The City of Ithaca's Common Council will be meeting shorty to discuss and vote on the Energy Efficiency Retrofitting and Thermal Load Electrification Program, part of Ithaca's Green New Deal. The vote will determine whether the city will be moving forward with this plan and results should be available tomorrow morning!
Ithaca's Green New Deal was originally passed in 2019, with a goal of the city becoming completely carbon neutral by 2030. The Energy Efficiency Retrofitting and Thermal Load Electrification Program is the first step and involves electrifying 1,600 buildings, which are the highest source of carbon emissions in the city, said Luis Aguirre-Torres, Ithaca's director of sustainability.
The meeting was live-streamed on the City of Ithaca's YouTube channel and the video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clDs84kCOHM&t=8728s.www.youtube.com
In attendance was Aaron Lavine, city attorney, Steven Thayer, city controller, staff from economic development, the planning division and sustainability and 5 Ithaca Common Council members who voted on the plan: Seph Murtagh, Cynthia Brock, Laura Lewis, JoAnn Cornish and Donna Fleming. The meeting was open to the public, and there was designated time for public comment, with individuals who signed up receiving two minutes to share their concerns, feedback, suggestions, etc.
“The unanimous vote to approve the electrification program shows Common Council’s commitment to continue supporting the Ithaca Green New Deal," Aguirre-Torres said via email. "The successful implementation of this program has the potential of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40% in a matter of years. This will enable us to meet the main goal of decarbonizing the entire city before 2030.”
The final vote solidified the city's partnership with BlocPower, program manager for the Energy Efficiency Retrofitting and Thermal Load Electrification Program. The role of the program manager is to act as the subrecipient of investments, help create and manage finances, identify risk mitigation strategies and work closely with the Ithaca Green New Deal project, according to an article from the Ithaca Voice.ithacavoice.com
BlocPower is a Brooklyn-based energy technology startup company. Donnel Baird and Keith Kinch founded the company in 2012 and have since electrified approximately 1,000 buildings.www.blocpower.io
Kinch also serves as general manager for BlocPower. He said the startup is different from other energy technology companies because of its focus on historically underserved buildings that other firms are not speaking to, like housing, worship and residential buildings. He said BlocPower focuses on these small and medium sized buildings because they often have the highest carbon output.
"How do we make sure that we're making sure the buildings are healthy, not just healthy in terms of financially healthy, which is important, but healthy for folks in the buildings that are living there, working there, learning there?" Kinch said. "That's what makes us very different and that continues to be our focus."
“When you have leadership across the board, from the mayor down to you know every resident in Ithaca, saying, ‘This is what we want to do and this is how we want to do it and you’re going to set the bar,’ I think that’s what makes it exciting and amazing,” Kinch said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
Kinch said that the company’s electrification process starts with gaining more information and insight into the buildings themselves. There is a building intake form on the BlocPower website that allows building owners to provide basic information on their building, like square footage and an idea of what the building looks like, as well as any concerns they may have with electrifying their building, like temperature and heating regulation.
Kinch also said BlocPower will be hiring local contractors to help boost the local economy. He said he thinks considering making sure that children have a future and a world to live in that is safe from climate disaster made this decision to partner with Ithaca very easy for BlocPower. Kinch said he has two children, an 11-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son.
“What does the world look for them in 20–30 years, right, and what can I say that I’ve done to leave them in a better place?” Kinch said. “So, when thinking about this opportunity to work with the City of Ithaca, this was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made in my life … This is not just about me; this is about the children of Ithaca … we’re thinking about the next generation, how do we make sure they’re all living in sustainable communities?”
Kinch said that he grew up in East New York and that there was a lot of low-income families and crime in the neighborhoods in which he grew up in during the 1980–90s. He said that he witnessed a lot of racial health disparities with buildings and that he has always had an interest in social impact and outrage as a result.
“For me, I lived it and I understand what it is to live in a building that may not be heated properly or cooled properly or worrying about the air quality not being the best for myself when I was young, or for my mother, who’s a senior now,” Kinch said. “So that to me is personal, right, and thinking about, you know, the buildings that we’ve worked in and the buildings we will work in, they look and feel like buildings I lived in, I worked in, I played basketball or soccer around. So, I think about it every time, like, how is this helping a community become sustainable, not just for now but for the future?
1000 Conversations was created to be a place where members of the community can engage in conversation, instead of consultations with experts and people in the local government. Right now these conversations are happening virtually, and there are currently six different conversations posted online that anyone can view.
“The one thing I realized is that even though a lot of people are interested in the environment, that are interested in the Green New Deal, it was very fragmented and the way that people were perceiving all the efforts and everything we’re doing was also very fragmented, very difficult to put together,” Aguirre-Torres said. “I always described it as a bunch of people running parallel, in the same direction, but in parallel like you had a highway with, you know, multiple lanes.”
Aguirre-Torres said it can be difficult sometimes to have genuine conversations with community members because some can get intimidated when talking to people who represent the government. He said he thought the way to combat this was to remove himself from the equation but was then presented with the problem of not being present for the conversation and therefore not knowing what it was about or what was discussed.
Aguirre-Torres said that using the name "1000 Conversations" gives people an implicit goal of having a lot of conversations, rather than an explicit goal. He said people tend to not follow through with explicit goals and wanted to make sure that engagement was possible, for maybe even more than 1000 conversations.
“My goal is toward the end to curate the content, get probably a few volunteers so we can watch every single video and then, you know, get the key message from each one of them, either people worried about things or people thinking that there could be a better way of doing things, and toward the end try to see, we can translate that into a document, a book perhaps that we can share with the community,” Aguirre-Torres said.
Many Ithaca residents are familiar with the Ithaca Green New Deal. Even those outside of Ithaca are becoming more aware of the city's plans for sustainability, especially after the final approval of the electrification program on Nov. 3. gained national attention in an article published by the Washington Post.www.washingtonpost.com
“I think it’s a fabulous program,” Rhodes said. “I think the city has done an amazing job of putting together a financing package that allows this work to move forward without the city having to put any money upfront. So, it’s all coming from private investors and guaranteed by insurance entities, and it looks like it’s going to really at least launch us.”
“It’s going to become very visible pretty quickly and that’s going to help the uptake of people who might not know what a heat pump is, might not think heat pumps work in this part of the country, might not think that they could ever afford such a thing," Rhodes said. "All those people will see that none of those things are true and that they can move forward and get support from the state to do it in their own home or their own business or their congregation, you know, or their community center or whatever.”
Heat pumps use electricity and refrigerant to move heat from one place to another, according to Bloc Power’s website. Heat pump technology can be used to heat and cool buildings year-around. With heat pumps, warm or cool air is transferred from one part of a building to another, instead of using more energy to heat or cool the existing air in that area.www.blocpower.io
“I meet regularly with two or three different activist groups who are keeping track of what’s going on and are very engaged with Ithaca Green New Deal and want to support it however we can,” Rhodes said. “So, it’s not just me individually, I don’t think we could have gotten this far if everybody was just acting individually. I think what has really moved us forward is the collective work, is working together, building relationships, working together as a community, staying engaged, staying accountable to each other.”
Schoeps said he believes a lot of the residential buildings in Ithaca date back to the 19th century, before insulating homes was really part of the scene at that time. The problem with this is that homeowners and those who live in residential buildings don’t always have the funds to join different programs like this one.
“The program needs to find a few front runners, people who are willing to do it, able to see the value of it and actually put it in place,” he said. “As soon as someone else is able to say, ‘Okay, this is what they did, this was the result of it, this is what the impact is on their pocketbook,’ it becomes a very different story.”
“It enables participation, not just by those who have money but by those who don’t have money, and that’s one of the critical things,” Schoeps said. “It’s not just about a portion of the population, it opens up the possibility for someone who is a lower-income homeowner to be able to say, ‘Gee, I can actually participate as well,’ and I think that’s an important aspect of the whole thing.”
Peter Bardaglio is the executive director of the Ithaca 2030 district. He said the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) was launched in 2008 with funding from the Park Foundation.www.2030districts.org
Bardaglio said TCCPI is a coalition of leaders and activists in the community who are engaged in climate action, and that it has four sectors: the education sector, the nonprofit sector, the business/finance sector and the local government sector. He said one representative from each of these sectors makes up the steering committee for TCCPI.
“We’ve been over the years an incubator for a lot of different climate and energy related projects which have spun off, including Get Your Green Back Tompkins,” he said. “We decided that we needed to strengthen our relationship with the business community and to begin to establish a culture of benchmarking building performance, and it seemed like the 2030 district concept was a good way to do that.”www.getyourgreenbacktompkins.org
Bardaglio said he works with an advisory board and meets with them once a month to talk about different ways to refine their building performance dashboard and discuss which property owners to recruit next. He said he was also originally a member of the mayor’s interim advisory group on the Ithaca Green New Deal.
“I think it’s something that we really have to set out to do,” he said. “We don’t have a choice; we have to reduce the carbon footprint, the greenhouse gas emissions of the community, and we all know that. We also know that buildings make up the majority of the emissions in the City of Ithaca, so it’s really imperative that we do so.”
“It’s not just about what we accomplish here in Ithaca, as important as that is, but to create a model that can then be adopted by other communities and implemented in a similar way to accelerate the energy and water retrofits of buildings and homes is going to be extremely important,” Bardaglio said.
Guillermo Metz is the energy and climate change team leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County. He said his job mainly consists of providing education and outreach to community members within Tompkins County to reduce energy usage overall and limit fossil fuel usage.cals.cornell.edu
“A lot of the meetings we go to, the gatherings we go to, it’s sort of the same groups of people who have the time and the ability to show up, essentially, and we really wanted to gather voices that typically don’t have the time and the bandwidth on something like this, and really think about climate change and energy transitions,” he said.
“Depending on what [the city] is able to do, we will fill those holes basically,” he said. “Our expertise is just general education and outreach. We can do that with targeted groups in the community, like Common Council itself, other elected officials, city staff. We’ve done those kinds of educational sessions so they can better understand what this means to them and their operations and their departments.”
Metz said he believes there are three things that the program needs to be successful: regulations that require people to change, helping people access the tools they need to change and programs and incentives/pathways to make the change more realistic and affordable. He said Aguirre-Torres has brought a new level of coordination and vision, bringing that third aspect of having a program to make the goal of decarbonization more realistic.
“[Aguirre-Torres] and his assistant in his department at this point are really still pretty limited in what they’re able to do beyond really running this program,” Metz said. “So, we can do informational sessions, we can do tabling at events, we can do other promotions, maybe create materials that help amplify that voice and that message.”
Metz said all heating and cooling and cooking in homes can be converted to electric energy using heat pumps. He said that using gas for cooking can lead to indoor air quality issues like bad ventilation and mold, and that this issue is part of a whole group of health issues that disproportionately affect low- and moderate-income people.
“This program also would help people weatherize, which essentially means insulation, air sealing their buildings,” he said. “So, that means lower energy bills, more improved comfort for those residents and again, the folks who can benefit the most are the ones who have been spending a disproportionate amount of their income on energy.”