In the hunt for energy efficiency, Suffolk considers better blinds, even vertical wind

Suffolk's Solar Carport project, which put fields of solar panels in parking lots outside six county centers and several county-owned Long Island Rail Road parking lots.

By GREGORY ZELLER // With a national pat on the back and upstate officials taking notes, Suffolk County’s long-term energy strategy is generating real buzz – loudest on Long Island, where Suffolk is becoming a proving ground for innovative energy tech.

The honors first. Suffolk’s Energy Initiatives Working Group has received a 2015 Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties, one of two the county received for resiliency, infrastructure and sustainability. The other went to the county’s Reclaim Our Water initiative, targeting nitrogen pollution from cesspools and septic systems.

The interdepartmental energy work group, formed in 2012 as a joint function of the legislature and the county executive’s office, includes representatives from six county departments working together to develop renewable-energy strategies and improve efficiency in county buildings and vehicles.

The group gives Suffolk “one of the most robust energy programs in the country,” according to county energy director Lisa Broughton, but don’t take her word for it: The NACo award “confirms that this is unique,” she said. “They don’t give awards to programs that everyone is doing.”

Or check in with the energy managers in the City of Syracuse and upstate Erie County, who called Suffolk to pick brains, according to Broughton, eager to learn how the working group works. That’s led the energy director into speaking engagements at a number of energy-efficiency conferences, often with a county engineer in tow.

Targeting a specific energy-efficiency budget line, the working group regularly reviews – and sometimes implements – new techniques and technologies for reducing energy costs and cutting the county’s carbon footprint.

Quarterly presentations lay out the progress (or not) of newly implemented tech and protocols. Broughton, who became acting energy director in 2008 and took over the office officially in 2012, remembers a hodgepodge of statistics and technical jargon in the first quarterly reports, before she designed straightforward PowerPoints for maximum clarity.

“As the non-engineer in the group, I said, ‘OK, we’re making this accessible to humans,’” she noted.

The work group has also led Suffolk to the head of the class for solar-energy installations, including ones that actually “bring in revenue,” Broughton noted. Among them: the Solar Carport project, which put fields of solar panels in parking lots outside six county centers and several county-owned Long Island Rail Road parking lots. Installed by Eldor Contracting Corp. of Holtsville, the panels generate a combined 12.8 megawatts, or enough to power about 13 homes. Not huge, true, but a start.

broughton

Lisa Broughton

While the working group has generated interest at NACo and upstate, Long Island companies developing new renewable-energy technologies may be most interested of all. Broughton – who also manages Suffolk’s interest in the local inventor’s club, said “all of [the county’s] energy-efficiency projects involve local companies,” meaning there’s plenty of opportunity for Island firms to join the fun.

“We have a solar contractor from Long Island who does our rooftop work,” she said. “The utility-scale work tends to go to developers from out of town, but they all use local labor. There’s a ripple – dozens of local companies have been involved in some aspect of the work.”

The county has actually become a go-to resource for startups and other innovative firms looking to field test their next best thing.

“It’s been our policy to use county facilities as a test area for new technology,” said Broughton, who also serves as bio and hi-tech development specialist in the county’s economic development office. “We’ve been trying to encourage new technology by hosting pilot projects at our facilities.

“We’ve met with people who have new window coverings,” she added. “We’ve met with people who harvest wind vertically. We’re trying to see if there’s any way the county can use these new technologies.”

Among the companies bringing new energy-efficiency technologies into Suffolk’s mix is All-Service Electric of Smithtown. Vice President Joe Gathard cited dozens of retrofitting and lighting-replacement projects performed for the county, “where we’ve reduced the energy usage in their buildings, by going from fluorescent lighting to new LED lighting.”

All-Service recently completed a project installing electric-car charging stations on the three Suffolk County Community College campuses. It handled the wiring at county-owned compressed natural gas fueling stations in Commack and Westhampton and also installed solar LED lighting fixtures in county parking lots in Yaphank, Gathard said, with future installations planned for Riverhead.

Gathard, whose company also counts Computer Associates and Eastern Suffolk BOCES as clients, cited “more opportunity out there to innovate.” He gets especially excited when discussing the square footage available on rooftops in the Hauppauge Industrial Park, and how many jobs and solar panels it can support. Overall, he said, “innovation in Suffolk County and on Long Island has been somewhat strong.”

“Suffolk has certainly in the last few years been very innovative and very aggressive in trying to formulate energy-efficiency projects,” Gathard said.

And the county will continue to be proactive, according to its energy director, primarily by giving innovative energy companies a shot – and, by extension, stimulating the regional innovation economy.

“Sometimes they’re cost-prohibitive,” Broughton said. “Sometimes they’re not ready for prime time. But the general concept is, yes, if a local company has a new technology, we’ll listen.

“We have over 400 buildings and all types of facilities,” she added. “We very much want to work with local energy sector innovators.”