Pictured Above: Student Ashley Ambrocio (at left) with a group of young citizens concerned about climate change who participated in a #Fridaysforfuture student strike outside Southampton Town Hall in May of 2019.

Decarbonizing the energy used in buildings will prove key to getting Southampton Town’s carbon footprint to zero in the years ahead, according to researchers working on the town’s Climate Action Plan.

Southampton’s carbon reduction goals are pretty ambitious — transitioning the town to 100 percent renewable energy in the next two years, and to total carbon neutrality by 2040 — and the town is in the process now of developing a Climate Action Plan to meet these goals.

In November of 2021, the town hired Ramboll Group, an international company founded in Denmark with local offices in Lindenhurst, to produce the plan, at a cost of $150,000.

Ramboll Group representatives presented a draft of the plan for public comment at a March 15 session via Zoom, where bicycling and composting were among top individual solutions proposed by residents who are galvanized to make a difference in their town’s emissions.

Ramboll Group consultants began their work by choosing a base year against which to measure their emission reduction goals, settling on 2019 because it was a year for which the town already had readily available data that wasn’t skewed by the 2020 onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Southampton produced 770,200 metric tons of carbon emissions in 2019, about 13.3 metric tons per person, which, while it might seem like a large number, is “very similar to Long Island communities throughout the region, said Melody Redbone of Ramboll, who is working on the greenhouse gas reduction portion of the plan.

That year, 70 percent of emissions, townwide, came from energy use in buildings, with 49 percent coming from residential uses and 21 percent coming from commercial uses. Twenty-six percent of emissions came from transportation and four percent came from waste, said Ms. Redbone. 

Currently, electricity is by far the largest source of these emissions from buildings, though that is likely to change as the electric grid is fed by more renewable sources of electricity. Seventy-four percent of residential and 79 percent of commercial emissions came from electricity.

By comparison, 17 percent of residential energy use and 8 percent of commercial energy use came from fuel oil, and 9 percent of residential energy use and 13 percent of commercial use came from natural gas.

The good news in these numbers, said Ms. Redbone, is that even though Southampton’s population is expected to grow modestly at .3 percent annually, “the decarbonization of the electric grid has more impact than growth over time.”

While some of the methods of greening the electric grid — through offshore wind and through a Community Choice Aggregation electric program — are well underway, reducing the carbon footprint of non-electric sources of greenhouse gases will require a more diversified strategy. 

Ms. Redbone said her models show that, if the current trend toward decarbonization of the grid continues, the town can assume a 50 percent reduction in electric emissions by 2030 and 75 percent by 2040, which is “less than the utility has publicly committed to.”

But what electric utilities do is not enough. Individual action can get the town nearer to closing the 254,300 metric ton gap that would still exist in the town’s emissions after the grid is decarbonized.

Ms. Redbone suggested the town build on state, federal and utility company incentives for electric retrofits of existing buildings and ensure that new construction uses sustainable energy, including rooftop solar panels and heat pumps. She also suggested the town encourage businesses to install electric vehicle charging stations and make it easier and safer for bicyclists to use town roads, and continue to work on the longtime dream of a “scoot” train that would travel back and forth among the South Fork towns on existing Long Island Rail Road tracks. That proposal would require more sidings that the LIRR has not installed.

Carbon sequestration — the process of removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil — can prove to be as simple as planting trees, and continuing good stewardship of the town’s vast acreages of preserved lands. Ms. Redbone also suggested the town encourage residents and local businesses to use native plants in their landscaping.

Both home composting and a municipal composting program are also highlighted in the plan.

Residents who gave feedback had a lot to say about how individuals can have an impact on the town’s climate goals.

Finny Dianora Brondal of Sag Harbor said he’s tried biking on the big roads in Southampton, but “there are no barriers and people are speeding all the time. Are you doing anything to fix that?”

Mary Ann Eddy of Southampton said that “one of the scariest things I’ve ever done out here is try to ride a bike on Scuttle Hole Road. I would never do that again.”

Andy Morris, a longtime bicycle advocate from Hampton Bays, said he’s heard from State Assemblyman Fred Thiele that Community Preservation Fund (CPF) land can be used to buy properties for bike paths.

Town Planner Michelangelo Lieberman said the town has received a grant for a bike trail to connect two town parks in Hampton Bays, and has signed on to the effort for the Trust for Public Land’s Long Island Greenway to connect all of Long Island to the Empire State Trail recreation path.

“Hopefully it will be off-road, using paths along utility lines. That’s the spine,” he said.

Town Councilman John Bouvier said that, while CPF land can be used for bike paths, it depends on private land owners being willing to sell their land at a price the town deems is fair through an appraisal.

A woman whose screen name was simply the initials C.S. decried the entire process, saying that the town is “asking me to invest in a $50,000 electric vehicle and you’re not even including private jets, yachts and helicopters” in the analysis.

“I’m not sure you’re serious about doing something real. You’re talking about reducing a number that’s not a real number,” she said. “Before you start talking about changing middle class peoples’ lives, wipe out the private jets.”

She said she thought the conversation was “reminiscent of Davos.” 

“Who runs your foundation?” she asked the Ramboll representatives. “Is it someone who has private jets? This is insane. You want community involvement if people rub your back and say how great you are. There are middle class people here who can’t afford a Tesla and there are billionaires who can take a bus and a train.”

The Rambøll Foundation, a Danish foundation started by two humanistic engineers just after Copenhagen was liberated from the Nazis in 1945, is the primary shareholder of Ramboll Group.

“We’re not encouraging people to buy a Tesla,” said Mr. Lieberman. “We’re looking at programs that can support a community. We’re not disaggregating the middle class from other classes. We work for you. I’m a public servant.”

“Why are you looking at my house?” said Ms. C.S.

“We’re looking at everyone’s house,” said Mr. Lieberman, adding that the town’s building code does have more strict energy requirements for houses of greater than 4,500 square feet.

Ms. Redbone said some jet traffic is beyond the scope of the town, because the consultants do have to draw a geographic boundary in order to quantify their work. Jets that traverse Southampton airspace may be taking off and landing in different jurisdictions, she said.

“Those emissions would show up in a different town’s inventory,” she said.

East Hampton Town has recently quantified such emissions as part of its Draft Environmental Impact Statement on restrictions at its own municipal airport.

Southampton’s sustainability planning has not been without detractors in the past. The town considerably weakened suggestions in its 2013 Southampton 400+ sustainability plan after large groups of residents showed up at public hearings accusing the town of taking part in a global United Nations conspiracy to get local governments to regulate the way people live their lives.

Long Island University professor Scott Carlin, who formerly co-chaired the town’s Sustainable Southampton Advisory Committee and now actually does work for the United Nations on its Sustainable Development Goals, said the town should be aware of concerns about the safety and environmental responsibility of battery technology, and “do another rethinking of its transportation infrastructure,” with the idea of shifting the focus from private cars to mass transit.

A woman named Dianne, who lives on North Main Street just off the busy County Road 39 corridor, said she can now see a brown haze rising from the highway during the afternoon commute.

“That’s pretty sad. That’s from traffic,” she said. “The traffic will increase as the years go on if we increase building.”

Town Planning and Development Administrator Janice Scherer said shared mobility and alternative modes of transportation are “one of the biggest gauges of a sustainable community. Our long-range planning absolutely has to include all of that.”

She added that she has been working with Mr. Thiele’s office on applying for funding for rail sidings through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Margaret Friedlander of Hampton Bays asked whether the town was planning to appoint a Battery Energy Storage Task Force in response to two proposed Battery Energy Storage Systems in Hampton Bays, as recommended by the New York State Energy Research Development Agency (NYSERDA).

Ms. Scherer said the town adopted a Battery Energy Storage System code two years ago in consultation with NYSERDA, industry representatives and the town’s building department. That code was discussed at several public work session meetings before it was adopted.

“We feel confident that code is compliant with what NYSERDA is saying,” said Ms. Scherer. “Our goals are to create local energy generation and storage, so we have resiliency, especially east of the canal.”

Town Trustee Ann Welker urged support for composting programs and said the town was already doing a good job composting leaves and branches, but she hopes they will do more with food waste, similar to pilot projects in Southold and Riverhead towns.

“The Greater Calverton Civic Association pilot is really fantastic,” said Ms. Scherer. “If we can do that here in Southampton, that’s great.”

Carla Casper said she believes people in Southampton want to know they can personally take immediate action.

“Educating the town people about what needs to happen is not a priority,” she said. “You’re dealing with a highly educated population who wants to act. There’s a sense of urgency among the residents of the town.”

“This is the process that gets things done,” said Mr. Bouvier. “It sometimes seems arduous and a little nuts.”

He urged Ms. Casper to get involved with the Sustainable Southampton committee.

“Our task is to collect feedback from everyone and incorporate it into our climate action priorities and strategies,” said Emory Lee, Ramboll’s Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Lead on the project. “We’re going to complete a financial impact analysis and end up with a sense of not only the magnitude of the emissions reduction impact, but also the financial and economic impact.”

A video of the presentation is on the town’s website at www.southamptontownny.gov/1810/Climate-Action-Plan, and Town Senior Planner Michelangelo Lieberman is accepting comments at mlieberman@southamptontownny.gov.

The Carbon CREW Project, a local organization looking to empower individuals to make local and personal changes to combat climate change, is hosting an online discussion on the Climate Planning Process next Thursday, March 30 from 7:45 to 8:45 p.m. Here’s more info on how to attend.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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