My brilliant solution for climate change is that there is so much we can do right here in and around Ithaca. Within the boundaries of Tompkins County there are plenty of opportunities; we don’t need to travel all over the world chasing them. You can work on every major aspect of a sustainable solution to climate change right here. The solution has a name: “Testbed Ithaca.”
The first part of Testbed Ithaca is the community, also known as “social capital.” You need a group of people willing to roll up their sleeves and try things. We have that in spades in the Ithaca area. People innovate in the areas of the arts, theater, politics, opening restaurants – and launching new technologies and businesses. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t, but we always keep learning and moving forward.
Next we need opportunities to develop alternative energy. Every type of renewable energy is available within our region: solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass. The only kinds not available are wave and tidal power, only because we are not near the ocean. There are opportunities to wring more energy out of the waste stream as well. We can create bio-methane from wastewater and food waste that can then be converted to electricity and heat. The wastewater stream itself represents a source for heat pumps to provide heat in the winter and cooling in the summer. Municipal solid waste need not be trucked to a landfill in Seneca County. In Copenhagen, Denmark, they have small waste-to-energy plants sited in the midst of residential neighborhoods, and we could try that here.
Next comes the built environment, where we work, live, and play. Vibrant city centers that are desirable for living, working and shopping are not only trendy in the U.S. now, but they are good for the environment because they reduce resource consumption compared to suburban sprawl. When former factories or factory sites can be “recycled” into new purposes (as already happened with the Airplane Factory and is in various stages of progress with ChainWorks and Ithaca Gun), we have the added benefit of putting a brownfield site back into productive use.
Binding all this together is the transportation system. The name of the game is variety: Instead of depending on your personal car for everything, provide a mixture, and folks can choose the most efficient options: transit, walking, bicycling, carsharing, bikesharing, ride-hailing, or something else that gets you from A to B. There will still need to be cars, which is where electrification comes in. By using more and more renewable energy from the grid to power automobiles (and eventually buses), we gradually phase out greenhouse gas emissions from the tailpipe.
The last element is the connection to the rest of the world. It may be possible for Tompkins County to be 100% self-reliant for carbon-free energy, but it may not be, for example because of energy-intensive activities, like cutting-edge, world class research. We need not fear this. If our “export commodity” is education and knowledge, why not help some other region that has abundant solar or wind by importing from them? Know-how can be exported in other ways, too. We already have a pattern of people visiting and moving here from all over the U.S. and other countries. They bring their ideas, and at the same time learn from what we are doing here. Eventually, if all the parts of the social capital, energy system, built environment, and transportation work together successfully, Testbed Ithaca will itself become an attraction, good for both the local economy and the planet.