Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

The City of Ithaca's electrification project yields mixed opinions from citizens.

February 21, 2024

Balancing Act: Ithaca Juggles Environmental Progress, Citizen Needs

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Lisa Burger had a problem. In the spring of 2023, three out of the four fossil-fuel-based heating units that sat atop the roof at Lifelong Community Center stopped functioning. However, the process of replacing these units was expensive and time-consuming, luxuries that Lifelong didn’t have

Burger, the executive director of Lifelong, knew that the days would soon turn cold and worried that the center, which serves adults 50 years and older, would have to brave Ithaca’s winter months without heat.

“We were in a situation where we needed to research this and get something going,” Burger said.

That’s when they reached out to BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based energy solutions company that the City of Ithaca has partnered with to facilitate the “electrification” of its some 6,000 buildings.

BlocPower was able to work with Lifelong, applying on their behalf to a New York State Electric & Gas incentive referred to as a “gas kicker” that gave money to replace gas-powered HVAC appliances with electric ones. While the whole project cost approximately $200,000, LifeLong had to pay only $36,000, according to Burger. Heating was brought back during the winter, and the project is near complete.

Lifelong’s story stands among 10 other non-residential buildings to be electrified in the coming months, as announced by the City earlier this month. Together, they make up Ithaca’s first “Bloc” of building electrification projects. 

These places of worship, cultural organizations and businesses represent a $1.9 million-dollar investment in green infrastructure, $1.4 million-dollars of which were subsidized through state and federal incentives. This progress represents the first substantive step toward achieving the goals of the “Electrify Ithaca” program, a primary component of the Ithaca Green New Deal.

Nevertheless, questions over the project’s feasibility, funding and impact on renters continue to trouble conversations over electrification.

How Electrify Ithaca Works

Launched in 2022, the Electrify Ithaca program works to leverage existing incentives at the state and federal levels to make electrification affordable for both contractors and consumers. In principle, the project has substantial potential to bring Ithaca closer to its goal of carbon neutrality by 2030, as laid out in the IGND.

Rebecca Evans, director of sustainability for the City of Ithaca, explained that almost 50 percent of Ithaca’s carbon emissions come from buildings, particularly their thermal loads.

“If we’re able to achieve electrification in a majority of buildings — let’s not even say all buildings — then that’s how we’re going to get those huge emissions reductions that we need to see,” Evans said. 

To help achieve this abatement, Ithaca turned to BlocPower, which acts as a go-between — applying for funding on behalf of customers, putting together a quote based on the incentives and floating the cost for local contractors while the reimbursement processes.

“The huge savings are going to come from either the Inflation Reduction Act, or EmPower+, which is the new NYSERDA state program … geared towards low-income or disadvantaged communities,” Evans said.

Bill Fry, a member of the Board of Trustees for Ithaca First Baptist Church, expressed optimism regarding the economic breaks that these incentives provide. 

“We were motivated by wanting to use less fossil fuels … and the incentives made … [it] financially possible for us to use heat pumps,” Fry said.

Before the incentives, the Ithaca First Baptist Church had been trying to replace a 34-year-old boiler for several years, but when they had originally contracted with an engineering firm, an initial quote suggested it might cost $150,000 to $180,000, Fry said. A few years later, it was suggested to the church to reach out again, and subsidies obtained via BlocPower enabled them to begin their transition to electric. 

Community Concerns

The vitality and scope of these incentives, however, are a point of concern for some. 

The NYSEG “gas kicker” program that had funded much of the work at Lifelong Community Center was only a trial period that lasted a year. Additionally, incentives through EmPower+ are not available to renters. 

Instead, Evans described a process called “split-incentive” wherein landlords must make the decision to electrify themselves. Then, they could hopefully make electrification renovations at a discount as a result of the bulk purchasing of equipment. However, as it stands now, bulk purchasing of equipment has been stalled.

“Because Ithaca’s so small, it’s really hard for us to achieve that threshold of customers, so that a manufacturer would be willing to do bulk business with us,” Evans said. 

Renters have raised additional worries related to any process of retrofitting, including electrification. If landlords choose to electrify their buildings, they might value apartments at a higher rate, charging tenants more and possibly giving grounds for their eviction.

Katie Sims ’20, a leader in the Ithaca Tenants Union, voiced similar concerns.

“One of the things that really concerns the Tenants Union about the electrification plan is that we need to know [that] if the City is going to be pushing electrification, we're not going to lose our houses or get rent hikes we can't afford,” Sims said.

For Sims, amid steadily rising rent prices, there isn’t room for the price to keep going up. Although the IGND is said to be committed to equitable environmental change, Sims doesn’t see this as a reality.

“I feel like those goals were abandoned in favor of pushing forward the project and working more with landlords, and it's leaving tenants, who are 70 percent of the population of Ithaca, wondering about whether or not our homes are going to be protected,” Sims said.

Ideally, Sims says that the passage of policy such as Right to Renew legislation, also called Good Cause Eviction laws, would make tenants feel much more secure going into the retrofitting process. However, ever since their Right to Renew campaign, which would have placed restrictions on landlords seeking evictions, failed in 2021, concerns that they would preempt existing state laws have meant similar policies have been left to the New York State to pass.

Evans acknowledges the fears of renters but added that environmental improvement is not totally separate from the wants of renters. 

“I think those concerns are entirely valid, and I share them, but sustainability is just part of this ecosystem of things that are needed,” Evans said. “So when we make those energy investments in properties, it dramatically improves the way that people live inside of buildings.”

Sims agrees. The improvements, she says, could help solve other problems with the quality of living in rented housing.

 “Ultimately, as long as tenants get what they need out of this, these kinds of building upgrades could be really beneficial for us … We just hope that we don't lose our housing in the process.”

For the First Baptist Church, though, electrification was a clear choice. When the church realized electrification was a possibility, they did what they do for all churchwide decisions — put it to a vote. The resolution passed unanimously.

“Everyone’s in favor of it,” Fry said. “They were excited. It's a very environmentally active congregation, and we were very happy that it was possible to do.”

“We wish to save the planet, and we wish others do the same,” Fry said of his congregation’s vision for a sustainable future.

Benjamin Leynse ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].