Woodstock’s Carbon Neutral initiative is lauded


Mary Phillips-Burke (photo by Dion Ogust)

In 2007, on the advice of the Woodstock Environmental Commission (WEC), the Woodstock town board voted to adopt a Carbon Neutral Initiative, outlining ways to cut the town government’s carbon emissions to zero within 10 years. Now that we’ve reached 2017, with the goal achieved, the town and WEC will receive an Outstanding Environmental Achievement award from the New York State Association of Conservation Commissions (NYSACC) on November 17.

Mary Phillips-Burke, the chair of WEC during the adoption of the initiative and for several years after, recalled the eight months of research conducted by a special task force to prepare a proposal for the town board’s consideration. “Mary did almost all the work,” said current WEC chair David Gross, who also contributed to the initiative. “And there’s still plenty of room for us to improve despite all the work that’s been done.”

The WEC is a volunteer advisory board that has no decision-making authority but is empowered to research environmental issues and pass on information and recommendations to the town council. “These issues could affect not just municipal offices but all residents, as well as the planning board and other boards,” noted Phillips-Burke. “If there’s an application to the planning board that even hints at environmental impact, one of our members attends the meeting, makes a site visit, and sends a report to the planning board and town board.”


The carbon neutral project began with notes made on a legal pad as Phillips-Burke considered how she might save energy in her own home. She ended up with an impressive list that she thought could be applied to the town as well. When she showed the list to the late Jeremy Wilber, then town supervisor, he encouraged her to set up the task force, which she chaired as well, to look into the specifics of energy reduction for the town.

The biggest potential for energy savings was to power town buildings with renewable energy sources. “It’s not as simple as sounds,” said Phillips-Burke. “Municipal buildings are not easily retrofitted because of their age.” For instance, construction on the Comeau estate, where the town offices are located, began in 1909, according to town historian Richard Heppner. Single-pane glass was prevalent at the time.

Age was not a problem when the highway garage was rebuilt, about a decade ago. WEC proposed installing a geothermal heating and cooling system, linked to solar panels that the town had received a grant to install. Energy savings were significant. At the town hall on Tinker Street, constructed in 1938, geothermal was again introduced in the 2013 renovation, with further savings from the town’s first solar array, which had been mounted on the roof.

In 1922, the Catholic church was built on Rock City Road. When the congregation outgrew the building, the town bought it and turned it into the community center. Geothermal was not practical for the site, so the 2015 renovation included heat source pumps to make heating and cooling more efficient.

Former town council member Ken Panza took charge of tracking energy usage of town facilities. In 2015, with substantial savings coming from the three renovations and other measures, he announced that Woodstock had already reached carbon neutrality, two years ahead of schedule. He calculated that the 500 acres of town-owned forest were removing an estimated 1,833 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year from the atmosphere, while the town facilities at that point generated only 666 metric tons.

“We were feeling good about it,” said Phillips-Burke, “so when we received an announcement from NYSACC about their awards, we decided to apply.”

NYSACC is an independent, not-for-profit education organization established in 1971 by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to encourage development of environmental programs in municipalities throughout the state. At the group’s annual conference, to be held this year at The Chateau in Kingston, November 17 and 18, workshop topics will include urban sustainability, flooding issues, building resiliency, clean transportation, and clean energy success stories in the Hudson Valley. The Environmental Excellence Awards, presented on November 17 are designed to showcase municipal projects that have a positive environmental impact and can be replicated in other communities. Phillips-Burke will be accepting the award on behalf of the Town of Woodstock.

The WEC continues to study ways to improve the town’s carbon footprint. “The bulk of emissions at this point are from highway and police department vehicles,” said Gross. “The police  department has a mandated set of requirements for police vehicles, but in Delaware County, there’s a company that is producing 200-mile-range all-electric SUVs and trucks. Nothing would make me happier than having the town vehicles replaced by electric vehicles.” With Volvo planning to convert its cars to electric and hybrid by 2030, he believes vast amounts of research will be going into adaptation of diesel-powered buses and trains. “I know things will keep improving, but it’s only going to happen if it’s pushed by the public.”

Solar arrays are under consideration for installation at the former town landfill, the wastewater treatment plant, and the Comeau buildings. Other proposals involve community solar, in which the town would generate electricity and sell shares to town residents. Each potential project has quirks that require detailed research and keeping track of power industry policy changes.

At the old landfill, massive amounts of energy could be generated and sold back to Central Hudson, but a pipeline would be needed to transmit the power to the main feeder line, a substantial investment for the town. At the Comeau and other municipal buildings, net-metering would be required to make solar installation cost-effective, allowing excess energy to be sold, while power would be drawn from the grid on cloudy days or at night. However, net-metering is currently available only to homes, not to commercial facilities, which the town offices are considered to be. With sufficient pressure, that policy might change, especially since the town is not a profit-making business, which seems to be the definition of  “commercial,” pointed out Phillips-Burke. Though no longer serving as the chair, she is still on the WEC and would like to pursue the possibility of net-metering. There is still research to be done on whether the lower cost of electricity would offset the cost of the solar arrays. Gross is trying to wrap his mind around the concept of the “value stack,” an alternative to net-metering that might be workable.

Aside from energy savings, other environmental projects are the works. Instead of transporting sludge from the treatment plant upstate for disposal, the town wants to install reed beds that would process wastewater onsite. The DEC has delayed the project while they make sure the reeds under consideration are not invasive species.

Then there’s the ongoing issue of composting, which Woodstock Transition has been trying to tackle for several years. “It always comes down to money,” said Gross. “Restaurants are the main generator of food waste. They’d need a third pickup with a third set of garbage cans.” Phillips-Burke would like to see the town take over the pickup, with an employee in a vehicle to transport food waste.

Gross observed, “There’s lots of work in front of us.”