Local Focus: Environmental Progress in Westchester County

Articles | August 4, 2023

By Peter Aronson

Westchester County is moving forward on several fronts in its effort to reduce the carbon footprint of its residents, businesses and government. Sustainable Westchester, a non-profit serving Westchester cities, town and villages, has identified five areas where the county is taking strong action:

  1. Increasing the production and use of solar energy
  2. Decarbonizing homes and commercial buildings,
  3. Raising participation in the GridRewards and Westchester Power programs,
  4. Increasing the number of electric vehicles (EVs) and EV charging stations in the county, and
  5. Drastically increasing participation in recycling

Solar Energy

Since 2003, approximately 10,500 solar projects have been installed in Westchester, including solar panels on about 9,500-plus single family homes and another 1,000 or so on properties owned by small businesses or commercial entities. Another 1,000 solar projects are in the pipeline.

Westchester County now ranks third in the state, behind Nassau and Suffolk counties, in installed solar capacity based on kilowatts of power used. Even still, said Leo Wiegman, Sustainable Westchester’s director of solar programs, the county needs to do better in order to meet its share of New York State’s sustainable energy goals.

“We must be much more aggressive in pursuing this goal,” said Wiegman, explaining that state and federal tax incentives for residents, businesses, schools, local governments and nonprofits will be a significant boost in trying to reach that goal.

Westchester has approximately 275,000 single-family homes but, Wiegman explained, less than half are suitable for solar installations because of the type of construction and/or its position in relation to the sun. Still, that leaves tens of thousands of homes that have solar potential.

Solar energy can be generated for the community other ways, too, including by installing solar panels on top of parking garages, canopies built over parking lots, and installations on large commercial buildings, with a goal of sending the buildings’ excess solar power to other users.

Building Decarbonization and Energy-Use Reduction

In the spring, Westchester launched a new outreach program to entice residential and business property owners and municipalities to replace traditional heating and cooling systems, which rely on carbon-producing energy, with ground- or air-source heat pumps. Sustainable Westchester, Wiegman explained, is working with municipal governments, businesses and real estate brokers to spread the word. Through their EnergySmart HOMES program, they have supported more than 3,000 residents in their home-energy decision-making efforts with more than 500 energy efficient and heat pump projects having been completed in the county.

Meanwhile, Logical Buildings, a leading smart building software and solutions company, is working to reduce the carbon footprint from buildings in Westchester and beyond through its innovative GridRewards program. Through the use of smart technology, GridRewards allows residents and business owners to receive cash incentives by reducing their energy use in the warmer months and during periods of high demand, so as to reduce the stress on the power grid.

In the 2021, the energy saved by GridRewards was enough to power 25,000 homes instantaneously, according to a press release from Westchester County.

Through another program, Westchester Power, Sustainable Westchester is looking to further reduce the county’s carbon footprint by having residents and businesses opt-in to an energy-source aggregation program. The vast majority of the participants, Wiegman explained, choose a clean-energy option, which in 2022 generated CO2 mitigation equal to removing 49,000 gas-powered cars from the road. Twenty-nine cities, towns and villages in Westchester now participate, which adds up to 150,000 county households utilizing a cleaner energy option. 

Electric Vehicles

Through its Clean Energy Program, Sustainable Westchester is looking to grow significantly the number of EVs in the county from the current number of 11,164. Nassau County, by comparison, has the most EVs in the state, with 14,658, with Suffolk coming in second just ahead of Westchester, with 11,881.   

“It’s a beginning number,” Wiegman said of Westchester’s EV population. “This will increase exponentially.” He noted that higher income areas in the county have more EVs when compared with middle or lower income areas, while the opposite is true for solar installations.

An obvious way to increase EV use is to build more charging stations, because every potential EV buyer wonders where they can charge their car. The county has a goal to build hundreds more EV charging stations, particularly in areas that are accessible to individuals without the means to have their own EV charger in their home, like in parking garages and business districts. 

Whenever a new garage is constructed or any construction work is done on an existing garage in Westchester, 20 percent of the parking spaces have to be allotted for EV charging stations, as required by the county. The county government is also aiming to replace old vehicles in the government fleet with either EVs or an EV/plug-in hybrids.

“We are way ahead of any county in New York State,” Peter McCartt, director of Energy Conservation and Sustainability for the Office of the County Executive, told Westchester Magazine. “In fact, we were helping Nassau, Suffolk, and Albany counties with their procurement of electric vehicles. We have over 120 electric vehicles, and that’s not even including our buses, all of which are either electric or electric-hybrid.”

In January, Westchester County announced the completion of the delivery of 106 hybrid-electric 40-foot busses for their “Bee-Line,” the county’s public bus system. The delivery marks an important milestone for the system, with the fleet now 88 percent hybrid or electric. 

In April, the city of Yonkers, Westchester’s most populous city, announced it would be adding 54 more charging stations to the 36 it already had, with the city boasting that it would have more municipal charging stations than any city in the state other than New York City.   

White Plains, the fourth largest city in the county, currently has 28 public EV charging stations. (The locations can be found here.) 

Waste Reduction

Lastly, we turn to the all-important priority of increasing participation in recycling and composting programs. “Westchester County is home to some of the nation’s most robust municipal waste reduction and recycling programs,” according to a county press release.  “Through our Department of Environmental Facilities (DEF), the County is dedicated to removing all types of waste from the waste stream – ranging from traditional glass, plastic and paper to more innovative programs like electronics, textiles, paint, food scraps and boat wrapping.”  

Other waste-reduction initiatives include the Household-Material Recovery Facility for hazardous and hard-to-dispose wastes, mobile shredder services, and textile recycling. The DEF also has robust educational programming that serves to raise awareness of various waste-reduction opportunities and to show municipal leaders how to incorporate recycling into their community. One of the most popular programs is the educational tours offered at the Westchester Material Recovery Facility in Yonkers. 

From a municipally-collected yard waste program, to the Residential Food Scrap Transportation and Disposal Program, to the county’s first small-scale Composting Facility and Education center, the county also takes the disposal of organic waste seriously.

And Sustainable Westchester is spreading the word about a new app called Recycle Right, which gives residents alerts when it’s their day to put out recycling and composting for pickup. Eighteen municipalities in the county are currently participating in the program, which is designed to increase participation by raising awareness and eliminating inefficiencies.

While more work remains, Westchester County can take heart in their environmental trajectory. Whether we’re talking about harnessing solar energy or decarbonizing homes and commercial buildings, or through groundbreaking programs like Westchester Power and GridRewards, or through their myriad waste reduction programs, Westchester is making significant strides towards a greener, more sustainable future.

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