Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

Ithaca’s Director of Sustainability Luis Aguirre-Torres speaks at the BlocPower event on Thursday July 14, 2022.

July 23, 2022

Ithaca is Electrifying — and Decarbonizing Its Buildings

Print More

More than a hundred people gathered outside the Southside Community Center last week to commemorate a major step towards achieving carbon-neutrality in Ithaca by 2030.

Eight months ago, Ithaca made the historic decision to commit to the electrification and decarbonization of all its buildings—the first city in the United States to do so. Ithaca’s electrification (or Efficiency Retrofitting and Thermal Load Electrification) program is now officially off the ground.

Earlier this month, acting Mayor Laura Lewis signed a contract to partner with BlocPower, a tech company that specializes in retrofitting pre-existing buildings with new, greener energy technology. The project has the potential to eliminate around 40 percent of Ithaca’s carbon emissions.

“It’s just so f—ing awesome,” Ithaca’s Director of Sustainability Luis Aguirre-Torres remarked about the electrification initiative, his unscripted comment eliciting a round of laughter, applause and cheers.

With 3000 and change days to go until 2030, this ambitious Green New Deal plan aims to electrify all 6000 public and privately owned buildings in Ithaca.

“This is a wonderful start, but it’s just that. It is the start. We have 3092 days to go before we reach the [2030] deadline. We’re counting the days,” Aguirre-Torres said at the event. 

According to Aguirre-Torres, Ithaca residents can expect to see the first few buildings undergo electrification by the end of the year, and the project will ramp up from there. 

Since its founding in 2014, BlocPower has completed energy projects in more than 1,200 buildings across multiple cities, though this is their first project of this scale. 

“Is this program really challenging? Yes, it is. Because this is really the first of its [kind],” Chief of Engineering at BlocPower Dom Lempereur acknowledged. 

BlocPower Chief Financial Officer Cullen Kasunic detailed the wide range of upgrades that BlocPower can implement to lower a building’s energy footprint and eliminate the need for fossil fuels and natural gas. 

In addition to installing an electric air source heat pump system that can both cool and heat a room, the company tailors each project to the specific needs of a building. This could include upgrades such as addressing drafts or installing LED lights. 

For information about a specific building, building owners can fill out a questionnaire on BlocPower’s site to receive a report and schedule a call with a representative.

Though the upgrades facilitated by BlocPower will certainly make Ithaca’s buildings more energy efficient and eliminate reliance on fossil fuels, they won’t achieve the goal of carbon neutrality on their own.

Simultaneous efforts such as the “greening” of the electric grid by creating solar farms or establishing a Community Choice Aggregation program are in the works. 

New York State Electric and Gas also plans to invest around $55 million in Ithaca over the next five years to do its part to help achieve the net zero 2030 target. 

“NYSEG has been performing initial modeling of what the system will need to manage full electrification, and that could more than double the electricity demand from where it currently stands,” a NYSEG spokesperson stated in an email.

In addition to NYSEG, Ithaca will also collaborate with private equity group Alturus; to help fund the first phase of electrification, Ithaca will receive $100 million from Alturus. This will likely fund the electrification of up to 1,000 residential and 600 non-residential units in the city. 

“We’re excited and proud to be a partner to Ithaca in its implementation of this large-scale program to increase the use of renewable energy and achieve decarbonization targets,” said Alturus Managing Director Gopal Vemuri.  

Perhaps the most unique aspect of this electrification project is the fact that home and building owners will not need to pay anything upfront and low-to no-interest loans can be available to those who need it.

This helps the project realize one of its core goals: equity. The location for Thursday’s event was a testament to the project’s commitment to providing clean energy to everyone, but especially to underserved and underprivileged groups in Ithaca.

The Southside Community Center, along with the Henry St. John Building on Geneva St., are some of the first buildings that will undergo electrification, according to Aguirre-Torres. 

“We here at Southside serve the underserved, but then also this community is historically Black. And so I think that we were chosen just because we are here in the oldest black neighborhood in the city,” Executive Director of Southside Chavan Bunch said. 

The first batch of building owners can reportedly opt-in as soon as September; for now participation in the program is voluntary.

Aguirre-Torres didn’t seem too worried at the moment about participation, explaining that  momentum will build, especially as the economy of scale increases and resulting prices decrease.

“Before we need to think about a mandate or a different type of promotion, we’re gonna be at like, 30 percent of the city. And that is 2000 buildings.”

Other cities have already started to follow Ithaca’s lead; Menlo Park, California announced in June that it would also be partnering with New York-based BlocPower to electrify thousands of buildings in the city.

Lofty plans are also afoot throughout Ithaca to revolutionize its energy landscape; Cornell recently broke ground on its large-scale earth source heating project, commencing borehole drilling for a first-of-its-kind mass-scale geothermal initiative. This project is integral to the University’s carbon neutrality by 2035 goal.

Julia Nagel is a reporter from The Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at the Ithaca Times. This piece was originally published in the Ithaca Times.