Climate Resilience (With a Little Help from Our Friends)

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Tompkins Weekly       2-22-2023

By Gay Nicholson

The Final Scoping Plan from New York’s Climate Action Council came out in December. It is likely that few people have read through it; but many are aware that it is the blueprint for action to meet the goal of the 2019 CLCPA (Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act). The goal is “to achieve a reduction in economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 40% by 2030 and 85% by 2050 from 1990 levels, which will put New York on a path toward carbon neutrality while ensuring equity, system reliability, and a just transition from a fossil fuel economy to a robust clean energy economy.”

Advocates for climate action are both grateful and relieved to see such a strong emphasis on equity in the Plan – NYS’s legislature seems to have fully embraced the need to proceed with justice in mind for all of our communities. But of course, the proof will be found in concrete plans for how to reduce emissions without placing burdens on low-income households or disadvantaged communities.

It may be no surprise that solutions to these issues might be found right here in Tompkins County.  We have a reputation for being pioneers in clean energy and climate action. Sustainable Finger Lakes has been one of the key partners in this work over the past two decades. Our Finger Lakes Climate Fund was launched in 2010 and may now be the country’s oldest local carbon offset program – as well as being uniquely conceived to address both of our nation’s most critical problems: income inequality and climate disruption. From the beginning, the Climate Fund was designed to be transparent, using voluntary carbon offsets to hire local labor to install energy improvements in the homes of low-to-moderate-income (LMI) households. To date, we have awarded over $140,000 in carbon offset grants to 83 LMI families in 11 counties of the Finger Lakes Region.

Climate Fund Coordinator Holly Hutchinson helped GreenStar customers learn how to offset their emissions. Photo provided.

Because of our expertise in the area of assuring equity while meeting our local and state climate goals, we have been entrusted with taxpayer and ratepayer dollars to expand the impact of our Climate Fund with additional incentives to help pay for the relatively expensive heat pumps that are key to getting our homes off of fossil fuels and onto renewable electricity. Heat pumps are pricey compared to putting in another fossil fuel system, but their operating costs are far lower and provide an overall savings.

In 2019, we won a $250,000 NYSERDA grant to provide extra subsidies for heat pumps in low-income homes in Tompkins County, and we are now working on a $863,000 NYSERDA grant to provide extra subsidies to get heat pumps into 100 LMI rentals in Ithaca.

We also received a $532,000 Tompkins Community Recovery Fund grant to install heat pumps in 50 LMI mobile homes.  Both of these pilot projects are complex and we will be doing our best to learn from them and share our results across New York to guide and inspire other communities to tackle the challenges of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Our NYSERDA project will address the barriers which have resulted in hardly any of the energy incentives for low-income folks reaching those who are in 1-4 unit buildings. This is the typical old house that has been cut up into apartments, generally from the era of cheap energy when nobody bothered to seal up drafts or insulate spaces. This category of housing makes up 24% of the homes of LMI folks in NYS – and it is time to figure out how to make these homes climate smart and climate ready.

Our pilot project is limited to LMI rentals in the City and Town of Ithaca, where in exchange for a substantial stack of incentives to pay for insulation and installing heat pumps, landlords will agree not to raise rents for two years since the purpose of the program is to benefit lower-income families and make them more climate resilient.

By April, we should be launching our second pilot project – this time aimed at lower-income owners of mobile homes around Tompkins County. This project is being funded in part by the Tompkins County Legislature via the Tompkins Community Recovery Fund. We will be helping mobile home owners make their homes snug and efficient while getting them off expensive fossil fuels.

All of society is going to be transitioning in the next decade to low-carbon alternatives, and we are counting on a caring community to bring everyone along. We need everyone to step off the sidelines and be accountable for their unavoidable emissions by making their travel and building carbon offsets with our local Climate Fund.

The upfront costs of skilled labor and heat pumps are very difficult for lower-income residents to afford, and our Climate Fund grants are often the gap financing that makes a job go forward.  One of our target audiences for the rental project is to help lower-income landlords with lower-income tenants access as much funding assistance as possible.

We are really hoping that our community will join our team by offsetting their travel so that we can help those most in need.  Offsetting is quick, easy, affordable… and the responsible thing to do. One thing should be clear – we cannot afford to leave anyone behind in the transition to clean energy!

If interested in these programs, email to get connected.

Gay Nicholson is the President of Sustainable Finger Lakes and creator of the Finger Lakes Climate Fund.

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