HeatSmart volunteers gather at Stewart Park to pick up yard signs and celebrate the start of the program's second season. Photo by Kathleen Gifford. (For high resolution version of image click here)
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Media contact: Jonathan Comstock, program director
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Now in its second year, HeatSmart program to serve as model for communities across state
ITHACA – A group of Tompkins County residents is launching a series of community meetings to help homeowners sort through their options for curbing their homes’ energy appetites through sealing, insulation, and high-efficiency heat pumps.
The HeatSmart program begins its second season on February 21 with an information session at the Brooktondale Community Center in Caroline. It is the first of 19 open community meetings around the county offered by the nonprofit group Solar Tompkins. For a complete schedule, visit SolarTompkins.org.
“So many of us are looking for positive things we can do for the planet, and it turns out our own homes are a huge opportunity,” said Jonathan Comstock, a longtime local energy activist who recently became the HeatSmart program director. “It doesn’t take a state or federal program, and it can make us much more comfortable.”
Heat pumps use electricity to move heat from one place to another, and can be used both for heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. The information meetings give residents a chance to learn about the technology and to meet representatives of three vetted installers – Halco, NP Environmental, and Snug Planet – with no obligation.
“Our role is really education,” Comstock said. “People are curious about heat pumps, and also about other measures they can take to save energy. But it can be confusing without a little help.”
Many of last year’s participants ended up making home sealing and insulation improvements without installing heat pumps, he said.
Tompkins County legislator Carol Chock said she was “thrilled” that community members are taking the lead on finding practical ways to address climate change. “We need to work at the individual, community, and political level,” she said. “This program is a great example of that.”
HeatSmart has deep community roots. Five years ago, program director Jonathan Comstock was a member of a citizens’ advisory board in Caroline that decided to focus on simplifying the process for residents interested in installing solar panels on their properties. Danby and Dryden soon joined the effort. The following year, the “Switch to Solar” program went countywide and Solar Tompkins was born.
“Over those first two years, we more than doubled the amount of residential solar in Tompkins County,” Comstock said. The program was so successful that it became a template for other communities across the state.
The experience inspired Solar Tompkins to turn its attention to home heating and cooling, which account for roughly 75 percent of all residential energy use in this area.
“If you put solar panels on your roof but don’t do anything about the furnace in your basement, most of your carbon footprint is still there,” Comstock said. “But if you run a heat pump with renewable electricity, and you use that to heat and cool your home, you can take a giant bite out of your fossil fuel energy use.”
The idea is beginning to catch on in other places. Solar Tompkins board chair Brian Eden recently participated in the formation of a statewide group called Renewable Heat Now. Officials at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) are looking to HeatSmart for lessons to share with other communities.
“The energy for making change must come from the citizens,” said Marie McRae, a farmer in Dryden and an active Solar Tompkins volunteer. “We are the change. We are the revolution.”