A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Emergency measures: Ulster County all in on climate action agenda

By Anne Pyburn Craig

On March 29, it was announced that Ulster County had joined the Climate Reality Project’s County Climate Coalition, the first county in New York to agree to implement results-oriented measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accord with the 2015 United Nations Paris Climate Agreement On June 9, Pat Ryan will be sworn in as the second elected Ulster County Executive after winning a special election in April. Of the 11,700 votes cast, Ryan won about 75 percent; front and center in his platform was the promise of a county-wide Green New Deal.

In making the environment a priority, Ryan is building on a solid foundation: recently departed executive Michael Hein did so throughout his decade in office, and the county was recognized in 2016 by National Geographic magazine for its combination of land preservation, infrastructure improvement and energy conservation. Recognition had already come from the EPA,, the  state Department of Environmental Conservation, the National Association of Counties, the Rail Trail Conservancy and the White House — a rather different White House.

“I’ve never thought of this as a partisan issue,” said Hein at the time. “I know there are some folks out there that don’t get it. But we have strong job growth while protecting our environment. It’s a false choice; you can absolutely focus on developing sustainable industries while understanding that strong quality of life is linked to keeping the environment pristine.Our goal is to design models and educate about alternatives. Environmental actions dovetail into so many steps and radiate in so many directions ”

The county’s Department of the Environment uses a pooled resources model, working across and with all other departments to tap key talent and coordinate efforts in natural resource planning, natural resource inventory data management and creation, stormwater regulation compliance, support of county energy efficiency and green building infrastructure initiatives, and involvement in watershed planning issues. A county Environmental Management Council meets once a month at SUNY Ulster; the public is welcome.

County government backs projects like the Kingston Greenline trails and complete streets project, and maintains an electric vehicle fleet and charging stations and a rain garden.  A 1.9 megawatt solar generation facility opened atop a former landfill last June, providing 20% of the electricity consumed by county operations, the remaining 80% is offset by renewable energy credits. A ban on single-use plastic bags is in effect, and a measure just passed decrees that plastic straws won’t be automatically handed out with every drink, although those who need one can still request it.

The assertive approach to sustainability hasn’t broken the bank. Economic indicators demonstrate that things are still ticking along; marginally better than the state and national average on some metrics, a little worse on others. Per capita spending by county government grew more slowly between 2000 and 2016 than it did in the region or the state.

In The Trenches

Manna Jo Greene is Environmental Director of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and an Ulster County legislator, chair of the Energy & Environment Committee; and cofounder of the Hudson Valley Sustainable Communities Network (now Sustainable Hudson Valley.) She’s helped organize action on just about every imaginable environmental front, from PCBs and packaging waste to renewable energy, smart growth and sustainable agriculture.

“It’s all about outreach and education,” Greene says. “Things like the county’s Green Business Challenge, where we’ve created a system to help businesses implement climate solutions;  trained volunteers go out and help businesses find ways to meet goals, to understand where they’ll get the best return on investment. We list six or seven actions they can take that are pre-approved, but they can also come to us with ideas of their own. “

Ryan’s Green New Deal plan builds on foundations already laid. Key elements include a Green Jobs program in partnership with educators and businesses, creating a county Climate Action Council, immediately transitioning the remaining county energy use to 100 percent renewable sources and getting to 100 percent clean energy county-wide by 2030.

It’s an ambitious goal, and Ryan must win a second election in November to hang onto his job. But not only are the demographics trending his way, the momentum behind the region’s transition is unmistakable. In the county’s northwestern corner, major institutions like Frost Valley YMCA and the Ashokan Center feature large solar arrays and composting programs. Marbletown residents will be purchasing 100 percent renewable power from Direct Energy rather than Central Hudson starting on July 1, at a price about half a cent lower per kilowatt hour. Rochester is installing municipal solar and considering the developer’s desire to add a battery bank for storage.

There’s no time to rest on any laurels, says Greene; if anything, we need to double down and keep making moves. “The governor’s budget establishes food waste composting for large waste generators in 2022; we wanted to move ahead whether it passes or not, so we’ve got a program in the works that could take effect next year. We’re also working on a very detailed climate action plan and doing very careful monitoring and tracking of each initiative.“

Greene points to developments like Didi Barrett’s successful drive to pass legislation establishing a carbon farming and soil health initiative in Columbia and Dutchess counties, Omega’s promotion of Paul Hawkens’ Project Drawdown, and the possibility of giving farmers tax exemptions for cover cropping as hopeful developments, “There are a lot of initiatives springing up all over and being shared; there are Transition movements, Repair Cafes, Citizens for Local Power. What we are doing at SHV, the Climate Solutions Lab, is trying to network existing groups and become that much more efficient and effective.”

A lot’s riding on our communication skills.. “We need to take these filaments of connection and make them into strong cables, work together across party lines and artificial barriers,” says Greene. “I want to convene a brain trust that would include but not rely on public agencies; we’ve relied on them for decades and not made enough progress. I talk to elected officials and they say, ‘you think it’s so easy, but how do we get there?’ Smart regional energy planning is how. There are brilliant people in this region that understand generation and grid and storage, all three of which are equally essential; if we can bring them together and create a real road map that will allow us to move forward with the urgency we need.

“I hope the Hudson Valley can create that road map as a pilot project that, once it’s implemented, can be a model for everywhere. We’re poised, we’re ready, we’re doing great things. But the challenge is greater still. We’ve got to ramp it up.”

Elsewhere in the Valley

The Hudson Valley Regional Council released a detailed Mid Hudson Regional Sustainability Plan in 2013 that set forth goals to be met by 2020, 2035 and 2050 in key areas such as waste management, land use, energy consumption, agriculture and transportation, part of the state’s Cleaner, Greener Communities program. It is, as Sustainable Hudson Valley points out, ongoing work requiring “an adaptive network of organizations.”

Dutchess County rolled out “Dutchess Goes Green” in late 2018, the plan establishes operating principles, internal and external tracks for implementation, goals and action areas. A Climate Smart Communities Task Force has been established with the goal of bringing the county to Bronze status within 12-18 months.

Orange County, the first county in the state to sign onto the Climate Smart Communities Plan in 2013, is heavily involved in solarization; their planning department has received a grant from the the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) that teaches staff how to assess properties for solar installations; training will be offered to all 43 municipalities this fall.

Marist College lists 22 campus sustainability initiatives in its website. Vassar received a Gold rating in 2018 from STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System) and has 3 LEED certified buildings. Mount Saint Mary became a Clean Air NY campus last fall and hosted a sustainable business panel. SUNY campuses have mobilized statewide to meet a goal to reduce system-wide non-renewable energy consumption by 30%.by the year 2020.

Want to get a handle on the very latest? The inaugural EastxNortheast Crossroads of the Future “Smart City, Smart Region” renewable energy conference will be taking place at the Ritz Theatre in Newburgh June 17-21; to find out more, visit eastxnortheast.com and click on “Green Tech.”

Photo: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks on the Green New Deal in front of the Capitol Building in February 2019.