Sustainable Tompkins gave the Dryden community a presentation, promoting energy efficiency and alternative heating systems, on Thursday, Feb. 19 in the town hall. According to its press release, Sustainable Tompkins is “a group of concerned members of the community. Our ultimate objective is a full cost accounting approach to making decisions on our choice of energy resources to help identify those most aligned with the overall public interest.”

Sustainable Tompkins has researched energy and economic modeling to compare the costs of space heating and domestic hot water for residential and commercial buildings, fueled by either methane, ground-source heat pumps, or air-source heat pumps coupled with improvements to building envelopes and renewable sources of energy.

Brice Smith, Graduate Program Coordinator in Sustainable Energy Systems, SUNY Cortland, Melissa Kemp, Program Director of Solar Tompkins, and Gay Nicholson, President of Sustainable Tompkins, conducted the presentation. The trio showcased the value of alternative energy options to fossil fuels by looking at the upcoming apartment complex project in Varna, “Village Solars,” putting the project’s expected energy uses and costs up against the expected energy uses and costs of the project using a “smarter building envelope.”

Smith said the core of building a smarter building envelope could be found in two new technologies: Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHP) and Ground Source Heat Pumps (GSHP). ASHP uses the same refrigeration technology as ground source heat pumps and creates “efficiencies of up to 200 percent by extracting heat from air,” according to Smith. He added that ASHP remains operational to air temperatures as low as -13 degrees Fahrenheit. GSHP uses familiar refrigeration technology, and creates “super efficient ways to use electricity for 100 percent of building heating and cooling for all buildings,” according to Smith. He added that efficiencies of up to 300 percent could be found by extracting heat from the ground.

In calculating results for Village Solars’ current building envelope compared to what the project would look like with the “smart building envelope,” Sustainable Tompkins claimed the project could yield a 46 percent reduction in heating energy for a block of 12 apartments, and in between 74 percent (via ASHP) and 83 percent (via GSHP) more efficient than “business as usual” natural gas.

“How do all the economics of this work?” Smith asked. “What we wanted to look at was the upfront cost of building the smarter building, and using the heat pump and other technologies – what does that look like as an investment? How much do you get when you look at the returns of the energy savings?”

“What we found was for those 12 block unit apartments,” he continued, “it’s about $50,000 to $60,000 additional costs upfront to build the smarter building. If you break that down per apartment, it’s about $4,000 to $5,000 more per apartment.”

Smith said the 2.5 to 3 percent cost increase on the entire project to due this time of work was “relatively low.”

So what would it take for such an option to look attractive to the developer?

“It would require a relatively modest increase in the rent that you would charge,” Smith said. “Over a 30-year span, you’re going to save quite a bit in energy costs – anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000 in energy costs. That’s part of the return. The remainder is these rent premiums,” which he noted would be about $50 more per month in rent per tenant.

Nicholson stressed it is a worthwhile investment for not only the community, but also the homeowner themselves.

“If we forego making additional investments in fossil fuel infrastructure,” she said, “and instead put our effort in retrofitting our existing buildings to be more efficient as well as encouraging all new construction to combine the smart building design with renewable sources of energy, I think overall, the results will end up in us having a more resilient environmental economy. Housing will definitely be more affordable with better building design and heat pumps. And that means the residents living in those homes will have more financial stability.”

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