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© Allison Usavage

Solar Tompkins

Solar Tompkins is working to double the amount of solar power in Tompkins County for families and small businesses. Photos from an install with Taitem Engineering, and a Q&A with Melissa Kemp, Director for Solar Tompkins.

© Allison Usavage
What do you do?

Solar Tompkins is a non-profit focused 100% on increasing the rate of deployment of solar, primarily in the residential and the light commercial market. Which, if I was to translate, means that we’re a non-profit organization helping families go solar by reducing the few remaining barriers to doing so, and spreading the word about how solar works and how it has become so easily affordable and accessible.

Who is it good for?

Solar Tompkins is really intended for families of any size or small businesses. It used to be that your interests diverged: you either did what was a good exciting thing, or you did what made economic sense. Now the two are united. You can do a good exciting thing and get clean electricity without pollution or carbon emissions, but you can also pay the same or less than what you’re paying now.

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What kind of change is this trying to make?

We’re working really hard to accelerate the change to a 100% renewable energy future. We see evidence all around us that this is urgently needed and we’re nowhere on track to accomplish it. There’s been a lot of really positive things happening but in order to get to 100% renewable energy by 2050, we actually need to double the amount of solar for each of many years going forward.

What brought this initiative here?

Solar Tompkins is inspired by a large number of Solarize programs across the nation. Solarize is a word coined by the Department of Energy. It just refers to a set of techniques that have been shown to be effective at reaching people and reducing the barriers, making it easy to go solar. The Solar Tompkins program builds on that tradition. There was a pilot program here in Tompkins County in 2013 and Solar Tompkins in 2014 is taking this strategy to the whole county-wide level.

What impact does this have on our community?

It’s really making a concrete, tangible change in how we produce our electricity and eventually energy more generally. It’s also empowering people to not just think about these things but to act upon them and have hope and energy for making this change without feeling like we are too far behind to fix this problem. It’s a really concrete example of making this real for people on the ground and not just having it be in a planning document or on the evening news.

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How has the community supported the initiative?

We’re funded this year by a Park Foundation grant, and we’re very community-representative. We have a member from each town or city in the county on our board. We have a member from Tompkins County itself, from the planning department, and a member from Cornell Cooperative Extension. The way we structured the program, which is as inclusive as we could possibly imagine how to do it, came about from a lot of stakeholder input. So, meeting with a lot of local installers and larger installers, meeting with homeowners, meeting with non-profits as well as government officials, trying to figure out what would be a win-win for as many people as possible.

© Allison Usavage
What struggles have you encountered?

There really haven’t been a lot of struggles. The volume of interest and work has maybe been the biggest struggle… it’s a lot to keep up with. There’s a lot of pent-up energy for this type of activity and work, and the more we go forward we know there’s going to be more challenges on the way, but so far it’s been so positive that we’re excited to do more.

What should we be celebrating?

I think we should be celebrating that we live in a community where people are thoughtful and caring and educated and actually want to engage in all of these issues and find solutions. I feel lucky to live in a community where people care enough to get engaged and overcome partisan or personality differences or anything else that could potentially divide people.

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How can we participate?

If you’re enrolled in the program, please, we have a couple weeks until our deadline of families deciding to go solar. We’re over 85% to our goal of doubling solar in the county, so if you haven’t yet taken advantage and decided to do it, take another hard look, and let us know if you have questions.

If you did not have a chance to enroll in the program or hadn’t heard about it, you did not miss the boat. We’re going to be doing some programming to help folks go through this efficient, simple, really really affordable process and go solar.

© Allison Usavage
Any final thoughts?

To put this all in context, this is just a really exciting time in New York. There’s been so much energy towards concern about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, re-powering the power plant, all sorts of gas storage and infrastructure… all sorts of discussions and debates. New York has taken a strong positive stand on moving towards 100% renewable energy future with their funding of solar and the Green Bank and all sorts of exciting initiatives. If you’re interested in making this kind of change personally or for your business or getting involved and helping out, now is the time!

Or, if your family is already enrolled, contact Solar Tompkins to commit to going solar.

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