Tompkins Weekly

Green energy sees progress; leaders discuss next steps

Net-zero emissions within reach, officials say


A herd of sheep graze under a community solar array in Newfield. Green energy is a big focus area for Ithaca and Tompkins County administrations as they work to reach net-zero emissions on city- and county-owned buildings. Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University.

Within the past two years, two big green energy efforts were launched — the city of Ithaca’s Green New Deal and Tompkins County’s Green Facilities Capital Project — but it wasn’t until recently that those plans have really found their momentum, even garnering national attention.

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick told CNY Central last week that the White House called last Thursday to see how national administration can help the city achieve its goal to move all city buildings off fossil fuels by 2030 and help other cities do the same.

The biggest piece of recent news regarding these efforts is the city of Ithaca Common Council’s unanimous approval of phase one of Ithaca’s Green New Deal last Wednesday, where the city will retrofit 1,600 homes, partnering with Brooklyn-based BlocPower to do so.

“I cannot have a city that barely manages an $80 million budget to manage a $100 million problem,” said Luis Aguirre-Torres, director of sustainability for the city of Ithaca. “We need to have a third party managing this, but it has to be an open process. So, I suggested, ‘Why don’t we have an RFP [request for proposal] to identify a company that will manage the program?’ … So, we issue an RFP to do that. And we selected a company called BlocPower.”

Keith Kinch, general manager and co-founder of BlocPower, said he was glad they were approached by the city.

“We are honored to be selected to make Ithaca the first city to go green and look forward to working with local partners, such as Taitem Engineering, Alturus, Energetic Insurance and Cornell Cooperative Extension Energy Warriors and the residents of Ithaca,” he said in an email. “All buildings will be assessed prior to being issued a recommendation to improve overall energy performance utilizing BlocPower’s software. In order to reach the goals the city of Ithaca has put forth, we all need to work together.”

Earlier last month, at the County Legislature’s Oct. 19 meeting, legislators unanimously passed bonding toward the first phase of facilities improvements under its Green Facilities Capital Project — which aims to reduce net carbon emissions for county facilities to zero by the end of 2026 — after a presentation from Director of Facilities Arel LeMaro, Chief Sustainability Officer Terry Carroll and representatives from Johnson Controls.

Arel LeMaro, director of facilities for Tompkins County administration, was tasked by former County Administrator Jason Molino with forming plans to “aggressively” decarbonize the county’s buildings and vehicle fleet as part of the county’s Green Facilities Capital Project. Photo provided.

“It’s a three-phase plan,” Carroll explained. “Starting now into the next couple of years, we’re going to be looking at our buildings and seeing the improvements that we can make in terms of lighting upgrades, weatherization, air sealing, insulation. … You name it, we’re going to be taking a look at it — water conservation, battery storage, solar heat pumps, all of that good stuff. And so hopefully, after that work is done, our buildings will pretty much be net zero.”

Aguirre-Torres joined the Green New Deal team last spring, and it was mainly his vision to make Ithaca’s buildings net zero all at once versus piecemeal. Under his plan, the city has already attracted private investors that are providing $100 million in zero- to low-cost loan and leasing programs that Ithaca’s home and building owners will then be able to use to pay for green energy improvements on a large scale.

“The problem is volume,” he said. “It’s like going to Costco versus going to Wegmans. … If I am going to buy one thing of anything, obviously, the person who’s selling it has absolute control on the price. But if I come and say, ‘I want to buy all of the ones you have,’ I have control of the price. So I figure, OK, I need to create economies of scale and bulk purchasing power. So, how do I do that? Volume, and in this case, volume meant well, every single … building in the city.”

LeMaro and Carroll had a similar approach to the county’s Green Facilities Capital Project, building off of other improvements done several years ago, though the county’s efforts are currently only focused on county-owned buildings.

“The projects that we did 16 years ago, at the time, there weren’t that many in the public sector,” LeMaro said. “We benefited from that because shortly thereafter, the utility prices started going up back then. And we were in a good position because we’d already made those energy improvements. And the same now. In order to really reduce our carbon emissions even further, we have to do these projects. And so, the legislature is supportive of that.”

LeMaro said that now that the expenditures for the county’s project have been approved, the next step is to start the “detailed engineering for these projects, where we’ll really look much more in detail on the costs.”

“We’re going to be looking [at] doing the detailed engineering for all three phases, although we’re only initially implementing phase one for the next two years,” he said. “And then, we have engineering ready to go for the subsequent two cases in 2024 and then the last phase in 2026. … After the engineering, probably late spring, early summer next year, then we move forward with the implementation.”

While the city works with BlocPower to tackle green energy in buildings, Aguirre-Torres said that he’s also working on a community choice aggregation program to help further green energy work in the city, including giving residents access to resources like solar farms. Community choice aggregation, as he described, “empowers a municipal government to procure electricity on behalf of its citizens and become an intermediary between the utility company and the people.”

He added that he’ll also be working closely with communities of color in the coming months to develop a climate justice program that “would give the city some guidelines in terms of how we can implement programs in order to guarantee that they’re always equitable and in pursuit of social justice at the end of the day.”

Both county and city officials said that once green energy for buildings is tackled, the next step is to address vehicles, like bringing on more electric cars to city and county fleets and adding more electric vehicle charging stations throughout the county.

Sources agreed that the benefits to the city’s and county’s green energy projects will be far-reaching, including addressing climate change and creating local jobs.

“The effects of climate change are well documented, and every sector of the nation and the world needs to affect change,” said Interim County Administrator Lisa Holmes. “This is what we can do in the public sector. … But the other side of it, too — it’s an investment in the green economy and green jobs. So, while we’re getting there, good things can come of it in terms of workforce and engagement in green jobs.”

Terry Carroll, Tompkins County’s chief sustainability officer, recently spoke to the Tompkins County Legislature on his and others’ progress regarding the county’s Green Facilities Capital Project. Photo provided.

Carroll added that he sees the county’s green energy efforts as impacting municipalities far outside the county.

“Municipalities, in general, are pretty traditional — very few of them want to be the first one to do something,” he said. “We’re all risk averse in municipal government because we’re working with taxpayer funding. You don’t want to waste taxpayer dollars. So, if we can be the ones that are willing to take a little bit of risk — educated risk, I want to stress that — and show that it’s possible, that allows the other local governments to say, ‘Hey, they’ve done it. It’s safe. We feel comfortable trying the same thing.’”

The Green New Deal and Green Facilities Capital Project have both received widespread support from residents and local leaders alike, including those involved in green energy efforts at Cornell University like Sarah Brylinsky, Erik Eshelman and Matthew Kozlowski.

Brylinsky is the assistant director of Cornell’s Campus Sustainability Office, and she said she’s glad that Ithaca’s Green New Deal “explicitly prioritizes an equity-driven financing approach to a climate-smart future.”

“When we look at our footprint or graphs of our energy use and our climate impact as a county and look at the biggest pieces of the puzzle, it’s easy for us to then prioritize efforts towards the largest players or the largest systems, which are not necessarily the people or the factions of our community that need the most support to actually have greater comfort, have greater access and have financial savings to be a part of the move to a more climate smart future,” she said. “So, the emphasis in the Green New Deal on financing mechanisms and on an equity-driven approach is a smart one and something that I think is really important.”

Eshelman, university engineer and director of facilities engineering at Cornell, added that he looks forward to the role Cornell will play in helping Ithaca reach its green energy goals.

“Ithaca and Cornell are in a unique position,” he said. “To have to have an institute of higher education located in this part of New York, it just provides a lot of opportunity for a university and a community to partner. And we see that. Examples are our work together on the energy code supplement and other aspects. But I just think that we’re in a really neat position to be able to collaborate between the university and a community to come up with innovative solutions.”

While these efforts are set to be beneficial for county communities, as more green energy efforts are taken in the next decade or so, residents will have to expect a lot of adjustment, as Kozlowski, civil and environmental engineering section manager at Cornell, explained.

“We have to … wrestle with the issues of change that these new technologies and these new demands will have on us, on us individually, on us in our communities, what we’re comfortable with and what we’re going to be seeing into the future because, clearly, it’s a change that needs to happen,” he said. “And it’s whether or not people can embrace it, or just kind of have to get through it. It’s tough.”

For more information about Ithaca’s Green New Deal, visit cityofithaca.org/642/Green-New-Deal. To learn more about the county’s Green Facilities Capital Project, visit t.ly/FjFw.

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