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Halfway to Ithaca’s Green New Deal deadline, progress is mixed

A mural in downtown Ithaca celebrates the city's Green New Deal, which passed in 2019.
Rebecca Redelmeier / WSKG News
A mural in downtown Ithaca celebrates the city's Green New Deal, which passed in 2019.

Earlier this month, the city of Ithaca announced the first group of 10 commercial buildings that will be fully electrified in the months ahead, marking progress towards the city’s commitment to achieving community-wide carbon neutrality within a decade.

But that step still leaves the city a far way off from achieving the electrification goals laid out in the Ithaca Green New Deal — the landmark resolution the common council passed in 2019, which made headlines across the country for its ambitious commitment to curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

The goal was for Ithaca to transition away from relying on non-renewable energy sources, largely through taking buildings off of gas and electrifying them instead. In the process, the resolution also aimed to address historic inequalities by ensuring 50 percent of funds used to achieve the Green New Deal’s goals were invested into disadvantaged communities.

Progress towards those goals, however, has been rocky. Most buildings still remain hooked up to gas, and other key initiatives to ensure the energy transition is equitable have stalled.

Now, halfway to the deadline, organizers and officials involved are working to get the city back on track — and confronting challenges that stand in the way.

“If we say we're going to decarbonize by 2030, and it's already 2024 — we need to pick up the pace,” said Ace Dufresne, an Ithaca High School student who now helps lead the local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a national, youth-led group aiming to address the climate crisis.

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The group was instrumental in pushing the city to adopt the resolution in 2019. But Ithaca has undergone intense shifts in the years since then. The pandemic and student turnover changed the makeup of environmental advocacy groups in the city, while common council members and city hall officials were voted out or chose to leave. Those changes include the resignation of Ithaca’s former director of sustainability, Luis Aguirre-Torres, who voiced deep concerns over the city’s commitment to the Green New Deal’s goals when he left office in 2022.

Even with progress now underway, the city has faced challenges getting the electrification effort scaled up.

So far, out of 10 overarching initiatives to help the city achieve the resolution's main goals, six are in progress or ongoing, according to the Ithaca Green New Deal Scorecard, a platform to keep track of the progress. But four others have stalled, including a key one called Justice 50, which is meant to ensure that the city transitions towards carbon neutrality in a way that reduces inequity. The city’s common council has yet to vote on the Justice 50 proposal.

Ithaca residents gather at a meeting of the local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a national climate advocacy organization, in February. The group is pushing the city's common council to make swift progress on its Green New Deal commitments.
Rebecca Redelmeier / WSKG News
Ithaca residents gather at a meeting of the local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a national climate advocacy organization, in February. The group is pushing the city's common council to make swift progress on its Green New Deal commitments.

To Rebecca Evans, who took over from Aguirre-Torres as Ithaca’s director of sustainability, the new challenge is revving up momentum among officials and community members to prioritize achieving the Green New Deal’s commitments.

“It's not taking a long time because nobody cares,” said Evans, who previously was involved in the local Sunrise chapter before taking office at city hall. “It's taking a long time because our entire city is changing, our entire government changed this year. So it's sort of a perfect storm of delays.”

Other elements have complicated the process too. The city contracted with a technology company called BlocPower to manage the electrification process, but that partnership took months to get off the ground. The local electric and gas utility, NYSEG, also used to provide financial incentive for non-residential buildings to electrify, but that “gas-kicker” program has since ended.

Evans said the delays demonstrate the challenges of getting the processes in place and people on board for a mass electrification and decarbonization effort — challenges that few understood well when the amendment was first adopted.

However, she pointed out the recent building electrification project as representative of the strides the city has begun to take. That project will prevent nearly 680 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the city. It cost nearly $2 million, with about three-quarters of the cost subsidized by state and federal incentives.

Other recent developments include updates to the city’s energy code, which now requires all new buildings to have net-zero emissions by 2026, and the launch of the Electrify Ithaca program to help reduce building electrification costs. A new job training program, called Cozy Basements!, overseen by BlocPower and run by Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County, is also training more residents to perform energy-saving home weatherization work.

For some environmental advocates, those steps show the city is moving in the right direction.

“Even if we don’t meet the exact 2030 deadline, we’re still making good progress,” said Thomas Hirasuna, co-chair of the Finger Lakes region chapter of the Climate Reality Project, the group that runs the scorecard. “Our deadlines are still a lot earlier than a lot of other communities'.”

Others have pledged to continue to push the city to prioritize its Green New Deal commitments. Those include Ruth Yarrow, who lives in Ithaca’s Southside neighborhood. On a recent Saturday morning, she walked through her neighborhood, aiming to spread the word about electrification opportunities.

So far, she said, the city has failed to engage her neighbors about the issue. She hopes that with renewed momentum — and a push from environmental advocates, including members of the local Sunrise chapter — that might change.

“The Green New Deal is not on people's minds, it really hasn't reached our neighborhood,” Yarrow said. “This lofty goal of electrifying Ithaca by 2030 isn't going to happen unless we put a lot of effort into reaching people where they are.”