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Getting off fossil fuels is hard, but this city is doing it — building by building

A mural on the edge of downtown Ithaca, New York marks the college town's 2019 passage of a Green New Deal. The city aims to zero out its climate-warming greenhouse gases by 2030.
Rebecca Redelmeier
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WSKG
A mural on the edge of downtown Ithaca, New York marks the college town's 2019 passage of a Green New Deal. The city aims to zero out its climate-warming greenhouse gases by 2030.

ITHACA, N.Y. – Ithaca Tattoo & Piercing is closed on Mondays. But the downtown two-story brick building was bustling recently, even without customers around.

Heating and air conditioning vans were parked on the street, and crews brought equipment to replace the building's natural gas furnace with more efficient electric heat pumps. The workers sawed through flexible yellow gas hose, pulled it from the walls and hauled it out to the sidewalk. That's where building owner John Guttridge was standing and looking proudly at the growing pile of hose and old equipment.

"We have just torn out the very last of the gas appliances in this building, which we have just replaced with all air source heat pumps. So we are going fully electric," he says. Asked what this moment means to him, Guttridge says, "That my children are going to have a sustainable future on this planet.

A liberal college town in upstate New York, Ithaca pulled together widespread support for an ambitious plan to eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 — 20 years earlier than the target date the White House set for the rest of the country. But half-way through its 10-year plan to address climate change, Ithaca has seen how difficult it is to move off fossil fuels.

"If it can't work here, it can't work anywhere. I mean, it's a small city of really passionate people that care about sustainability. If we can't get to zero, then I don't know who can," says Rebecca Evans, director of sustainability for the City of Ithaca.

The core of Ithaca's vision requires shifting its 6000 buildings away from natural gas. The tattoo shop is one of only 10 commercial and non-profit buildings so far that have ripped out their gas pipes or soon will. The pace of change was slowed by the pandemic and a planning period that took longer than expected. Progress might now be picking up, and the city believes the lessons it has learned in its pioneering effort could help other communities meet their climate goals.

Ithaca's Green New Deal

In 2019 the city passed a Green New Deal resolution that also promises to address, "historical inequities, economic inequality, and social justice."

The city is focused on eliminating gas from buildings because natural gas is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas with more climate-warming power than even carbon dioxide when first released. The goal then is to switch buildings to electricity that's generated mostly from renewable electricity.

Ithaca's goal was boosted by the fact that it didn't have to battle its local gas utility over the plan. In most places, natural gas utilities fight efforts to remove gas from buildings. But Ithaca has the cooperation of its local utility.

"We support it 100%," says Pedro Azagra, CEO of Avangrid, which owns New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG). Instead of fighting Ithaca's campaign to remove gas from buildings, NYSEG has subsidized the work. Because Avangrid operates both an electric utility and a gas utility business, it may lose business on the gas side and gain it on the electric side as Ithaca shifts away from fossil fuels.

Azagra says his company focuses on running the utilities and leaves climate policy-making to officials. "The politics, the decisions and other things – I think these other people will need to decide," he says.

Still, he acknowledges that there will be challenges. The power grid, for example, will need expensive upgrades to handle all the new electricity. And then there's the sheer scale of work involved in switching buildings from gas to electric. Just one building can take months.

Brothers Logan and AJ Cole, owners of Simply Installs Heating & Air Conditioning, stand next to a heat pump they installed at Ithaca Piercing & Tattoo. This project was part of a citywide program to convert gas furnaces in buildings to climate friendly electric.
Jeff Brady / NPR
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NPR
Brothers Logan and AJ Cole, owners of Simply Installs Heating & Air Conditioning, stand next to a heat pump they installed at Ithaca Piercing & Tattoo. This project was part of a citywide program to convert gas furnaces in buildings to climate friendly electric.

For the piercing and tattoo shop, that changeover started last September with checking the building's insulation and air sealing to determine what size heat pumps were needed.

"And then we started on the permit side of things because we needed to have a crane here, in order to get the old units off the roof and the new units on the roof," says Logan Cole, co-owner of Simply Installs Heating & Air Conditioning. And because Ithaca winters are cold, they needed to keep the heat on, which means the job wasn't finished until early February.

Progress is slow but steady

Despite the slow transition so far, the city has made some progress in reducing climate-warming emissions.

"We will be slated to achieve, probably, about 30% reduction here in the next, probably, year," Evans says.

The city says the work completed on 10 commercial and non-profit buildings so far "represents a total clean energy investment of over $1.9 million, with nearly $1.4 million of that amount being subsidized in the form of eligible state and federal incentives." The number of homes converted isn't clear because not everyone gets a permit, says Evans. That's a lesson from Ithaca's experience – success can be hard to measure.

Rebecca Evans is director of sustainability for the City of Ithaca, New York. Her job is to implement the Ithaca Green New Deal, a resolution passed in 2019 that sets a goal of zeroing out the city's greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Jeff Brady / NPR
/
NPR
Rebecca Evans is director of sustainability for the City of Ithaca, New York. Her job is to implement the Ithaca Green New Deal, a resolution passed in 2019 that sets a goal of zeroing out the city's greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Without mandates, the city – like the country as a whole – relies on building and home owners to choose to reduce their carbon footprints. Some of the early enthusiasm has slipped away and the pandemic didn't help.

"When we were organizing to get the Green New Deal passed back in 2018, we had tons of people showing up all the time," Evans says. "It's really hard to get people to show up now."

She says the city has hired a new sustainability planner and hopes to boost public engagement. And she remains positive about Ithaca's role on the leading edge of reducing climate pollution.

The city has learned there are some things it can't control. Transportation accounts for 40% of the city's climate emissions, Evans says, but half of that comes from cars outside the city's jurisdiction. Then there's politics — the city council changes after elections and it takes time just to bring new leaders up to speed on detailed plans.

Ithaca contracted with a company called BlocPower to help manage the transition to cleaner energy. But it took time for the firm to hire staff and develop its own plans.

"I'm feeling a little more optimistic," says Thomas Hirasuna, co-chair of the local chapter of The Climate Reality Project, which has closely followed the city's work and documented progress in an Ithaca Green New Deal Scorecard.

While some elements, including training new workers and planning are labeled as "stalled," Hirasuna says the goal is to offer oversight and encouragement to meet the objectives of the Green New Deal.

"What's important is that people shouldn't be discouraged," Hirasuna says . Even if the city doesn't meet the 2030 goal, "Don't just give up and throw up your hands and say, well, we're not going to make it." He says achieving the goals later is better than not at all.

Replacing "the beast"

The country's complicated energy system took more than a century to build and making it more climate-friendly requires a lot of knowledge and hard work. The U.S. has committed hundreds of billions of dollars to this effort and local governments also are setting goals and creating incentives. Navigating all that change is difficult. That's where the company BlocPower aims to be useful.

"Ithaca is really our first major program outside of New York City," says Ethan Bodnaruk, Ithaca program manager for the company. He says weatherizing homes, installing heat pumps and workforce training have been the focus, so far.

Recently he helped St. James A.M.E Zion Church develop a plan to upgrade the historic Black church's heating system and add air conditioning.

"It's the oldest Black church in Ithaca. It has always been a welcoming spot for persons in and around the community," says Rev. Terrance A. King, pastor at the church.

In the sanctuary, there's a portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the wall. The tall stained-glass windows are covered with plastic to block cold air. There's no insulation, and cast iron radiators are fed by a boiler downstairs that is nicknamed "the beast."

A large natural gas-fired steam boiler nicknamed "the beast" sits in St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in Ithaca, New York. As part of the city's effort to remove gas from 6000 buildings, the church plans to replace this with more efficient electric heat pumps.
Jeff Brady / NPR
/
NPR
A large natural gas-fired steam boiler nicknamed "the beast" sits in St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in Ithaca, New York. As part of the city's effort to remove gas from 6000 buildings, the church plans to replace this with more efficient electric heat pumps.

The old steam boiler breaks down regularly and is inefficient. Bodnaruk says in designing a new system, they had to consider what the church could afford and how the building is used. On Sundays, the entire building is used, but at other times, only an office or individual rooms are occupied.

"Now they have to turn on the beast to heat the whole building just to get one room warm," Bodnaruk says. The plan is to replace the boiler with heat pumps in each room that can be turned on individually.

The company identified a mix of programs to help pay for the upgrades, which will move the church off natural gas and to electricity.

"We are incredibly thankful for BlocPower having secured about 75% of the financing costs," says church member Paula Ioanide, who first contacted the company on behalf of the church. She says the extensive work planned cost more than $200,000.

Rev. Terrance A. King, pastor, and Paula Ioanide, member, stand in the sanctuary of St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in Ithaca, New York. They worked with BlocPower to convert the gas heating system to more efficient electric heat pumps, that also will cool the building in summer.
Jeff Brady / NPR
/
NPR
Rev. Terrance A. King, pastor, and Paula Ioanide, member, stand in the sanctuary of St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in Ithaca, New York. They worked with BlocPower to convert the gas heating system to more efficient electric heat pumps, that also will cool the building in summer.

Business is brisk

This is how Ithaca is working to meet its climate goals – building by building until all 6,000 buildings eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions. There are signs the pace is picking up. Installers say business is brisk.

"I've kind of earned the nickname 'the boiler killer' because I go around taking people's boilers out," says Brian LaMorte, co-owner of LaMorte Electric Heating and Cooling.

Brian LaMorte, co-owner of LaMorte Electric Heating and Cooling, says he's earned the nickname "the boiler killer" because his business is focused on replacing natural gas boilers with electric heat pumps.
Jeff Brady / NPR
/
NPR
Brian LaMorte, co-owner of LaMorte Electric Heating and Cooling, says he's earned the nickname "the boiler killer" because his business is focused on replacing natural gas boilers with electric heat pumps.

Before Ithaca passed its Green New Deal, he was an electrical contractor. He added heating and cooling to his business, rightly predicting that the resolution would create new demand. At one point his company was so busy it booked customers a year out. He says there aren't enough installers.

"The initiative created a really large uptick in demand. All of the sudden consumers were like, 'I want these and I want them now,'" LaMorte says, but "It didn't create an uptick in the amount of contractors."

That's starting to change – several programs are underway to train new workers, including one started by the Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension office. And LaMorte is among those who've changed their business models to meet the increasing demand.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 3, 2024 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story incorrectly mentioned that a worker training program was connected to Cornell University. It is connected to the Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension office.
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Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.

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