Student research helps county envision 2050 energy roadmap

Using 15 months of energy research conducted by Cornell students, the Tompkins County Planning Department unveiled ideas Oct. 21 to substantially reduce the county’s carbon footprint by 2050.

From those concepts, the Tompkins County Energy Strategy Steering Committee soon will develop recommendations for the county’s “energy roadmap.”

“Not reducing our greenhouse gas footprint is not an option,” said Katie Borgella, the county’s deputy planning commissioner, who explained that Tompkins County may be one of the few counties in the United States embarking on such an energy plan. “We have to achieve this,” she said.

The last time Tompkins County took full inventory of its greenhouse gas output was 2008. As of that year, the county’s commercial entities, educational institutions and residents produced about 1,173,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. County planners aim to reduce that figure to 234,000 metric tons in 2050.

Examining how to reduce the county’s greenhouse gas output, Cornell students Mark Romanelli ’14, M.Eng. ’15; Xiyue Zhang ’15; Camelia Hssaine ’14, M.Eng. ’15; and Aaron Benedict ’16, under the guidance of Max Zhang, associate professor of engineering and a fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, produced several reports that analyzed wind, hydropower, solar, biomass, geothermal heating and energy efficiency.

The group found that 315 percent of the 2008 county energy demand could be met by 2050 by collecting solar energy. The county’s demand for electricity was 779 Gigawatt hours seven years ago. With solar panels on residential and commercial roofs, plus solar panels farms, the county could generate 2,452 Gigawatt hours by the goal year.

Medium-scale wind turbines could generate about 127 percent of 2008 electricity demand, putting out 992 Gigawatt hours of electricity. By tapping into area streams, micro-hydroplants could play a key role as well, by generating about 93 percent of the 2008 electricity need.

Based on federal U.S. Census and U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates, Tompkins County planners project growth in electricity, heat and transportation use by about 33 percent between 2008 and 2050. In spite of that growth, the planning department believes that an 80 percent reduction in the greenhouse gas footprint can be achieved.

By implementing programs and solutions to reduce energy use now, Tompkins County planners believe greenhouse gas emissions in the county can be reduced by 20 percent, or 277,512 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent using the 2008 baseline, by the year 2020.

Conducting this research on behalf of the Tompkins County Planning Department, Xiyue Zhang explained what the students learned. “It was a very rewarding process. The problems we faced were very practical and can be broken down into many details,” she said. “Renewable energy generated locally actually has the potential to meet all the energy demand in the county. This was hard to imagine before actually doing the research.”

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Melissa Osgood