If you were to travel the length of New York State looking for a friendly place to build a zero-emissions firehouse, you might pick New Paltz. Most public buildings in New York rely heavily on fossil fuels. A left-leaning college town in the shadow of the Gunks, where local elections are often a race between a Green and a Democrat, might seem like a good place to start turning that around.
But even in New Paltz, the deck is stacked against future-proof buildings.
“If we can’t do this here, we have no chance in heck of reaching the state’s climate goals,” says New Paltz Village Mayor Tim Rogers.
On Thursday, the New Paltz community celebrated the near-completion of its new, all-electric firehouse at 117 Henry W. DuBois Drive, a project long in the works. A scrum of local elected officials took turns at the podium giving celebratory speeches, while volunteer firefighters and sign-carrying climate advocates smiled and clapped.
“This is really where the rubber hits the road, people,” former state Senator Jen Metzger said to the small but exuberant crowd. Metzger, who worked to get New York’s 2019 climate law passed as a state Senator, now advises on policy for the nonprofit New Yorkers for Clean Power.
The new New Paltz firehouse is only one building, but it stands for something a lot bigger. Buildings are the single largest source of New York State’s greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about a third of the state’s massive carbon footprint, and the task of getting them off fossil fuels over the next few decades is shaping up to be one of the toughest projects in government today.
Like almost every municipality in New York, New Paltz—both the larger town and the village within its borders that shares the same name—has a building code made for an older, more fossil-fueled world. Municipalities in New York can go farther by adopting a “stretch code,” a recent program devised by NYSERDA that spurs greater energy efficiency. A handful of Hudson Valley municipalities, including the city of Beacon, have passed a stretch code law, but neither New Paltz the town nor New Paltz the village has done so.
As a mostly-state-funded project, the process for designing the new firehouse was overseen by state planners. New York is moving toward centering climate and energy in decision-making across all state agencies, but most state decisions aren’t yet accounting for climate goals—and locals had to fight hard to make their green building vision a reality, the mayor says.
“From the beginning, we pushed the state-assigned architects and designers,” Rogers says. “We took a lot of shrapnel. A lot of folks told us we were nuts to try to do it this way.”
If local officials hadn’t gotten their way, the new firehouse would have been built like most other new buildings in New York: a heat-leaking shell stuffed with fiberglass insulation and a huge boiler burning gas all winter long to keep it warm. In light of New York’s long-term climate goals—which include a phaseout of fossil heat over the next few decades, starting with new construction and eventually moving to retrofits of older buildings, helped along by state incentives—it would also have been an expensive rehab project waiting to happen.
Instead of a gas boiler, the new firehouse is heated by industrial-sized air source heat pumps that collect heat from outdoor air—even at subzero temperatures—and pass it into the interior of the building along loops of refrigerant fluid. For a firehouse, it’s critical to keep tankers full of water from freezing, so the slab underneath the 16,000-square-foot building is kept warm with hot water piping embedded in the concrete, also supplied by a heat pump.
The firehouse was designed for energy efficiency, and built out of insulated concrete from floor to ceiling. The building is designed to have no “thermal bridging”—a term for the way heat escapes a building along parts in a wall that are more conductive than the surrounding insulation. The building will consume only about a third as much power as a comparable building with traditional techniques, according to Rick Alfandre, the architect who designed the building.
Although they aren’t yet in place, arrays of solar panels on the roof of the firehouse will eventually provide power to the building—and to the grid. But even without the solar panels, the building would still be zero-emissions by 2040, if New York’s climate action plan holds up. Currently, the state gets roughly half its electrical power from zero-carbon sources. The state’s 2019 climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, set a goal of 70 percent zero-carbon power by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040. As the grid gets cleaner, the building’s power-related emissions will too.
There is still one fossil fuel element in the building, although it will only be used in emergencies: a large gas generator to provide power to the building during outages. Chief Cory Wirthmann says he hopes the building can incorporate battery storage at some point for backup power, but until then, the department needs to be able to respond in all conditions.
“Operationally, I need to be able to open and close the doors, I’ve got to get the fire trucks in and out,” he says.
On Thursday morning, while local officials celebrated the near-completion of the New Paltz firehouse, the state Assembly was holding a hearing on the All-Electric Building Act, a bill that would require new smaller buildings to be fossil-fuel-free by 2024. Dubbed a “gas ban” in policy shorthand, the plan to get new buildings off fossil fuels soon is a key recommendation in the state Climate Action Council’s draft plan for decarbonizing the state economy, and Governor Kathy Hochul pushed for a version of it in her executive budget this spring. But so far, the Assembly has balked at taking action on the proposal.
“We have to push through this and show people that it’s not as scary as it feels, and we are all going to be better served for it,” state Senator Michelle Hinchey told The River at the firehouse on Thursday. Hinchey is a co-sponsor of the All-Electric Building Act.
Until and unless the state does pass a law to start shifting new construction toward high-efficiency standards and away from fossil fuels, projects like the New Paltz firehouse will probably be outliers.
“Buildings like this are possible. They’re not probable,” said New Paltz town supervisor Neil Bettez. “The bar needs to be set higher.”
From climate disaster to climate resilience
The New Paltz Fire Department has wanted a new building for years. It took a climate disaster to make it happen.
For more than 30 years, the department has been operating out of two smaller buildings, and laying plans for a single building large enough to house all of the department’s equipment and operations. In 2011, the need for a more resilient base of operations was made even clearer when New Paltz was inundated with floodwaters from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, blocking vehicle access and slowing down the fire department’s response to the disaster.
Working collaboratively with both the village and the town of New Paltz, the department was able to secure $5 million in funding from the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, through the NY Rising program created in the wake of the Irene floods. Groundbreaking on the $6.6 million project began in 2021.
For most towns, the chance to design and build a piece of critical local infrastructure from the ground up doesn’t come along often. Plans to rebuild the New Paltz firehouse have been in the works for so long that the volunteers who started the process have handed over the reins of the department to a new generation.
“The firefighters in this department, including the ones who have moved on, have been waiting for this for 35 years,” Wirthmann says.
As a volunteer firefighter myself, I’m acquainted with the way plans can sometimes fail to survive contact with reality. I asked Wirthmann what’s most important to him about the design and function of the building.
“If I can respond like a firefighter? Stay out of my way,” Wirthmann says with a laugh. “A lot of what I’ve been doing is shooting down some of their ideas.”
The design team initially wanted to install ground-mounted solar panels. Wirthmann says he had to put the kibosh on that plan: Keeping the panels on the roof might limit how much power the installation can generate, but the department needs the open space on the property for helicopter landings and firefighter training.
Despite his role as hard-nosed realist in the planning process, Wirthmann is ecstatic to see the building nearing completion, and proud of its forward-thinking design.
“Seeing this vision coming full circle, and getting what we’ve been talking about for so long, has got people over the moon. We’re so happy to get the facilities we need,” he says.
For first responders, change doesn’t come easily—and for good reason. Before adopting new techniques or new equipment, firefighters often want to talk to other departments to get a sense of the challenges involved, and find out how plans that sound good on paper are actually working in action.
Wirthmann says New Paltz is breaking new ground with its all-electric firehouse. But it won’t be long before other departments come calling to see how it’s working in practice.
“I’ve received calls from other fire departments checking up on our project because they want to do the same thing—an energy-efficient firehouse,” he says. “We would certainly invite anybody to come see it.”