Ideas We Should Steal: Decarbonize All The Buildings – The Philadelphia Citizen

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Home » Development » Ideas We Should Steal: Decarbonize All The Buildings

Philadelphia has made progress in its decarbonization plans, but there is much more we can do. Our sustainable future requires innovative, creative, motivated leaders with a commitment to finding and implementing solutions. Here are some steps we as citizens can take:
Ian Harris, BlocPower’s business development manager, will be a speaker at our 5th Annual Ideas We Should Steal Festival on December 14 and 15. Save the date, get notified when tickets go on sale, and stay tuned for more details!
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BY Courtney DuChene
Sep. 19, 2022
If you stroll down Green Street in downtown Ithaca, you’re likely to encounter the buzz of construction. Work is well underway on the city’s forthcoming conference center, slated to be completed in 2024. The two-story, 15,000-square-foot project will feature a massive ballroom, meeting rooms and large event space. It is expected to attract 60,000 new visitors to the region each year and generate millions for the local economy.
But Ithaca’s conference center won’t be just any old meeting place: When it opens, it is poised to become the first conference center in the country that is fully carbon-free. Equipped with electric heating pumps for its HVAC system, an electric commercial kitchen, electric domestic hot water heater and an electric air recovery system to ventilate the building’s air while reducing energy costs, the center is just one piece of an incredibly ambitious undertaking.
The upstate New York college town is racing to become the first U.S. city to decarbonize all of its buildings by 2030.
Building decarbonization — we’ll get to what that means in a moment — is a first step in the Ithaca’s Green New Deal, a plan to reach net-zero emissions entirely by 2030. (Most cities, Philly included, have set their net-zero carbon emission goals for 2050.) Carbon emissions are the primary cause of human-induced global warming. They increase air pollution, melt glaciers and polar ice caps, and contribute to ocean acidification, among other life-on-earth-destroying type nefariousness.
Building decarbonization involves identifying what appliances and systems in homes and businesses are powered by fossil fuels, and replacing them with sustainable alternatives. Heating systems, clothes dryers and some stoves are commonly powered by gas. Electric heat pumps, says Ithaca’s Director of Sustainability Luis Aguirre-Torres, would replace everything except for ranges and gas water heaters.
By switching all residential, commercial and city-owned buildings from gas to sustainable sources of power, Ithaca’s decarbonization program will reduce carbon emissions by 400,000 tons per year — the equivalent of removing 78,188 cars from the road — and bring 4,000 jobs to the city in the next decade.
The city set the goal of decarbonizing all buildings city-wide last year when the then newly-hired Aguirre-Torres realized that they could make progress toward the city’s broader goal of net-zero emissions by targeting the built environment.
Globally, building emissions — from heating homes and water, using electricity and drying clothes — account for 50 percent of all carbon emitted into the atmosphere. In Ithaca, that number is a little less: 40 percent of the city’s emissions come from buildings. By comparison, when Philly first set its climate goals in 2017, buildings accounted for 75 percent of our carbon pollution.
Ithaca is unique in that it already gets 80 percent of its power from renewables. Hydroelectric and nuclear power plants generate much of the city’s electricity. (Philly, on the other hand, gets a mere 38.31 percent of its energy from nuclears; other renewables are negligible contributors to our power grid). So when a building in Ithaca transitions towards electric and away from gas appliances, it’s no longer relying on coal, natural gas or other fossil fuels. Other cities may need to focus on cleaning their power grid before decarbonizing buildings.
In June of last year, Ithaca City Council began taking action to implement Aguirre-Torres’s plan. They passed legislation banning newly constructed and renovated buildings from relying on propane and natural gas. Five months later, Council approved the plan to decarbonize citywide. Part of that approval included a new Green Building Code to reduce carbon emissions from existing buildings.
Ithaca’s decarbonization program will reduce carbon emissions by the equivalent of removing 78,188 cars from the road — and bring 4,000 jobs to the city in the next decade.
Still, Aguirre-Torres knew that there would be a number of hurdles to achieving 100 percent building decarbonization. Replacing fuel-powered systems and appliances typically comes with a hefty price tag. The average costs for installing a residential heat pump range from $4,000 to $7,500, depending on size and location. Midrange electric dryers run between $400 and $600. Electric stoves typically cost less than $1,000. Once a household goes electric, they’ll need to cap their gas line, which costs a one-time fee of between $75 and $150.
As a small college town operating on a budget of about $80 million, Ithaca couldn’t upfront all these costs. Surrounded by lakes and waterfalls in upstate New York, the city is also too far away from a major city like New York or Philadelphia to be considered a primary market for heat pumps or other technologies used to reduce carbon emissions. To achieve the city’s goals on such a tight timeline, Aguirre-Torres sought out public-private partnerships.
He found BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based startup that bills itself as “turning buildings into Teslas,” helps all manner of property owners, from small homes to corporate campuses (in June, Menlo Park, California, home of Meta, became a client) coordinate and, if necessary, finance the installation of, solar panels, heat pumps and other technologies to electrify buildings.
BlocPower was founded in 2014 by Donnel Baird. Growing up in Brooklyn, Baird lived in and near buildings with insufficient heating and cooling systems. After college, he became a community activist and worked with families like his, who struggled with poor home insulation and heating systems. When he started his MBA at Columbia, he knew he wanted to launch a business to address some of these challenges.
BlocPower began its work in Ithaca by going directly to prospective customers. “​​We go to building managers to not only inform them and educate them about the opportunities of making their buildings green, more energy efficient, and healthier and smarter, but also to help them to understand about the potential energy savings and the potential return on their investments when they do decide to electrify their building,”says Ian Harris, BlocPower business development manager. Those who want to go further receive an initial assessment, then an in-depth analysis or energy audit, if needed.
Residents can lease electric appliances from BlocPower for a monthly fee for a 15-year term. During this time, BlocPower maintains the system, and, at the end of the term, property owners can purchase the system (and take over maintenance), or install a new one. Some loan options will be available as well, through a partnership with New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
“This is an opportunity, at no money down, for a person to get a state-of-the-art system that they can rely on to make their building healthier, smarter and cleaner,” Harris says.
The City has already raised $50 million from the private equity firm Alturus, which funds sustainability projects, to fund the initial loan and lease program to retrofit. They have a soft commitment from the firm for another $50 million once the program is fully underway. The city also has a $55 million commitment from BlocPower’s financial partners and is in talks with other investors.
These monies will go to the city and BlocPower so they can upfront the cost of the appliances, building materials and labor for the retrofitting. The first $100 million will cover the costs of electrifying about 1,000 residential and 600 commercial buildings. Some projects, including the Conference Center, which received $2 million, are also receiving federal funds.
“We’re just offering very affordable, accessible financial products so people can be part of this,” Aguirre-Torres says. “People are not going to lose their houses over this.”
Homeowners can also choose to work with their banks to finance the projects and take advantage of subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act, which offers up to $2,000 in tax credits for installing heat pumps.
“We’re just offering very affordable, accessible financial products so people can be part of this,” Aguirre-Torres says. “People are not going to lose their houses over this.”
The upfront cost, experts like Aguirre-Torres remind non-experts, will be well worth it in the long run. Homeowners alone can save between $1,050 to $2,585 per year on energy bills by electrifying, the nonprofit Rewiring America reports.
Another benefit of decarbonizing: Purer air inside. A January study from Stanford found that in homes with poor ventilation or those without range hoods, gas stoves can release an unsafe amount of nitrogen oxides, a dangerous byproduct of burning natural gas, within minutes.
Ithaca is currently conducting an advertising campaign to encourage homeowners to switch from gas and propane to electricity.
Though decarbonization isn’t currently mandatory unless a property owner is remodeling, or building a new facility per the new building code, Aguirre-Torres believes that when residents see the financial and health benefits of electrification, they’ll make the switch. The city is in the process of passing a Green Building Code for Existing Buildings, which will require existing buildings to make energy-efficient upgrades.
Ithaca currently has 70 fully-electrified buildings, including commercial and residential properties. The Southside Community Center is set to become the first city-owned property to fully decarbonize. Many other property owners are in the early stages of decarbonizing.
“We’re creating fantastic jobs; we’re attracting industries,” says Aguirre-Torres, “And, we’re offering very affordable, accessible financial products so people can be part of this.”
Building decarbonization is only a part of Ithaca’s broader Green New Deal. Plans are in the works for an electric vehicle purchasing program, which would allow Ithaca’s residents to buy used EVs at a low cost, using a similar leasing model to the one developed for building decarbonization, CNBC reports. The City plans to reduce emissions from its own vehicle fleet 50 percent by 2025 and to use 100 percent renewable electricity to meet the government’s needs by 2025.
An ambitious plan requires ambitious leaders who are innovative and creative in finding solutions to our worsening climate … Green Building United is looking toward Philly’s upcoming mayoral election.
Philly has also made strides toward decarbonizing its buildings, especially larger ones. Our Municipal Energy Master Plan for the Built Environment pledged to reduce emissions from City-owned buildings by 50 percent by 2030, and we’re well on our way to meeting that goal.
The Philadelphia Energy Authority’s Commercial Property-Assessed Clean Energy program is working on helping commercial property owners make energy-efficient upgrades, including water conservation and clean power. And, the City’s 2019 Building Energy Performance Program mandates that residential buildings with at least 50,000 square feet of indoor floor space periodically make energy efficiency and water conservation upgrades.
Still, we’ve got a long way to go. Whereas Ithaca has about 6,000 older buildings in need of efficiency upgrades, Philly has hundreds of thousands. This includes Philly’s many rowhomes — 70 percent of the city’s housing stock — that are older and have fallen into disrepair. Richard Freeh, executive director for Green Building United, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable building policies and education, estimates the city has 600,000 such houses.
“We have Philadelphia residents who live in homes with leaky roofs, with recurrent mold issues, nonfunctional heat systems, where they’re using their ovens and stoves to heat their homes in the winter,” he says, “How do we go from that reality to one where many Philadelphians live in a fully decarbonized building?”
One way might be to adopt a loan and leasing model similar to that in Ithaca — perhaps even by contracting with BlocPower, or working with local EcoSave, which works with commercial building owners to go carbon-free. There is a precedent for this kind of thinking here: Solarize Philly, the public-private organization that for years has helped residents with lower-cost solar power, has started allowing homeowners to lease solar panels for their houses at no upfront costs, while also training people for jobs in the green economy.
To reach every old building in the city would be extremely expensive, considering that in Ithaca $100 million covers the costs of about 1,600 residential and commercial buildings. But there could be a way to prioritize homes in those lower-income neighborhoods most affected by climate change, perhaps by connecting decarbonization funds to existing homeowner repair programs already in place in Philly.
Like in Ithaca, an ambitious plan requires ambitious leaders who are innovative and creative in finding solutions to our worsening climate. Freeh says that Green Building United is looking toward Philly’s upcoming mayoral election for candidates who will prioritize climate and environmental justice. The nonprofit would also like to see the City implement residential energy disclosure legislation, which will help educate Philadelphians on their energy costs and the savings they could see if they make environmentally-friendly upgrades.
BlocPower’s Harris says his company has not yet started work in Philadelphia, but their experience working on over 1,000 projects in New York City — with its older housing stock, multifamily residential buildings, and plethora of historical landmarks — might make them a good fit. One of the first projects the company undertook was a three year partnership with New York City’s sustainability office to help pre-war multifamily buildings become more energy-efficient.
“We took that initial model and began to pitch to show other municipalities around the country that they could take dramatic and effective steps to assist their building owners,” Harris says.

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