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Ithaca moves forward with groundbreaking plan to decarbonize buildings

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) - The Ithaca Common Council voted late Wednesday night to move forward with the city’s plan to electrify thousands of buildings in an effort to decarbonize by the end of the decade.

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The program, which is formally known as the Energy Efficiency Retrofitting and Thermal Load Electrification Program, was conceptualized by Luis Aguirre-Torres, who was hired as Ithaca’s director of sustainability this past March.

The unanimous vote approved the appointment of BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based energy technology start-up, to fill the program manager role. BlocPower will manage the initiative with a consortium of four other businesses: Guidehouse, Taitem Engineering, Alturus, and Energetic Insurance, with support from governments and nonprofits like Cornell Cooperative Extension, HeatSmart Tompkins, NYSERDA, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The efficiency and energy program is the first major action under the broader Ithaca Green New Deal, which made a formal commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030. At present, Ithaca emits an estimated 400,000 metric tons of CO2 annually. About 40% of those emissions can be linked to buildings, so measures for energy efficiency and electrification have the potential to cut CO2 significantly.

The program will focus on private equity as an alternative to state-sponsored incentive programs, which can be sluggish and conducted at a much smaller scale. According to Aguirre-Torres, the scale is what will make this program powerful and reliable.

“We needed to create a very large program where we could build economies of scale, where we could have bulk purchasing power, and deal with engineering companies, and solar companies and energy storage companies,” he said of the plan’s conception.

Aguirre-Torres said cultivating these deals with a diverse portfolio of private companies reduces risks associated with funding efficiency and electrification developments.

Phase one of the program aims to upgrade over 1,500 buildings out of 6,000 buildings total.

Property owners will be offered low- or no-interest loans or leasing options for the installation of upgrades like electric stovetops, solar panels, and electric heat pumps, to name a few.

Since introducing the program earlier this summer, Aguirre-Torres has secured $100 million in investment commitments. That’s a massive sum, considering Ithaca’s annual budget is around $80 million.

The initiative's total projected budget is $600 million dollars. That’s where the private sector can help. Aguirre-Torres has attracted investments by pitching the program as a low-risk opportunity with significant returns on investment.

“In this case, the intention was not for the city to borrow money, but to have the government become a catalyst for investment...to create the proper conditions so that the city and community will be a target for private investors,” Aguirre-Torres said of the program.

Those investments won’t go to the city directly. Instead, they're managed by BlocPower. This arrangement is meant to increase implementation efficiency while minimizing financial liability for the city.

BlocPower’s CEO Donnel Baird believes his company’s leadership will help the program adjust to high start-up costs and pressures on local expertise and workforce.

“Our job is to remove all of that friction so that all of you as stakeholders in the City of Ithaca can easily and seamlessly reach your goals to decarbonize your city and become the first city in the world to do that,” Baird said.

Even as the program officially kicks off, challenges remain. Consumer preference for natural gas or preference for more visible home improvements, like an upgraded bathroom or kitchen, is one possible barrier. Absentee landlords in the city’s two college towns are another.

Furthermore, the program makes special provisions to help traditionally “disadvantaged” community members participate in the program, including low-interest rates. The true benefits of the program for these residents will be a point of interest over the next few years.

Aguirre-Torres recognizes that full electrification will not happen without a mandate or regulatory mechanism. But he believes this program can make significant progress towards eliminating Ithaca’s CO2 emissions.

If successful, Ithaca could set an example for thousands of cities across the globe that are looking to rapidly decarbonize over the next several decades.