Ithaca’s Crazy Plan to Be Our First All-Electric City
PICK A COLLEGE town that would be at the forefront of the climate revolution, and Berkeley is probably top of mind. But the real action is happening more than 2,700 miles away, in snowy Ithaca, New York.
The city has one of the most aggressive climate plans in the country, with a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. It’s using a unique public-private partnership to decarbonize its 6,000 buildings in what could be a model for how to electrify cities.
If all goes according to plan, residents across Ithaca will wake up on a late-spring morning in 2030 not unlike this one. They’ll cook a quick breakfast on their induction stoves before taking their bikes or electric cars to work or school. As the front door shuts, a smart thermostat will tell the heat pump in the basement to turn down the temperature a few degrees so more energy being generated by the solar panels on the roof can be stored in a battery in the garage, ready for use later, after the sun goes down.
But first comes the hard part.
The path to Ithaca’s future started back in the winter of 2018. Protesters took over congressional offices, bird-dogging elected officials on their walk to the Capitol and cheering then-freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she introduced the framework for a federal Green New Deal in Congress. While federal action stalled out, the Green New Deal took root locally. Ithaca was among a handful of cities that passed their own versions.
Luis Aguirre-Torres, the city’s former sustainability director, says when it comes to taking the municipal decarbonization plunge, “somebody has to go crazy first.” And he, at the behest of former Mayor Svante Myrick, was the somebody who jumped into the deep end trying to figure out how to make Ithaca’s Green New Deal a reality.
The city has already secured a line of funding to help get the program off the ground and a private program manager to oversee the electrification scheme. Acting city sustainability director Rebecca Evans says the city would love to have a ribbon-cutting on its first all-new electric building by Earth Day this year. There have been hurdles that may make that goal a stretch, but getting the money piece right was a huge step in the right direction.
While AOC’s version would mobilize trillions of dollars in federal money to decarbonize society, big cities — let alone small and midsize ones — don’t have a money printer sitting in the town-hall basement. Ithaca had a budget of about $80 million when it passed the Green New Deal: a drop in the decarbonization bucket, even for a city of its size. While the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) includes $369 billion in climate-related funding, that’s far short of the trillions needed to help Ithaca and thousands of towns like it with big ambitions and small budgets.
To get the most bang for its buck in implementing the law, the city homed in on decarbonizing every building, which cumulatively account for 40 percent of Ithaca’s overall emissions.
Residential units, however, make that goal complicated. Ripping every furnace, gas stove, and water heater out of homes across the city and replacing them with electric appliances, as well as insulating buildings for maximum efficiency, is an expensive process for homeowners. While large commercial-building owners have access to capital markets, your average homeowner or renter has few options for upgrades that can require tens of thousands of dollars in upfront costs — not to mention the robust workforce required to do the heavy lifting given the decrease in people working in trades.
“This just screamed market failure all over the place,” Aguirre-Torres says.
The city teamed up with BlocPower, a clean-tech startup that focuses on retrofitting buildings, to manage the program. The public-private partnership reflects what Donnel Baird, the CEO of BlocPower, says is the need to be “practical about how we’re going to move forward and begin emissions reduction right now” rather than waiting for the floodgates of government money to open.
All told, the program already has $100 million in funding from the private-equity firm Alturus, plus Goldman Sachs and Microsoft. The money will be used to provide low- and no-interest loans to building owners to cover the upfront costs of electrification for 1,000 residential buildings and 600 commercial ones as part of phase one. The state and Kresge Foundation have also set up a fund to help offset any losses should anyone default on their loans.
The program has created an economy of scale, allowing for the bulk purchase of electrical appliances that could cut costs by 30 percent. How the city decarbonizes the rest of its buildings remains to be seen. Zasu Scott, who advocated for the Ithaca Green New Deal and now works with the environmental coalition New York Renews, praises the project’s creative funding. But she also says the state could — and should — be playing a greater role in raising money to help cities go electric rather than relying on the private sector.
WHEN CONSTRUCTION BEGINS, Ithaca will prioritize low-income housing and communities of color. The program should, at its most ideal, create a more fair city.
Whether what Evans calls “the Ithaca model” can work in the long run remains to be seen. Other cities, notably California’s Menlo Park and San Jose, have already tapped BlocPower to bring the model to town. But Ithaca is in the midst of a reboot after Aguirre-Torres and Myrick resigned last year for unrelated reasons. The war in Ukraine and rising interest rates changed the calculus for the worse, but the IRA, which includes numerous rebates and tax credits for electrification, improved the outlook.
If the Ithaca model proliferates or, even better, gets a boost from federal or state governments, the benefits could be enormous to both reaching the Biden administration’s climate goals and saving people money. Rewiring America, a nonprofit for which Aguirre-Torres is now a senior adviser, estimates electrifying every home in the U.S. could save households $27 billion annually.
All eyes are on Ithaca.