Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

The compact aims to implement renewable energy across Ithaca. Here, the Triphammer Falls serves as a source of hydroelectric power for Cornell.

October 19, 2021

New Initiative Unites Cornell and Ithaca in Nation’s ‘Most Aggressive’ Sustainability Program

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On Sept. 24, Cornell University and the City and Town of Ithaca officially became the first partnership between a college campus and a city to be recognized by the United Nations in working toward the U.N.’s sustainability goals. 

The Finger Lakes Energy Compact was made to reach carbon neutrality by 2030 and transition to sustainable energy for all of Ithaca, aiming to support the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change and impart solutions towards a clean, just, renewable energy future.

While the initiative is new, Cornell and Ithaca have a history of working together toward sustainability goals. 

“[The compact is] nothing more than a couple of stakeholders getting together in a group before the United Nations to do the best they can do to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy and increase access to clean energy,” said Luis Aguirre-Torres, the City of Ithaca’s new director of sustainability.  

As part of the compact, the City of Ithaca is in the process of integrating community choice aggregation — purchasing renewable energy in bulk on behalf of all its residents to make the transition to more sustainable energy sources cheaper. 

Another plan the compact implements is the Energy Efficiency Retrofit and Thermal Load Electrification Program, which aims to replace the use of natural gas in homes with electricity, Aguirre-Torres explained. 

To accomplish this, the City and Town of Ithaca created the Ithaca Electrification Fund, which would offset some of the costs of replacing fossil fuel energy with renewables for its residents. The fund, in conjunction with providing financial assistance to lower-income communities, will help cover costs for the replacement of fossil fuel-based space and water heating systems with  zero-cost energy performance lending and leasing programs.

Part of moving forward, Aguirre-Torres said, is showing the people of Ithaca what is possible. 

“Everybody knows about climate change, but the next level is education on what’s possible and what’s not,” Aguirre-Torres said. “And what’s possible [is] figuring out a way of making it cheaper. That’s the way we make progress.”

The programs are only two of several steps being taken to move toward affordable and clean energy by 2030 — Sustainable Development Goal 7 of the United Nations Development Program. 

“I’m very happy and proud to say [this is] the most aggressive program … in the entire country,” Aguirre-Torres said. “Nobody else in the U.S. is doing this.”

Aguirre-Torres sees the compact as essential because federal climate legislation is stagnating, which necessitates more local solutions. 

“[Local governments] are literally the last line of defense,” Aguirre-Torres said. “If [the federal government is] not going to do it, I’m going to do it, because it’s not going to happen at the macro level. We tried that and we failed.”

Cornell students and faculty have also been getting involved in local initiatives to mitigate climate change. 

Dyson students in Applied Economics & Management 3000: Pre-Project Immersion have assisted with proposals to electrify transportation across Ithaca. Prof. Sarah K. Chalmers, applied economics and management, decided a focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation in the course would have high educational value for students while also mobilizing the Ithaca community. 

Although climate change cannot be solved with a straightforward approach, Chalmer explained, it is an issue “that we must face together if we are to have a positive impact.” 

Cornell continues to take several steps at the institutional level to strive toward the Finger Lake Energy Compact’s most ambitious goals. 

According to Rick Burgess, vice president of facilities and campus services, Cornell’s Radical Collaboration on Solutions for Sustainability — a group assembled in 2017— is already focusing on interdisciplinary research to meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. 

He explained that Cornell joining forces with the City and Town of Ithaca to form a campus-regional partnership will fortify Ithaca’s ability to promote efficient, innovative and accessible energy, and achieve carbon neutrality by the early 2030s. 

Cornell’s Climate Action Plan is also identifying steps the university will take to achieve carbon neutrality ― net-zero carbon dioxide emissions ― for the campus by 2035. A Climate Action Plan update on completed, in progress and critical priorities is currently pending. 

The compact highlights Cornell’s “living laboratory approach” to improving campus energy efficiency and supporting the creation of new renewable energy resources such as Earth Source Heat, Burgess explained. 

Due to these initiatives, the University is already seeing massive reductions in its carbon, energy and water footprints. 

“Cornell’s diligent energy conservation work has dramatically reduced the campus energy use intensity … to the point that the campus is using less energy now than it did 20 years ago despite having added about 15 percent more floor space,” Burgess said. 

Cornell’s greenhouse gas emissions are down more than 36 percent since 2008, taking into account direct emissions from on-campus combustion, and indirect emissions from purchased electricity and daily commuting by employees and students. Compared to its 2005 baseline, Cornell’s water usage is additionally down over 25 percent overall. 

“In my office, once again, it’s just me and I’m [working] twenty hours a day, because I love this thing and I believe this change is possible, ” Aguirre-Torres said. “[B]ut now it’s about more people. I need the [entirety of] Cornell University to be behind this project, so we can produce change.”