October 6, 2021

BERNSTEIN | Your Power to Make Your Collegetown Home More Environmentally Friendly

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To make an impact in the fight against climate change, we have to change the way we live — I don’t just mean personal habits, I mean our literal living spaces. Existing buildings in the U.S. account for almost 40 percent of all energy consumed nationwide, and globally, they’re responsible for about 39 percent of carbon emissions annually. Fixing our homes and buildings is a crucial part of this battle, and one in which we can individually work to make a difference.

Building new green buildings is great, and thankfully, Cornell has made it an essential part of its growth over recent years. But it’s not environmentally friendly to tear down your home and put up a new greener version — construction is one of buildings’ main sources of energy consumption and carbon emissions. The answer is retrofits. We have to go into existing buildings and put on a little HGTV magic, fix them up and make them more sustainable.

This is so important, especially here in Ithaca, where so many of our houses are old and poorly insulated, and so much of our energy comes from gas and oil. It’s no different in Collegetown, where most of us students will live at some point in our four years at Cornell. As students, we have an opportunity to make an environmental impact.

As short-term renters, it may feel hard to make an effort. Landlords often don’t want to pay for energy improvements when their tenants are the ones paying the NYSEG bills, and we’re often not in one home for too long anyway. But small things add up, and we have options. Plus, it’s both a civic and personal good: energy efficiency and sustainable housing doesn’t just help the environment, but it saves you money. Your energy bills will go down when you use less energy or when your energy is renewably sourced.

Emily Belle is a community energy advisor for Tompkins County. She helps homeowners and renters who want to think about steps to reduce their energy costs and lower the greenhouse gas emissions associated with household energy use. She recently told me about different things College-student renters can do to make changes.

There are three different overarching categories of change that I talked about with Belle: 

(1) Do-it-yourself fixes or habits that help insulate your home and help your energy 

(2) Energy Evaluations, which show exactly where your house needs fixes and how to make larger improvements.

(3) Changing your energy source through community solar, which is surprisingly easy and makes a big difference in both energy usage and costs.

Some of Belle’s DIY suggestions are easy changes that add up: keeping the temperature down (she said recommended thresholds are 68 degrees when home and 58 when out), using fans instead of ACs and making other energy efficient swaps like using LED light bulbs and unplugging devices when not in use (or turning off a power strip), because things like gaming consoles and TVs can drain energy even when off.

Some more hands-on changes include fixing some insulation issues yourself: you can check your windows and doors for air leaks. This can be a major energy drain because you need to use more energy to keep your house warm. Feel where the air comes from, and use rope caulk or plastic sealing to fix it.

Belle and I also talked about requesting an energy audit for your home. This is probably the most high-effort/high-reward option of the three options we discussed, but it can make a huge difference in your home’s long-term environmental impact and energy consumption.

Energy evaluations reveal  where the real problems are, whether there are issues with heating, insulation, electricity, anything — and knowing Ithacan houses, we probably all have something. An evaluator can help tell you what’s wrong on a large scale and help you fix it. You can even learn about grants that will offer renewable heating sources — as students, there are some opportunities to get these things for free. You do, however, need to get your landlord on board for an evaluation, and it takes time, but it can be really meaningful. Belle told me that Cornell students seeking energy advising on an evaluation can contact her through Cornell Cooperative Extension.

The final suggestion, switching to solar, is easy, saves you money and makes a big change in sustainability. It doesn’t require any solar panels, and you can do it all on your own without landlord approval so long as you pay your own energy bills. Our electricity and energy has to be powered from somewhere. According to Belle, the Ithaca and the Finger Lakes area fuels its energy by using lots of hydropower, which is renewable and sustainable, but also a significant amount of natural gas. This is what we need to change.

New York State has a community solar program. You can subscribe to a local solar project, which takes clean energy from a solar farm and puts it into the local power grid. You’ll get credits on your electricity bill that help save you money. It’s an easy win-win switch that any renter in Collegetown can make — I’m doing it myself now and trying to get my friends to follow suit.

Making changes to save energy in your home helps your wallet, the environment and our community. Existing buildings can tear us down, but not if we rebuild them first.

Daniel Bernstein is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Feel the Bern runs every other Monday this semester.