Ithaca will decarbonize all 6,000 of the city’s buildings

More Than Gorges

Ithaca will decarbonize all 6,000 of the city’s buildings

The Ithaca Commons, a downtown pedestrian mall, pictured in 2012. (Paul Sableman/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Last week, the Common Council of Ithaca, New York, voted to approve a first-in-the-nation decarbonization plan in which the roughly 6,000 homes and buildings located within the notably “enlightened” lakeside college town will be electrified to meet goals established by the city’s impressively aggressive Green New Deal (GND) plan. That carbon-neutral-by-2030 GND plan was adopted unanimously by the Common Council in June 2019 to “address climate change, economic inequality, and racial injustice,” per the city.

This means that within the next eight years all of Ithaca’s buildings—and not just municipal buildings—will be assessed and subsequently retrofitted as needed so that they no longer rely on fossil fuel-based heat sources and appliances. As part of the sweeping decarbonization initiative, formally dubbed as the Efficiency Retrofit and Thermal Load Electrification Program, all buildings will be subject to a range of improvements including the swapping out of propane- and natural gas-powered stovetops with electric ones and the installation of solar panels and high-efficiency air-source and ground-source heat pumps. The newly approved retrofit-minded program complements legislation passed by the city in June that mandates all newly constructed or renovated buildings within Ithaca cannot rely on natural gas or propane. (Ithaca is home to a substantially large swath of older building stock, with 40 percent of its structures dating back to 1940 or earlier.)

Managed by Brooklyn-based climate tech startup BlocPower, Ithaca’s decarbonization plan, which is slated to slash the 400,000 tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions generated by the city by 40 percent, is a boldly ambitious one set within an accelerated timeline—and the clock is very much ticking.

“To fight climate change, we need to reduce carbon emissions,” Luis Aguirre-Torres, Ithaca’s director of sustainability, recently explained to NPR. “The entire world is looking at 2050. [Ithaca] was looking at 2030, so it was an incredibly difficult thing to achieve.”

“I believe we are the first in the world to attempt something so crazy, to be quite honest,” added Aguirre-Torres, stressing that the plan is designed to be replicable in cities and towns across the United States. Famed for its waterfalls, wood gorges, and culturally liberal mindset, Ithaca is a relatively small city and home to roughly 30,000 permanent residents. This figure, however, swells significantly during the academic year when classes at Cornell University and Ithaca College are in session.

In addition to reaching carbon neutrality by 2030, Ithaca’s broader GND plan aims to reduce vehicle-related emissions by half and shift all municipal operations to renewable energy by 2025. The retrofit program, which, as mentioned, is the first large-scale, city-wide electrification initiative in the United States, is expected to create 400 new green construction, technology, and management jobs.

“At the same time COP26 takes place in Glasgow, the City of Ithaca demonstrates its commitment to fight climate change by taking this very important step towards fully decarbonizing our building stock,” said Ithaca Mayor Savante Myrick in a BlocPower news release. “Through this program, the City expects to eliminate most emissions from energy use in existing residential and commercial buildings, which today account for almost 40 percent of the total emissions in our city.”

First sworn into office in 2012 at the age of 24, Myrick is the youngest mayor in Ithaca history and the city’s first mayor of color. He first joined Ithaca Common Council, the city’s main legislative body, while a 20-year-old junior at Cornell.

As detailed to the Washington Post by Timur Dogan, a Cornell professor who is consulting with the city on the initiative, the building decarbonization program will be rolled out in two distinct phases: 1,600 buildings (1,000 residential buildings and 600 commercial buildings) will be assessed and retrofitted within the next three years, followed by the remaining 4,400 buildings by 2030.

“The technology we’re talking about implementing here is already off the shelf and readily available,” Dogan told the Post. “It’s a matter of political will and financial means to make this happen.”

On that note, the city, working with a total budget of only $80 million, has already secured $100 million in private financing from private equity partner Alturus to cover the first phase of the initiative. As detailed by the Post, the city is also planning to establish a philanthropy-driven fund that will further decrease the cost of the program, particularly for low-income Ithaca residents.

As noted by NPR, the main electric and gas utility serving Ithaca, New York State Electric and Gas, is cooperating with the city in implementing its emissions-slashing decarbonization initiative. In other states, gas industry-backed lawmakers have squashed local electrification efforts like the large-scale one now underway in Ithaca.