On November 3, Ithaca, NY once again made green building history by boldly approving a program to “decarbonize” all of its 6,000-plus buildings. Ithaca’s city government (aka Common Council) voted unanimously for this measure and the city’s Director of Sustainability, Luis Aguirre-Torres has tapped Brooklyn-based BlocPower to assist in this endeavor.
Coinciding with COPS26, this measure, (the formal name is the Energy Efficiency Retrofitting and Thermal Load Electrification Program) aims to remove all forms of gas, oil, and coal energy used for heating and cooking, as well as electricity that relies on carbon energy for generation. A lofty, expensive goal, but one worth pursuing.
What does it mean to “decarbonize a building?” Although “carbon” is a widely misapplied word these days, it usually refers to an energy source that uses a carbon-based fuel at the point-of-use, carbon at the point of generation (such as coal), and carbon that is both generation and consumption (such as natural gas). Carbon is thus the dominant fuel source infrastructure that proliferated abundantly with the Industrial Revolution and to the present day is everywhere. And we’re addicted to it and don’t even know it.
So how do we get off the stuff? How can we reign in a lumbering unconscious behemoth of a monster that’s sleepwalking across the world and bumping into everything in its path? Well, don’t worry—there’s hope!
Brooklyn-based energy startup BlocPower claims to have “greened” over a thousand buildings and generally what they are referring to as “greening” is making the switch from natural gas heating to heat pump heating and heat pump cooling. BlocPower claims they can help Ithaca kick the carbon habit.
The announcement to decarbonize all of Ithaca’s buildings has created quite a stir, with a flurry of confusion as to what it really means and how it’s going to get done. Some homeowners think they’re going to be “forced” to trade in their gas boiler for a heat pump they can’t afford and believe that this is nothing more than Big Brother using sustainability as a trojan horse to exercise control. Others see this as a landmark sustainability move that has notable green building figures none other than Robert Watson proclaiming that he’s “completely thrilled” and that this could “change the world.” This puts Ithaca at the forefront of the green building movement.
Change the world? Sounds good to me, but how? Isn’t going green expensive?
Greening buildings means a whole lot of things, but at this junction in green building history one of the basic building blocks of the decarbonization transition is the switch from gas heating systems to heat pumps, and it’s that simple. And it’s not cheap. So how is this going to be done? And what if the heat pump is powered by electricity that’s generated by coal or gas-fired power plants or river damaging hydroelectric dams?
To achieve this transition Luis Aguirre-Torress and BlocPower have a plan to utilize private equity, low risk loans, and leasing options for building owners to finance the switch. Thus, the mechanism that’s going to “decarbonize” a building is the financing of heat pumps and the promise that they will save money in the long run. And basically, this means that the greening of Ithaca will depend on the bottom line—money.
Can BlocPower, private equity, and heat pump leases save the day, save consumers money, and help Ithaca achieve the larger goal of decarbonizing the city’s economy by 2030? And where do weatherization, solar panels, and occupant behavior fit in to the building equation? Luis Aguirre-Torres concludes that the effort to decarbonize Ithaca’s buildings is less of an environmental agenda and more of an economic plan, and for now that’s the plan.
In the next issue we’ll do the math, follow the money, and take a nuanced look at how decarbonization is going to work in Ithaca.
Dan Antonioli is a green developer, licensed general building contractor, and permaculture designer based in Ithaca, NY. His company, Going Green, is available to assist in a wide variety of green building projects. Visit www.going-green.co.