ITHACA, N.Y.—After being approved over eight months ago, the City of Ithaca’s nationally recognized plan to electrify its building stock kicked off on Thursday at the Southside Community Center, which will be the first building in the city to be fully electrified.

Conceived by Ithaca’s Director of Sustainability Luis Aguirre-Torres, the program is the first of its kind. The city has entered into an agreement with Brooklyn-based company BlocPower to see the project through and attracted capital to create low-interest loan and lease programs with low bars of entry for households of all income levels to be able to invest in measures to decarbonize their homes.

The unprecedented nature of the agreement, Aguirre-Torres said, was the main reason why the contract sat in limbo for months. In the time since November, there has also been high turnover in local politics with former Mayor Svante Myrick stepping down, and half of the City’s Common Council changing.

With the details ironed out, and the work ready to commence, the goal for Ithaca and BlocPower to electrify the entire city’s building stock by 2030 which, if renewable energy is powering the city, is estimated to address close to 40% of Ithaca’s carbon emissions.

An initial $100 million for the loan and lease program is coming from Alturus, a financial services company that also provides decarbonization services to companies. These funds, Aguirre-Torres said, are estimated to support retrofitting and electrifying between 1,000 and 1,500 of Ithaca’s 6,000 buildings.

For the plan to work, public buy-in will be necessary, but the city and BlocPower have decided to approach home and building owners to encourage them to voluntarily enter the program. The investments into electrification and efficiency, they say, can very well pay for themselves in the long run.

While an effort to decarbonize the city’s building stock is incredibly ambitious on its own, it is just a component of what is a staggeringly high mark that Ithaca has committed to meet by 2030: 100% city-wide decarbonization. That’s the commitment of the Ithaca Green New Deal (IGND) adopted by the city in 2019.

“That is absolutely nuts, right?” Aguirre-Torres said, excitement carrying his voice to a crowd of 60 people gathered in front of the South Side Community Center.

While it remains unclear if Ithaca will meet the lofty goal of the IGND, the groundwork that has been layn in pursuing it has put the city of gorges on the map as a leader in the energy transition and fight against climate change. The City of Menlo Park in California has also partnered with BlocPower to electrify its building stock.

“We’re gonna do something that nobody has tried before, because that’s what this community is about,” said Aguirre-Torres. “We’re about being first and not because we like being first, because the reality is that, if not us, then who the hell is going to do this?”

Being first will come with its challenges. In the immediate future, the persistence of the national labor shortage, supply chain disruptions, and rising inflation are hurdles that need to be navigated as the electrification program is pursued. 

BlocPower’s roots are in providing job training within the communities the company has worked within, and focusing on electrifying low-income buildings, and that company has committed to carrying that approach forward in Ithaca by training workers to execute building electrification projects, and energy audits.

The opportunity to do a city wide electrification and energy efficiency has been one BlocPower has been looking for for a long time, said the company’s CFO, Cullen Kasunic. 

The company has gone through explosive growth in recent years. BlocPower made Fast Company’s list of World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies of 2022, ranking number 4 to beat out the likes of Microsoft and SpaceX.

“We’ve been working in community organizing, community development for a very long time. And I think it really will be a very successful model for fighting climate and building decarbonization,” said Kasunic.

And the model Ithaca is championing comes with the promise to prioritize the needs of households and individuals that the effects of climate change stand to impact the most. Now the Ithaca Green New Deal has the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to that promise as it embarks on electrifying its building stock.

“At the end of the day equity has to be at the core of everything that we do with the [Ithaca] Green New Deal,” said Aguirre-Torres.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn