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To fight climate change, Ithaca votes to decarbonize its buildings by 2030

Solar farms surround trees at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The city voted Wednesday night to decarbonize the city's buildings and install more energy efficient appliances and more solar panels. The city says the move will cut 40% of their carbon emissions.
Solar farms surround trees at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The city voted Wednesday night to decarbonize the city's buildings and install more energy efficient appliances and more solar panels. The city says the move will cut 40% of their carbon emissions.

In a groundbreaking move this week, the city of Ithaca, New York, voted to decarbonize and electrify buildings in the city by the end of the decade — a goal that was part of the city's own Green New Deal and one of the portions of the plan that will help the city become carbon neutral by 2030.

Ithaca is the first U.S. city to establish such a plan, which the city says will cut Ithaca's 400,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide emissions by 40%. The timeline to achieve its goal is much sooner than what other cities around the world have pledged to do.

Ithaca's move away from natural gas and propane comes amid a broader political battle over the shift to renewable energy. In more than a dozen states, lawmakers backed by the gas industry have fought local efforts to ban gas hook-ups and electrify buildings. In Ithaca, though, New York State Electric and Gas says they are working with the city in their efforts to decarbonize.

"To fight climate change, we need to reduce carbon emissions," Luis Aguirre-Torres, the city's director of sustainability, told NPR. "The entire world is looking at 2050. [Ithaca] was looking at 2030, so it was an incredibly difficult thing to achieve."

The process of decarbonization and electrification of buildings in the city will mean installing solar panels and replacing natural gas stovetops with electric ones. It'll also involve installing more energy efficient heat pumps. In June, the city passed legislation saying that newly constructed buildings and buildings being renovated are not allowed to rely on natural gas and propane, which means the entire city will move away entirely from natural gas and propane, Aguirre-Torres said.

"I believe we are the first in the world to attempt something so crazy, to be quite honest," he said.

Aguirre-Torres said Wednesday night's vote is worth celebrating because of their unique accomplishment — but he's also celebrating how replicable he believes this project is.

"We demonstrated this works and it can be replicated all over the United States."

Researchers say it's an ambitious timeline

Timur Dogan from Cornell University is one of the researchers helping the city of Ithaca with its efforts to become carbon neutral.

He said cutting down on how much energy buildings use, rather than focusing on other emissions is "low hanging fruit" — it's easier to accomplish because the technology to fix it already exists. And the impact is significant.

"More than 40% of the global greenhouse gas emissions are produced or somewhat related to buildings, with heating with gas or fuel oil and the electricity that buildings are using," Dogan said.

The timeline to make the city carbon neutral by 2030 is a "very ambitious agenda," he said. Since last summer, Dogan has been gathering data to help the city through the process and will present his findings to the city in the next few months.

A "social restructuring" in the fight for climate change

For Aguirre-Torres, the vote to decarbonize is significant in itself, but he's also excited about who is doing the work behind the scenes with him.

BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based climate-tech startup, was selected to partner with the city of Ithaca in 2019 in the plan to decarbonize its buildings. BlocPower, founded by Donnel Baird, primarily works with low-income communities and communities of color to achieve safer and healthier decarbonized buildings.

Aguirre-Torres, who is Latino, says working with Baird and others at BlocPower gave him a lot of hope, especially while working in a city such as Ithaca, which is predominantly white.

Data shows those working the environmental movement are overwhelmingly white. The work he and Baird's team are doing in Ithaca also shows a "social restructuring," he says.

"When you think about the demographic composition of upstate New York ... and then you have a brown dude like me and a couple of Black guys at BlocPower driving this transformation, it gives you hope that a lot of things are happening not only that are technological and financial. There is a social restructuring happening in our community," he said.

"At the core of everything is this structural change that we're witnessing and I think it's a beautiful, beautiful thing."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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