develop a document, New York Communities Moving Toward Clean, Renewable Energy, also known as the Municipal Toolkit, based on  interviews with town and city officials across New York.  

The municipal toolkit is on the Chapter’s homepage. Several webinars will also be conducted to explain how the toolkit can be utilized in community outreach and in meetings with municipal leaders to discuss renewable energy and energy efficiency. The Chapter home page or  rmciesie@yahoo.ocom can provide information on the Municipal Toolkit Webinars.

The toolkit contains three parts. The first is a list of available resources through the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Many of these programs with come with funding or economic incentives to communities.  Next, twelve case studies are presented, which can be downloaded together or one story at a time. The third part of the toolkit provides more extended interviews and case study details.

One example is the story of the Town of Eagle, south of Buffalo in the Allegany foothills in Wyoming County, the largest dairy producing county in New York. In the early 2000s, the town was looking for economic development ideas and received proposals for a wind farm and a large landfill. With about 90% of the residents in favor of the wind farm, the Noble Bliss Wind Park was finished in 2008. It provides PILOT payment which have reduced town taxes to zero, providing no-fee garbage collection, new snowplows, highway equipment and improvements, and payments to two school districts in the community. Dairy farmers lease their fields for turbines to provide supplemental income to enable them to stay operational, farming right up to the base of the turbines. There was some small but vocal opposition to the turbines, claiming there would be negative impacts on property values, noise, health and wildlife. Eagle’s experience living peacefully with turbines for the past ten years shows that none of the projected negatives occurred.

The Town of Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo with about 125,000 residents, earned Clean Energy Community (CEC) certification in 2017 through NYSERDA and has also joined the Climate Smart Community program of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Serra Club Niagara Group volunteers had been active in town committees on Conservation and Energy to advocate for energy conservation and renewable energy projects. 

Community volunteers, town staff and elected officials from the existing committees formed a new committee to coordinate the Clean Energy Community (CEC) process; this group also serves as the Climate Smart Community Task Force. NYSERDA offers 50+ hours of technical support, addressing the concern that there may not be sufficient municipal staff to plan new initiatives. A NYSERDA-supported regional planning institute staff member helped navigate the applications and continues to support the programs.

The CEC program has ten designated actions including, among others, solar code updating, sponsoring a solarize program with group discounts for homeowners and businesses, adding a plug-in electric vehicle and charging station to the municipal fleet, benchmarking energy use in municipal buildings to quantify future energy savings, adopting Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, upgrading energy equipment in municipal buildings, adopting community choice aggregation, converting 50% of municipal street lights to LEDs and achieving DEC certification as a Climate Safe Community. Most of the communities in our municipal toolkit have adopted one or more steps from this list.

Completing four steps increase municipalities’ eligibility for grants to support further steps. Amherst received $250,000 grant in 2017, using it to triple the solar panels on a community center to 190 KW, and to install two EV charging stations. Amherst’s next project  is replacing 9,400 streetlights with LEDs.

Other stories in the toolkit:

  • The Town of East Hampton, Long Island made a commitment to 100% renewable energy through efficiency, wind and solar power.
  • Ossining was one of the first communities to subscribe to a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) plan, which allows the town to switch all its residents to renewable energy supply unless they opt out.
  • In Niagara County, the Lockport Housing Authority installed a geothermal heating system for their public housing and saved approximately $50,000 per year in electricity cost.
  • The City of Schenectady is a Climate Smart Community and has installed solar, LED street lights, and utilizes electric vehicles and improved electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
  • The Avon Central School District in Livingston County installed solar panels on their schools, which provide more than enough electricity to power their district. The school district also has the ability to sell excess electricity for income or to power electric school buses in the future.
  • The Town of DeWitt, a suburb of Syracuse, developed a sustainability plan, installed solar on municipal buildings, and are building out an electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
  • The Town of Clarkstown developed the first solar array in the State on a capped landfill, plus changed its street lights to LED, and is now working on its own Community Choice Aggregation plan.
  • The Town of Grand Island will be net zero for electricity use when several approved community solar installations are completed.
  • The Town of Delaware also receive PILOT payments from a community solar farm, and the leasing of land for the panels helps town residents maintain their farms.
  • The Town of Redhook helped residents put solar on their homes through a Solarize program, besides solarizing their municipal buildings.

Again, the Municipal Toolkit with these success stories are downloadable on our Chapter website. Getting to know your municipality’s structure, officials and managers helps you and your organization to be heard and creates mutual respect and shared goals. Before contacting your municipal leaders, please first connect with your local Sierra Club group to find out what actions are already being taken in your area.