The Art of Creative Problem Solving

There are few problems more intractable and complicated than climate destabilization. The interaction between the myriad parts of the climate regime, the various feedback loops and the uncertainties that make it so difficult to predict what lies ahead, can seem overwhelming.

But, fortunately, there has been a tremendous unleashing of creative energy aimed at tackling this existential threat. It is this creativity — the seemingly unlimited capacity of humans to take on the most complex challenges — that is the source of our greatest hope.

One of the toughest areas to address lies at the intersection of environmental stewardship and social equity, especially at a time when the degree of inequality in American society has reached levels not seen since the early twentieth century. It was a special honor, in this context, to hear about a new NYSERDA initiative at last month’s TCCPI meeting to develop affordable, net-zero modular homes targeted to provide low-income families with a way to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint.

An example of an affordable net zero modular home. Photo courtesy of VEIC.

Working with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), NYSERDA will be spending $230 million over the next three years as it rolls out this new campaign. VEIC is a thirty-year-old nonprofit based in Burlington that is the first of the public-service ESCOs in the U.S. It has, in particular, focused on ways to provide low and moderate income families with ways to increase the energy efficiency of their homes and, in the process, provide significant cost savings for these families.

Currently, 8 million individuals live in manufactured homes in the U.S. These homes typically consume twice the energy of site-built homes. Following Tropical Storm Irene, which destroyed hundreds of mobile homes in Vermont and New York in August 2011, the call went out to replace mobile homes with modular construction.

The new net zero modular homes are equipped with solar PV systems and super efficient technology, including LED lighting, EnergyStar appliances, cold climate heat pump, heat pump water heater, and energy recovery ventilator that also monitors indoor air quality. The result is a manufactured home that not only saves the homeowner money but also reduces energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and provides higher quality, healthier homes.

It would be hard to come up with a better example of how human ingenuity and technical prowess can combine to address in one package two of our most serious problems, climate change and inequality. With the right priorities and focus, there is little doubt that more such solutions are on their way.

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Why a 2030 District in Ithaca?

The drought in the Finger Lakes this summer has been a stark reminder that climate change is already under way not just in some distant land but in our own backyard, That doesn’t mean we should throw the towel in and concede defeat, however. On the contrary, we need to redouble our efforts to reduce our community’s greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the worst that could happen.

One of the most effective ways to do fight climate change is to improve the energy and water performance of our buildings. The built environment — commercial and municipal office buildings as well as multi-family housing — is a large consumer of natural resources and generator of emissions. In fact, 75 percent of all the electricity produced in the United States is used just to operate buildings, and the building sector is responsible for 45 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions.

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HOLT Architect’s new office — the site of a former auto parts store — is near net zero energy.

The Ithaca 2030 District got its initial impetus from a 2013 visit by Ed Mazria, the founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, which issued the 2030 Challenge. Mr. Mazria was the keynote speaker at HOLT Architects‘ 50th anniversary celebration and he met with the members of the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) while he was in town. TCCPI and HOLT began soon after to explore the potential of a 2030 District in Ithaca. With the support of its coalition members, establishing a 2030 District in Ithaca became an official project of TCCPI in 2014.

The Park Foundation and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), through the Cleaner, Greener Communities program, have provided support to plan and begin building the Ithaca 2030 District. In addition, Cornell Cooperative Extension-Tompkins County, HOLT Architects, and Taitem Engineering have contributed significant in-kind gifts in the form of pro bono services.

Besides promoting crucial climate protection measures, the Ithaca 2030 District seeks to demonstrate that healthy and high performing buildings make good financial sense. District members will do this by bringing together diverse stakeholders, leveraging existing and developing new incentives and financing mechanisms, and creating and sharing joint resources. They will develop realistic, measurable, and innovative strategies to assist district property owners, managers, and tenants in meeting aggressive goals that keep properties and businesses competitive while operating buildings more efficiently, reducing costs, and reducing the environmental impacts of facility construction, operation, and maintenance.

The District builds on the TCCPI model to provide a non-competitive environment where building owners, community organizations, and professionals come together to share best practices and accelerate market transformation in Ithaca’s built environment. These collaborative efforts will establish the Ithaca 2030 District as an example of a financially viable, sustainability focused, multi-sector driven effort that maximizes profitability and prosperity for all involved.

The Ithaca 2030 District Emerges

As part of the City’s economic development program and effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Seneca Strategic Consulting and the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), together with Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County, HOLT Architects, Taitem Engineering, and the Building Performance Contractors Association of New York State, are collaborating to create a 2030 District that will showcase ways to significantly reduce the environmental impacts of building construction and operations, while ensuring Ithaca’s economic viability and profitability for building owners, managers, and developers.

These districts seek to meet the energy, water and vehicle emissions reduction targets for existing buildings and new construction called for by Architecture 2030 in the 2030 Challenge for Planning. So far, 2030 Districts have been established in many cities all over the country, including Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but Ithaca will be the first to create a 2030 District in New York.

The Ithaca 2030 District will build on the work of the TCCPI, an award-winning coalition of community leaders from the education, business, local government, youth, and nonprofit sectors that provides a place to network around climate and energy issues. Leveraging the climate action commitments made by Cornell University, Ithaca College, Tompkins Cortland Community College, Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, and the Towns of Caroline, Dryden, and Ithaca, TCCPI seeks to foster a more climate resilient community and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy.

The district will demonstrate how property owners and managers can work together to undertake energy efficiency projects in nonresidential buildings in an economically sound way. This project will create jobs in the energy efficiency sector, encouraging more investment in downtown areas, and helping to foster community revitalization. Building owners and managers will share energy, water, transportation data and case studies that will spur additional efforts to make more effective use of limited resources, improving the sustainability and resiliency of the community.

The Ithaca 2030 District is currently in the planning stage. There is a steering committee that is meeting monthly and beginning outreach to property owners and managers in the City of Ithaca. NYSERDA, through its Cleaner, Greener Communities Program, has awarded the Ithaca 2030 Districts team $90,380 against a match of $108,000 provided by the team members. Contract negotiations have been completed and the agreement with NYSERDA should be executed soon, allowing the project to get fully underway. It is anticipated the launch of the District will take place in the late spring of 2016.

Note: This article appeared originally in the Winter 2015 issue of the Commercial Energy Now newsletter.o

TCCPI Receives Cornell Sustainability Award

In honor of Sustainability Month, the Cornell University President’s Sustainable Campus Committee presented the second annual Partners in Sustainability Award to the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) on Friday, April 29, 2011.

The award recognizes TCCPI for its ongoing partnership in regional carbon reduction strategies. Cornell cited TCCPI as an effective partner in the regional effort to conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions. “By recognizing groups that partner with higher education institutions to advance sustainability, we build on the successes of research and teaching, and acknowledge that we must also bring together practitioners and leaders throughout the world in support new policies and practices,” Daniel Roth, Cornell University sustainability manager, said.

Cornell’s Partners in Sustainability Award is given each year to one or more recipients who have made significant contributions to the sustainable development of New York State and the Cornell campus through collaboration with Cornell University. The 2010 recipient was the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) for its leadership in statewide energy conservation and renewable energy initiatives.

Gary Stewart, director of community relations at Cornell University, wrote in an Ithaca Journal op-ed earlier this week about how collaboration among the varied members of the TCCPI coalition is at the heart of its organizational culture. As he observes, “TCCPI represents the spirit of new-era democracy, with bigger-business advocates sitting next to Snug Planet, with large-scale power generators conferring with EcoVillage, or with Tompkins County Solid Waste having the opportunity to compare notes with Museum of the Earth. TCCPI sessions are about partnerships and progress in Tompkins County.”

Partnerships are the key to building a more sustainable future. Only if we harness the power of the network will we effectively address such issues as climate destabilization and clean energy. Especially in the context of the current national and international stalemate on climate policy, it is clear that communities must take up a collaborative effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, and adopt renewable energy technologies. TCCPI is honored to receive the 2011 Partners in Sustainability Award from Cornell University.