The city of Ithaca, New York, home to Cornell University and some 30,000 people, voted Wednesday to move forward with a first-of-its-kind program aiming to decarbonize all 6,000 of its residential and commercial buildings.

Ithaca's Common Council moved unanimously to authorize a series of firms, led by Brooklyn-based startup BlocPower, to help administer the Efficiency Retrofit and Thermal Load Electrification Program, which was developed to enable the city to meet its economywide decarbonization target of 2030.

The program provides a plan to retrofit buildings with better insulation and windows to improve energy efficiency and to move off fossil fuels by replacing appliances such as gas-burning space heaters and stoves with electric alternatives to reduce carbon emissions.

Participation in the program is voluntary, but the city is already using the force of law to prohibit new builds from adding gas installations. Several cities across the country have moved to ban gas stoves to limit emissions, but the policies have proved controversial with chefs and home cooks.


Luis Aguirre-Torres, the city's director of sustainability, developed the retrofit program after being hired by the city in March to oversee its clean energy initiatives.

"I thought that it was mission impossible," Aguirre-Torres told the Washington Examiner of Ithaca's 2030 net-zero goal. "You know, everybody's shooting for 2050, so going for 2030 was crazy. That was my first observation when I got the job."

"Then the second one was, OK, I need to figure out how things work in the city," he said.

Aguirre-Torres said he then started doing some math, determining that the city's annual emissions footprint is somewhere close to 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of about 86,992 vehicles driven for one year, and that the most immediate way of denting them was to target building emissions.

For example, some 90% of buildings in the city use natural gas for space heating, water heating, and cooking, a source that could be replaced with electric heat pumps supported by additional solar panel installations.

Naturally, none of that is free, though, so planners had to devise a funding mechanism. They turned to private investors to help build a fund to pay for the program, which will also utilize state and federal incentives to bring capital costs down.

Property owners will then borrow from the fund and hypothetically pay it back using money from savings and other incentives associated with installing newer and more efficient technologies.

The next step up for the retrofit program is to introduce its pilot phase, beginning Dec. 1, which targets 1,600 buildings — 1,000 single-family and multi-family homes and 600 commercial buildings.


Beyond building emissions, the city is also developing plans to cut emissions associated with its transportation and power use.

Seventeen percent of the city's electricity comes from natural gas, so Aguirre-Torres is working on a piece to replace that share with renewable generation. He is also developing a financial program to enable residents to purchase secondhand electric vehicles more cheaply.

"We don't really have the ability to make people buy or change their internal combustion engine for an electric vehicle. So, all we can do is provide incentives," Aguirre-Torres said, noting plans to construct new charging stations and make parking free for electric vehicles.