The City of Ithaca’s Common Council voted on Nov. 3 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.
The project will not only involve being carbon neutral in terms of day-to-day operationsbut 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 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.