Green goals for the Hudson Valley

4 companies that are making our communities a greener place

Author: Deborah J. Botti
Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2008
For these mid-Hudson companies, while their green goals might be bringing in some green, it’s not about the cash.

Some of the owners grew up with family values that included conservation. For others, their personal experiences helped shaped an individual who’s deeply aware of the importance of renewable energy and concerned about dependence on foreign oil.

Rather than leaving a legacy of toxic landfills and pollution, these savvy mid-Hudsoners are dedicated to changing their corner of the world. Collectively, they envision a Hudson Valley that blends green technology with the wisdom of previous generations.

Electricity, for example, will come from the sun or community-based plants that safely alter the garbage that people generate – and people will make choices, such as using rags instead of paper towels, to decrease what goes in the trash. Homes will be heated by burning what is grown locally or via a geo-thermal system. Consumers will understand that buying goods that are transported halfway around the world, even if labeled “organic,” is not as environmentally friendly as buying locally.

The Hudson Valley they foresee will fuel its economy while protecting its natural resources – and its residents will do their part to leave a healthier region for future generations, just as the generations before them did.

From the tree business to recycling
One of James W. Taylor Jr.’s business principles has always been that if you strive to do the best you can from an environmental standpoint, it will work out financially.
Back in the ’80s, Taylor was in the tree business, a business established by his father. As the building boom first hit Orange County, two things happened for him. First, there were a lot of land-clearing jobs. He made a point of using tree pluckers to salvage little trees to replant on 38 acres he had purchased on Neelytown Road in Montgomery to use as a tree farm.

And on Dec. 1, 1989, the state passed legislation making it illegal to bury land-clearing debris. So what do you do with the trees that were cleared? No one knew.

It was the birth of a new era in terms of ideas, equipment and manufacturing. Taylor started making wood chips for decorative mulch, and eventually other recycled products, on his tree farm.

Without warning, he found himself at the forefront of construction and demolition debris recycling, and in ’93 had the first permit in the state for C&D recycling.

“We developed the ability to sort and separate the debris in a safe and healthy manner,” he says, which led to the difficult assignment following 9/11 of separating the World Trade Center.

“I’m always looking for my next recycling tool – and to find the markets,” says Taylor.

The next tool, for which a patent is pending, is biomass gasification, which turns a solid into a gas without combustion. This ignited the formation of Taylor Biomass Energy, LLC. Working closely with a chemical engineer, Taylor has fine-tuned a process that uses hot sand to transfer heat to organic waste and plastics – turning them into a gas that runs a turbine to make electricity – with zero emissions. Even the char from the process is reused to reheat the sand.

Taylor sees a time in the not-too-distant future when communities draw their electric from the nearby plant that runs off its own garbage – which could expand his current staff of five to perhaps 500 or 5,000, he laughs.

Biomass gasification has also yielded an inexpensive way to manufacture hydrogen, which 10 years from now could result in hydrogen cells to run cars or for use in homes.

Taylor remains mindful that in a rush to do good, the big picture can be overlooked. “The science is overwhelming,” Taylor says. “We have to do things differently.”

9/11 leads to new business
“I’m old enough to remember the oil shocks of ’74 and ’79,” says Hudson Valley Clean Energy, Inc. president Jeff B. Irish, who was an engineering student during much of that time. “I developed an interest in renewable energy … and formed a dislike for oil and coal.”

But it was the events of 9/11 that prompted this former engineer for General Electric to take a larger look at the energy picture.

“Before 2001, people thought I was nuts. ‘There’s plenty of oil,’ ” he recalls being told. Their tune then switched to: “Can you do this for me?”

An optimum “this” is twofold, although each can be installed and run separately: a solar electric system and a geothermal system. In 2002, Hudson Valley Clean Energy was born to design, install and service these systems in new and existing residences.

“A geothermal system gets 75 percent of the heat from the heat of the earth,” says Irish. “In the mid-Hudson, below 10 feet, the temperature is consistently 52-53 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Plastic piping is buried at that depth, through which a fluid is circulated via electricity. That fluid is warmed below the earth’s surface and returned to the home’s system, where the heat is removed from the fluid. The fluid is then returned underground to be heated again. This process efficiently heats a house to comfortable temperatures.

“If a solar system is used to generate electricity, the result is the ultimate in cleanness,” he says, describing a home that uses no oil or gas and has no utility bills.

Contrary to popular belief, the Northeast gets 80 to 90 percent of the sunlight that Miami does, says Irish. “And solar systems work better in colder climates.”

Irish’s business is housed in such a zero-net-energy or carbon-negative building, which he estimates added about 10 percent to the cost of the building. Similarly, when the cost is figured into new-home construction and calculated into the monthly mortgage payment – with no utility bills – the savings are dramatic.

Existing homes can be retrofitted. The first step is to have an energy audit so the proper system is installed in an energy-efficient home, rather than a larger, more expensive system to compensate for things like poor insulation or inefficient windows. Solar electric averages from about $5,000 to $20,000 and geothermal systems around $20,000 to $30,000.

“The work we do eliminates importing five barrels of oil each day,” says Irish, who hopes his business will continue this critical trend. “I’m delighted that after spending 15 years with G.E., now I feel like I’m really bringing good things to light.”

Couple lives an energy-efficient lifestyle
The events of 9/11 also influenced publishing professional
Vicki Harkness to prioritize. She left her career in 2002 to devote herself full-time to the business she incorporated with her husband, Jonathan, an electrical and mechanical engineer who designed solar panels for satellites, in 1991.

“Jonathan always practiced energy efficiency. He believes in it,” Harkness says. “I learned from him.”

Today, they reside on an organic farm that strives to be as sustainable as possible. They are restoring an old home with energy efficient and green materials, such as soy-based insulation in the walls and a “slate” roof made of recycled materials. They use biodiesel fuel (refined from animal fat or vegetable oil), have radiant heating in their floors and utilize solar electric power. Harkness makes her own cleaning products from vinegar, baking soda and essential oils, uses rags and not paper towels, waters houseplants with “grey” water from baths, composts, and recycles.

“We always have a [power company] credit, even with a winter like this,” says Harkness. “We live this, and our business philosophy is that we want to do things to help take care of the environment.”

Toward that end, EMB – the Harknesses and four employees – designs and installs unique high-quality energy conservation projects to meet the individual needs of its clients.

“In many cases, we actually recommend that a client not install solar electric and instead spend their capital money on other energy-savings improvements … that can reduce their carbon footprint to a greater extent and be more financially beneficial,” Harkness says.

Today, its residential clients benefit from two decades of health-care, industrial and commercial projects. “[Corporate executives] started building new homes or restoring existing structures and asked us to help ‘green’ them,” she says. “We opened our farm to the national green building tour and had participants say that they really wanted a firm with experience in high-quality construction to implement the energy systems in their homes.

“We even make suggestions to make a job site more environmentally responsible, such as by not running diesel equipment, protecting native species and not using PVC or pressure-treated lumber,” Harkness says.

“We are committed to high-quality, low-life-cycle projects; not low first cost. As a result, we are not the cheapest firm,” she says.

Citing a lack of understanding as a main obstacle the company faces, Harkness says education is paramount. As a member of Engineers Without Borders, Jonathan shares his knowledge in Third-World nations.

As she home-schools their young son, Harkness also donates time to educate local students and 4-Hers about sustainable farming. She hopes to be able to do more of such community service in the future, and the goal of EBM is to keep doing what it’s doing.

“The true answer to the energy crisis is that we all need to use less and conserve more,” she says.

Heating with renewable energy resources
The Poremba family’s philosophy sparked a business. Jeff Poremba says his father, Robert, has always been dedicated to conservation, a dedication that he instilled in his offspring.

“We always heated with more natural materials,” says Poremba, whose own home is heated with solar electric, and whose windows and insulation have been upgraded.

“Two years ago, we really saw a need in the community,” he says, a need that paved the way for Green Heat, Inc., which warms hearth and soul using renewable energy resources. It specializes in the biomass stove.

“A biomass stove uses any fuel that grows and is uniform in size,” says Poremba. “It is geared to geographic areas.”

In Wisconsin, for example, where cherries are grown, dry cherry pits would be a fuel source. In the mid-Hudson where corn is a major crop, local shelled corn keeps those home fires burning. Wax cardboard pellets recycled in Middletown are another available local non-fossil-fuel source.

The shelled corn that fuels the stove also fuels the local economy because Green Heat works with local farmers to ensure the best product at the best prices – all corn is not alike.

Poremba says corn is less expensive than other heating methods, and burning it does not contribute to the greenhouse effect. Plus, every ton of shelled corn translates into about three barrels of foreign oil that were not needed.

“It makes a dent on our dependency,” Poremba says.

The biomass stoves range in price from about $3,249 to $4,495. Green Heat also carries pellet (starting at $1,799) or wood ($1,000 and up) stoves.

For now, Green Heat is primarily a father-and-son operation, from selection of the proper unit to offer the most efficient heating of the entire home to its installation and supply of fuel.

But Green Heat is in the certification process to enter into the solar electric market as well.

“This will take some time,” says Poremba, who wants others to enjoy the utility savings that he now does.


Deborah J. Botti is a freelance writer who lives in Orange County. her work appears regularly in Hudson Valley Life.

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