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The policy team in a pre-COVID semester.

ITHACA, NY -- Ithaca is on a mission to reach carbon neutrality by 2030, and a group of students at Cornell University are trying to figure out how to get there. Sponsored by the Systems Engineering Program, the Ithaca Carbon Neutrality project aims to help the city, town and county consider possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in relation to existing buildings’ heating and cooling systems. The group looks at things like applicable policies, retrofits, effectiveness and equity considerations. 

“Basically it’s how do we get there and fund it, and how do we reduce carbon emissions in buildings that are already here,” project team leader Everett Sanderson said. “There are two main segments, the policy team and the modeling team.”

The modeling team uses energy data to build models of individual buildings to see how ideas for changes would affect the overall emissions, while the policy team looks at what policies the city can enact to get to their carbon neutral goal.

The team has been active since fall 2019, and was created at the request of Nick Goldsmith, the sustainability coordinator for both the city and town of Ithaca.  

“Our final deliverable is to offer a report to the city either every semester or every other semester,” Sanderson said. 

However, recently the project team has been branching out to better support residents. Sanderson said one of the largest barriers they’ve encountered is the lack of education in the sense that there are many incentives for homeowners seeking energy efficient retrofits, but many people don’t know they exist.

“And particularly lower income communities are skeptical of the incentives,” he said. “There’s a lack of trust.” 

The project’s teams are organized around four types of buildings: public, commercial, residential and historic residential. 

“We model these buildings, a small business for example, and find the retrofits that are the best way to move toward efficiency,” Sanderson said. “We do more research every semester, but we present the things that are the most efficient.”

He also referenced the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement, which is expected to be voted on at the Common Council’s May meeting, and said that while it’s impressive and ambitious, it really only affects a small percentage of buildings in Ithaca.

“It’s going to do really good work for new buildings,” he said. “But what do we do for the housing that’s already here?”

Sanderson in their research they’ve found trying to phase every house in Ithaca in under the a new energy code would take a huge amount of manpower to both complete the labor and enforce the code. 

“Incentives are a much more effective way to go,” he said. “Make it economically feasible to do it through permit relief or tax abatements.”

As for what can be done right now, Sanderson said the energy code is a good place to start. 

“The biggest issue is buildings, which is why we focus on it,” he said. “75% of emissions are coming from buildings, and the first part of addressing that is the energy code supplement. Getting it off the ground is critical.”

He said after that, focusing on existing buildings should be the priority.

“I personally think that’s the next big step,” he said. “Getting incentives and labor in place.”

(1) comment

Beth Fischi

I hope the team remembers to include a plan for maintenance. Incentives are great, but when the companies that install such assets disappear after the initial incentive rush, it leaves strapped homeowners holding the ball. It’s important to have a local workforce trained and capable of maintaining new systems at reasonable prices.

Welcome to the discussion.

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