Is Woodstock carbon neutral?

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Going green is more complicated than it first appears. Take the town of Woodstock’s efforts to minimize its carbon footprint in an effort to reduce the amount of climate change-inducing carbon dioxide the government spews into the air.

In 2007 the town board adopted a resolution to make the town’s operations carbon-neutral by 2017. Since then, conversion of town facilities to solar or geothermal systems, along with other efforts, have reduced reliance on fossil fuels. New initiatives by the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA), New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and the Wilderness Society attempt to quantify the carbon sequestered by forests, allowing towns to include these data in their carbon footprint calculations.

The result, says town councilman Ken Panza, is that Woodstock is already solidly in the realm of carbon neutrality. The 500 acres of town-owned forest remove an estimated 1,833 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year from the atmosphere, while the town facilities are generating only 666 metric tons.


But what are the implications of these measurements? Including forests in the carbon calculation is designed to drive federal and state policy that will encourage Americans to maintain wooded land, considered to be carbon sinks that can store vast amounts of CO2 in the trees and in the soil. Incentives such as tax credits, rebates, easements, and assessment reductions will hopefully prevent development that would raze the forests.

The measure is not intended to exempt towns like Woodstock from continuing to green their operations. However, once the community center renovation is completed, with its air source heat pump eliminating the need for heating fuel, “there’s not much more we can do,” Panza said, “except maybe eventually get hybrid cars for the police department.” As eight-cylinder police cars are retired, they are already being swapped for six-cylinder cars, saving gasoline.

Since 2011, Panza has tracked the town’s generation of carbon in considerable detail, using energy figures the town is required to report to the comptroller, then looking up those numbers on conversion charts on the EPA website. He’s got four years of figures to use for comparison.

Most greening gestures involve some kind of tradeoff. For example, the town hall now has a geothermal heating system, eliminating all carbon emissions from fossil fuels at the building. However, it takes electricity to run the geothermal pump, so carbon produced by electrical generation has gone up. While the net difference is a reduction in carbon dioxide output, the change has contributed to the town’s carbon emission from electricity going from 139 to 179 tons of CO2 per year. And with a recent change in the sources of local electricity, there’s no accurate way to predict the future carbon impact of Woodstock’s electrical output.

Sixty percent of electrical generation has been coming from non-carbon-producing sources: hydro-electric, nuclear, and wind power. Facing a projected shortfall in power needs by 2019, especially in the downstate and New York City area, the state’s Energy Regulatory Commission proposed building new power lines down the east side of the Hudson River. This politically unpopular idea was shot down by legislators, so the commission resorted to offering financial incentives for new power plants (see Page 8 article). Several plants that were scheduled to be shut down have been revived, most of them running on natural gas. Therefore, the carbon impact of the town’s electricity is going to increase by an unknown amount this year.


Trees vs. solar panels

The tradeoff is more puzzling when it comes to the solar array that the town is planning to build alongside the waste water treatment facility. The installation of a 600-kilowatt array will require clear-cutting seven acres of forest. Panza calculates that it will take seven years of output from the solar panels to make up for the reduction in carbon storage from the missing trees. “Of course,” said Panza, “the cut forest doesn’t go to waste, since the carbon is sequestered in homes built from the wood. But that’s offset by energy used in the power tools and trucks required for logging. There are two ways to look at it. We’re building a monument to solar power so we can be recognized as a solar community. But you could make the argument that it won’t contribute to our carbon neutrality.”

What about the carbon savings after the first seven years of operation? “A solar panel lasts 25 to 30 years,” said Panza. “A tree lasts 50 years.”