Ithaca Leads in New York for Net Zero Energy Building Standards

The energy use in buildings across the town and city of Ithaca is responsible for nearly 75% of carbon emissions, according to the local sustainability officials. To reduce its carbon footprint, the two jurisdictions are taking important steps to increase energy efficiency in existing buildings. First, they are making financing for new projects more accessible and affordable by participating in a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing program called Energize NY. The program provides a low-cost, long-term alternative to traditional loans to fund clean energy projects in commercially owned buildings.

The town and city of Ithaca also helped co-found the innovative Residential Energy Score Project (RESP), which works to create strong market demand for energy efficiency in existing houses reducing utility costs for homeowners, increasing energy literacy, and promoting local sustainability goals. The project offers homeowners a home energy score that can be shared with prospective buyers, tenants, or other interested parties.

More recently, city and town leaders have turned their attention to addressing the energy efficiency of new construction, establishing the Ithaca Green Building Policy that will target the rising number of new developments from the jurisdictions’ current building boom. The new policy report was adopted by the City of Ithaca Common Council on May 2 and accepted by the Town Board on May 7. Both municipalities have directed staff to codify the policy recommendations contained in the report and the draft legislation will be considered for adoption by Common Council and the Town Board.

The report is the result of months of discussion and debate and the offers a compelling framework to move new construction in the city to significantly reduce its energy usage and, ultimately, establish a net-zero standard. That goal puts it squarely in alignment with the efforts of the Ithaca 2030 District, which the City of Ithaca supports as a member.

“We estimate that the Ithaca Green Building Policy will reduce emissions on a per-building basis 40% to 50% compared to [the current] New York State code,” says City and Town Sustainability Coordinator Nick Goldsmith. “Within the next 12 years, all new buildings will need to be designed to net zero energy standards.” The final draft of the Ithaca Green Building Policy report has incorporated public comments and is currently under consideration for approval by the City of Ithaca and Town of Ithaca elected officials.

The proposed policy will help the study of energy use and water use standards in new construction projects and would also recommend policy tools to be used to implement net zero building standards through mandates and/or incentives. It will also provide policy recommendations for energy efficiency requirements and related incentives that aim to substantially reduce carbon emissions in all new buildings, while emphasizing affordability.

Two paths offer flexibility
If approved, there would be two compliance paths for implementation of the policy. The “Easy Path” is a point system where the builder chooses from a menu of options to achieve six points. By using the Easy Path, it is possible to comply with the mandate using only “affordability-driven energy efficiency measures” that would keep construction costs the same or lower.

The second method of compliance is a “Whole Building Path” that allows the use of well-known third-party programs such as LEED or a HERS rating (with specific levels required to meet the 40-50% greenhouse gas reduction). This point system highly incentivizes fossil-fuel-free development (for example, many points are awarded for the use of heat pumps).

As net zero becomes clearer and more feasible, Goldsmith says they are “leaving space” for that. Though detailed policy recommendations for 2030 were not included in the initial policy, he believes the soon-to-be approved standards “will help get people on the path to net zero” within a decade.

“For 2025, basically if you’re using the point system you just need to get more points, and if you’re using the whole building path you need to add some of the points in addition to that.” And, like most other communities, buildings are a huge part of the greenhouse gas footprint. “If we’re going to reach our long-term goals, there’s no way we’re doing it without new and deep retrofitted buildings,” adds Goldsmith.

More information on the policy is available here.

by Stacey Hobart, Communications Director