Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Ithaca's decarbonization efforts are predicted to have ripple effects across the globe. Here, people stroll across the Ithaca Commons on Sept. 22, 2021.

November 29, 2021

Ithaca Launches City-Wide Decarbonization, Partners with Climate Startup and Cornellians

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On Nov. 3, the City of Ithaca’s Common Council voted to begin decarbonizing all 6,000 of its buildings, becoming the first city in the entire United States to do so. 

For Ithaca, decarbonization will mean replacing sources of carbon dioxide emission — like heating, cooking or drying clothes  — with electrical alternatives, and hoping to serve as a model for other cities in the process. 

“We’re essentially removing sources of carbon dioxide emissions from buildings, but in the next several years, [we hope to remove them] from every part of the [city’s] economy,” said Luis Aguirre-Torres, the City of Ithaca’s director of sustainability. 

Ithaca’s decarbonization project will not only involve being carbon neutral in terms of day to day operations but also producing materials necessary for the transition without emitting carbon dioxide, explained Prof. Felix Heisel, architecture. 

“We have to ask ourselves what should be done with utilities [like gas that are] not needed anymore. Do they just go to landfill or do we find a secondary use for them and save carbon emissions because of that? It’s a very complicated process,” Heisel said.

To Aguirre-Torres, Ithaca is unique in its approach to decarbonization by incorporating elements of entrepreneurship and considering the economic side of electrification. 

“The entrepreneurial experience of raising capital, of implementing large scale projects, is not typical in a local government,” Aguirre-Torres said. “So these types of structures are very rarely considered.”

Aguirre-Torres raised $100 million of private equity from investors to help building owners decarbonize by modifying existing buildings to make them more energy efficient. Currently, the City of Ithaca is working in close collaboration with BlocPower, a climate startup focused on updating aging urban buildings to operate on clean energy.  

According to Donnel Baird, chief executive officer of BlocPower, the company is working to assess Ithaca’s existing buildings and provide recommendations to improve overall energy efficiency.

“Finding cities and partners that are willing to commit to total decarbonization is one of our biggest challenges,” Baird said. “[W]e need more local leaders to commit to retrofitting existing building infrastructure to fight the climate crisis in their communities.”

The city has also tapped into Cornell faculty and students to aid in decarbonization. 

Ryan Thompson ’22, co-lead of Ithaca Carbon Neutrality Policy — a Sustainable Design project team with the core mission of helping the City of Ithaca reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2030  — said the team is working with various stakeholders within Cornell and the City of Ithaca to make sure both communities are effectively working towards the same carbon neutrality goals.

This semester, ICN Policy has been focusing on educating the Ithaca community by designing and distributing educational brochures to ensure low-income communities and communities of color are included in conversations regarding climate policy.

“We’re making sure that nobody’s left out in the conversation about a transition to a healthy and sustainable future,” Thompson said. 

Many involved in Ithaca’s decarbonization project hope that the program turns into an example that several other similar cities can learn from. 

“We’re far more interested in finding a solution for a town of 30,000 inhabitants and 6,000 buildings than we are for New York City,” said Heisel. “Because if we find a scalable solution to a town like Ithaca, the impact across the U.S. as a nation is immensely higher than a solution for a kind of unique case study like New York City.”

Solutions implemented in large cities like Los Angeles and New York City cannot be used as a case study for developing countries because they simply do not have the infrastructure or the technology, Aguirre-Torres added. 

“But what we have [in Ithaca] can be implemented in Africa, in the Caribbean, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America. At the end of the day, I believe that we are figuring out a way of doing decarbonization nationally, maybe even globally, because these are elements that will be replicable everywhere,” Aguirre-Torres said.

The decarbonization of buildings may be more important now than ever; emissions for the City of Ithaca are estimated to be around 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent — with 40 percent coming from buildings, according to Aguirre-Torres. 

The city also plans on adding solar energy to its electricity generation, to move away from a reliance on fossil fuels. 

But ensuring clean sources of electricity is tricky, according to Prof. Max Zhang, mechanical engineering, faculty director of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. 

“One of the biggest challenges we face is ensuring our sources of electricity are clean. You can have an ‘all-electric’ community but all the electricity you consume is generated by coal,” Zhang said.

Renewable electricity generation may be an even bigger challenge. According to Zhang, renewable generation is intermittent as ​​wind and solar resources aren’t constantly available or predictable with high percent accuracy. “So, basically you have a potential ‘all-electric’ community but you have to deal with this challenge with intermittent electric generation,” Zhang said. 

Nonetheless, Aguirre-Torres remains optimistic. “We’re pioneering. The news was that Ithaca is the first city in the U.S., but we are the first city in the entire world to go for this,” Aguirre-Torres said. “I believe that this is the beginning of a potential solution for everybody.”