Jail’s banged-up boilers blocking Ulster County’s green dream

In June, just days after taking office, County Executive Pat Ryan issued his first executive order, one that set a goal of freeing county government from reliance on fossil fuels by 2030.

But at the Ulster County Law Enforcement Center — by far county government’s largest consumer of fossil fuel energy — that goal faces daunting challenges.

“We have to be very careful about how we proceed,” said County Environmental Coordinator Amanda LaValle. “We’re trying to get on the right path and get onto renewable energy, but this is not a typical use for a large building. It’s not like you can send everyone home for the day if the system breaks down.”


At 277,000 square feet and operating 24 hours a day, the combined jail and headquarters for the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office accounts for about 40 percent of county government’s total energy usage. In recent years, the county has used $500,000 in grant funding to introduce LED lighting to the facility.

But moving to a renewable heat source is proving to be a bigger challenge. Currently, the jail is heated by three boilers. Two of the units are needed to keep the facility warm on the coldest days, the third is in reserve. The boilers are designed to operate off of fuel oil or natural gas. But, county officials say, just 13 years after the boilers were installed in the infamous jail construction process plagued by delays and cost overruns, they are failing.

“It’s not that they’re not working,” said Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa. “But the system is getting old and it’s time to start updating, because they are not efficient.”

Others in county government are less sanguine about the boilers’ condition. Legislative Majority Leader Jonathan Heppner (D-Woodstock) said he fears the boilers are in imminent danger of failure and expressed concern that a sudden breakdown in the dead of winter could create a crisis similar to one that occurred last winter when a heating system at a federal detention center in Brooklyn failed, leaving hundreds of inmates and staff in freezing conditions.

“We can’t allow that to happen here,” said Heppner. “It’s a human rights issue.”

The forensics

LaValle, meanwhile, said it’s clear the boilers were deteriorating faster than anticipated despite efforts to address the issue through a more thorough understanding of their operation and maintenance best practices.

“We are still trying to get a sense of what happened,” said LaValle. “Was this a case of the equipment not being top quality for whatever reason, or something else?”

In May, the legislature approved $242,000 in funding to install a gas line from Route 32 to the Law Enforcement Center in order to switch over from fuel oil to cheaper, less polluting natural gas. Lawmakers rejected a proposal by Central Hudson to install the gas line for free in exchange for a 10-year commitment from the county to purchase natural gas from them. At the time lawmakers said that they wanted to avoid entering into a contract that would commit the county to continuing reliance of fossil fuel.

But, LaValle said, there does not appear to be an easy renewable energy solution on the horizon. LaValle said her office had looked into using a wood pellet heating system at the facility, but had concerns about the stability of the supply chain. Switching over to a geothermal system, meanwhile, came with a price tag of between $5 and $6 million. 

“It’s not that renewable energy solutions in this case are incrementally more expensive than fossil fuels,” said LaValle. “They are orders of magnitude more expensive.”

Study the issue

The switch from fuel oil to natural gas, meanwhile, is unlikely to solve the issue of the failing boilers. To address that, county lawmakers approved $31,000 for a “flex tech” study. That study will provide options and guidelines as county officials seek a longer term solution to the issue. But, LaValle said, the study remains a work in progress. County Public Works Commissioner Tom Jackson said that the boiler replacement was included in the county’s 2019 capital plan. But the project could not move forward until the flex tech study was complete.

“Right now, I wouldn’t say there is a timeline,” said Jackson. “We would like to get to that.”