Renewable Heat

Did you know that even with unusually low natural gas, oil and propane prices, you can still cut your bills by switching to a renewable heating source, and reduce your carbon emissions and contribute to a stronger local economy?

Sources: GYGB Modelling. *For average Tompkins County home with average levels of weatherization. **Compared to heating with propane. November 2015 (propane at $2.02/gallon; electricity $0.11/kWh). ***0 if using green power, like solar.

Sources: GYGB Modelling. *For average Tompkins County home with average levels of weatherization. **Compared to heating with propane. November 2015 (propane at $2.02/gallon; electricity $0.11/kWh). ***0 if using green power, like solar.


Ask questions, get advice, share your thoughts on the local online forum on renewable heating.

What are my options?

  1. Wood. While burning firewood in a stove has been done for centuries, modern wood stoves have significantly reduced the amount of air pollution and can often heat a whole home--if it's been weatherized.

  2. Wood pellets. Pellets are made from sawdust and low-quality trees, and, like wood, can be used to heat a whole house. There are many regionally-produced pellets. NYSERDA is currently offering a $1,500-2,500 rebate on pellet stoves for residences that are not served by natural gas. CCE-Tompkins is offering an additional $500 for homes that do energy efficiency improvements and purchase a pellet stove through their Warm Up Tompkins program. Check out Warm & Cozy for limited time discounts offered by local vendors.

  3. Heat pumps. These include air-source and ground-source heat pumps, also known as geothermal. Heat pumps, like air conditioners or refrigerators, use electricity to move heat from a cool space to a warm space, making the cool space cooler and the warm space warmer.

Air source heat pumps take heat from the outside air (even when it is cold outside).

Ground-source heat pumps, also known as geothermal, remove heat from underground, and are more efficient than air source heat pumps.

Heat pumps can be carbon neutral if paired with solar panels, or if you purchase green energy through your energy supplier. Read more about heat pumps here.

Make sure you weatherize your home before deciding on a new heating system. This will help you reduce your heat load, and help you determine the appropriate equipment to keep your home warm all winter long.

Rebates & Incentives

In addition to the incentives described above, there is a Federal Tax Credit for up to $300, which can be used for any of the heating systems described above.

Local banks may be able to finance equipment. Sometimes your monthly payment can be less than your monthly energy savings. Here are some local financing options.

How do I get Renewable Heat?

Local contractors can answer your questions and provide quotes for installation. Here is a draft guide [pdf] to help you work well with them:

Local Wood and Pellet Stove Installers

Air- and Ground-Source Heat pumP Installers

And don’t forget the energy efficiency contractors who can help you weatherize your home and figure out the appropriate appliance to heat your home.

Which option is best for me?

Here are some considerations to help you decide.

*Does not include various rebates and incentives available (e.g. $1,500-2,500 for pellet stoves, 30% federal tax credit for Ground-Source heat pumps) **For home with average levels of weatherization. If you insulate and seal your home well, your costs can be significantly lower.

*Does not include various rebates and incentives available (e.g. $1,500-2,500 for pellet stoves, 30% federal tax credit for Ground-Source heat pumps) **For home with average levels of weatherization. If you insulate and seal your home well, your costs can be significantly lower.

Net-zero home: Tonya and Adam Engst installed solar in conjunction with their ground-source heat pump. (Photo: Sarah Paez)

Net-zero home: Tonya and Adam Engst installed solar in conjunction with their ground-source heat pump. (Photo: Sarah Paez)

After Tonya and Adam Engst’s propane heating system failed, they began a process that helped them power and warm their home--as well as power their car--using energy from the sun and the earth (geothermal). Now their home is virtually "Net-Zero"--generating all the energy it uses.

The Engst's weatherized their home, installed solar panels and installed ground-source heat pumps, aka a geothermal heating system, all in a summer.

The process to install their geothermal heating system began with weeks of prep work.

“When you put in a geothermal system,” Tonya said, “to get the very lovely state rebate we had to have a home energy analysis done. Snug Planet [a local contractor] came and found some flaws in the insulation situation.” Then workers from Halco, a local company, came every day to work on insulation and installing the heat pump system, from April to August, slogging through the early-spring slush. The process was harder, the Engsts said, because their house was not brand new. “They had to squish it into a house that wasn’t designed for it,” Tonya said.

Now, the house has radiant heat, which is a type of heating system where metal tubing heats water underneath the floor panels of a house, making it cozy and a delight for bare feet.

State rebates helped to offset the substantial cost of the project. “We’re going to get this huge rebate from the state—$26,000 we’re getting back in rebates,” said Adam. They are also getting 30% federal tax credit for the geothermal and the solar projects. Thanks to the New York state rebates, their geothermal system has a 12-15 year payoff, meaning it will take 12-15 years for them to save as much money with the system as it cost them to install it.

Utilizing solar energy to power their home had been in the Engsts' minds for years. In 2003, Tonya’s sister put a few solar panels on the roof of her house in downtown Ithaca, acting as an early example for the family. Additionally, they saw their neighbors successfully putting up solar panels and stayed in a solar powered resort while on vacation.  

The Engsts had solar panels installed in mid-May, and between the months of May and August had generated over 9,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy and saved 6.3 tons of carbon dioxide. They estimate their solar panels will have about a 15-17 year payoff, taking into consideration the substantial state and federal rebates.

When the Engsts’ 1996 Subaru needed to be replaced, they bought a Nissan Leaf, which can be charged with energy from their solar panels. “It turns out to be more fun to drive a car for free,” said Adam.

Today, the Engsts are proud of the renewable energy work they’ve had done and are on track to generate all the power they need to power and heat their home and charge their car.

Though they are both happy with their renewable energy choice, the Engsts had slightly different motivations, according to Tonya. “I think Adam is more practical about energy and the environment, and sort of conservative about energy. I tend to take it a little more personally,” she said. “You grow up and find out all the things are wrong with the world. For me, [what we've done] feels just a little bit like reclaiming that lost innocence.”

(interview by Sarah Paez)


Questions & Resources

Wood & Pellet Stoves

  • BurnWise, an EPA.gov site, has a good FAQ section on wood and pellet stoves.
  • Hearth.com has very active national forums on stoves, and a set of articles, including this one on pellet stove maintenance.
  • Alliance for Green Heat is another good source on heating with wood and pellets.

Heat Pumps

  • The Heat Smart Tompkins site has lots of resources on heat pumps.
  • Geothermalgenius.org has good resources on geothermal heating.
  • Are heat pumps cost-effective in Tompkins County? This 2017 study [pdf] from Taitem Engineering indicates that heat pump technology can be cheaper than propane or even natural gas!

Financing