Smart Cities

Ithaca wants to decarbonize all of its buildings by 2030—here’s how it will work

It's the first US city to try, and has enlisted two climate tech companies to get the job done.
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Francis Scialabba

· 8 min read

In February 2019, a group of progressive lawmakers proposed the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to reorient the US economy around addressing the climate crisis. It was met with controversy and praise alike, with some calling it implausible, while others rushed to find ways to implement some version of it.

Ithaca, New York, falls into the latter camp. The city of 32,108 residents adopted its own Green New Deal in June 2019, including a pledge to fully decarbonize by 2030.

Now, the city is working to set its plans into motion—starting with decarbonizing all 6,000 residential and commercial buildings in the city by 2030. That’s a goal unmatched by any other US city. This part of the plan, formalized by a November vote, will be led by two climate tech companies—BlocPower and Alturus—which will provide Ithaca’s buildings with the hardware needed to run on electricity only.

Emissions from the operation of buildings accounted for 28% of all energy-related CO2 emissions worldwide in 2019.

“I made it very clear when I started this program that the role of the city, the role of the local government needs to change,” Luis Aguirre-Torres, Ithaca’s director of sustainability, told Emerging Tech Brew. “We’re not the ones to make anything happen; we’re here to compete, to be a catalyst for social innovation, finance innovation, and I think the role is to set these companies up for success.”

But to pull off this transition, Ithaca will need to work through thorny challenges that span beyond purchasing and implementing new technology—it also needs to get residents on board with the change.

Decarb details

Ithaca’s building decarbonization plan, known as the Energy Efficiency Retrofitting and Thermal Load Electrification, has a two-pronged approach: Brooklyn-based BlocPower will be in charge of the changeover from legacy power generation and storage in residential areas, while Boston-based Alturus will handle commercial buildings.

BlocPower won the residential contract in November 2021. It’s using technology like heat pumps—which collect heat from the air, water, or ground outside a home and repurpose it to heat the inside—to make it happen. They can also function during the summer as an air-conditioning unit, siphoning heat in a home outside and replacing it with cool air.

BlocPower founder and CEO Donnel Baird told us that recent innovations in heat pump technology allows for their use in colder, freezing temperatures. The technology is steadily growing more popular, with 3.9 million installations in the US last year—up from 2.4 million in 2016.

“We’re ripping out the heating system, the cooling system, the hot water system that requires fossil fuels, and replacing it with all-electric heating and cooling water systems,” Baird told Emerging Tech Brew. “Powered by all electricity, you can throw some solar panels on the roof, and now you’re running your building off of renewable power.”

In addition, BlocPower is replacing appliances like dryers, furnaces, and natural-gas stoves with electric ones, and weatherizing older homes to prevent heating and cooling from leaking out. It’s also using digital twin tech, created using money from a $5.5 million grant from Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund, to try and model the most cost-effective and energy-efficient ways to decarbonize Ithaca’s buildings.

Baird said the company has previously retrofitted over 1,200 apartment buildings in New York City, but Ithaca is its biggest project to date.

On the commercial side, Alturus will oversee the conversion of about 600 buildings of varying sizes and scale in the city. Alturus audits commercial enterprises, finds ways to cost-effectively convert them to renewable energy, and then funds the changeover up front. The savings a company realizes from the conversion is then put into a payment plan to compensate Alturus over a set period of time—for Ithaca, that will be about 7–10 years.

“Most companies just don’t have that kind of capital sitting around waiting to be spent on lighting upgrades,” Tommy Freeman, associate of partner development at Alturus, told us. “What we’re doing is finding efficiencies in a building, deploying the technology that needs to go into there, and then the customer pays for that technology over time in monthly payments.”

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Thanks to its proximity to Niagara Falls, as well as nearby nuclear power plants, Aguirre-Torres said there’s a “high likelihood” that 80% of the city’s electricity is already carbon-free. And while it’s working to decarbonize its buildings, the city also plans to deploy about 10 megawatts of solar, both rooftop- and ground-mounted, over the next 10 years.

Niagra falls at sunset

Honesttraveller/Getty Images

Ithaca’s building plan is designed to roll out in two phases. The first phase will change over 1,600 buildings and help the city and partners determine best practices, while the second phase will use those learnings to convert the remaining 4,400.

Freeman said Alturus’s goal is to retrofit at least 50 buildings by the end of 2022, as its first inroad into Ithaca’s electrification. BlocPower hopes to complete its contract within four years, Baird said.

In all, the building decarbonization project could cost upward of $500 million over the next eight years, Aguirre-Torres told us. The city has already secured over $100 million in funding from private investors like Goldman Sachs. That sum includes $50 million from Alturus, which Aguirre-Torres said could provide an additional $550 million if initial efforts suggest the plans can scale on a community-wide basis.

Renewable roadblocks

Ithaca is generally a progressive college town, with students from both Ithaca College and Cornell University being very active in the town’s politics. It was the Ithaca branch of the Sunrise Movement, comprised mostly of students from those universities, that helped spur the city government to adopt a Green New Deal for the city in the first place.

But not every resident will fall into this early-adopter category.

“It’s natural gas—for cooktops, ranges—that is going to be a huge challenge. People love cooking with natural gas, and we have been told by several people [that they] are just not interested: ‘You're not taking my natural gas stove from me,’” Rebecca Evans, Ithaca’s sustainability planner. “There’s also kind of an education curve. One of the comments that we get a lot is, ‘What happens when the power goes out? I still have heat when the power goes out,’ which is just not true. Your natural gas furnace still relies on electricity to move that warm air around.”

cornell university, located in Ithaca

Jonathan W. Cohen/Getty Images

Evans also told us that low-income individuals will have lower electric bill payments to convert to electricity within their means, and that some of the city’s first electrification efforts will be directed toward two historically Black community centers in low-income neighborhoods.

Aguirre-Torres said the city is looking at regulatory instruments and legislation to prod homeowners and businesses to convert to electricity. By 2026, new buildings and major renovations in Ithaca will be banned from using natural gas, and proposals have been submitted to Ithaca’s Common Council to mandate a phased reduction of emissions in existing residential and commercial buildings by 2030.

Residents won’t have to pay up-front for changes, but the structure of repayment means they won’t immediately see their bills lowered either. In most cases, their current energy bill will remain the same, with any savings they would have received from electrification being applied to pay back Alturus and BlocPower.

Looking ahead…

Many of the companies and organizations involved in the process—from Alturus to BlocPower, Ithaca College to Cornell—have also challenged places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Palo Alto, California, to embrace similarly ambitious goals. Cambridge, for its part, adopted a 2050 timeline for decarbonization, while Palo Alto committed to reducing emissions by 80% by 2030.

Ultimately, those involved in Ithaca’s decarbonization movement hope it can help act as a proof-of-concept for other cities to embrace more concrete decarbonization plans.

“Given the scale of crisis that our world is currently undergoing, it’s really important that we approach these benchmarks and we approach these goals of carbon neutrality as though we can achieve them,” Siobhan Hull, Ithaca hub coordinator of the Sunrise Movement, told Emerging Tech Brew. “Because while they have a lot of obstacles in their way, and it's going to require a tremendous amount of effort, it’s really more dependent on willpower to do it rather than feasibility.”

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