A Tale of Two (Local) Cities

By: Chandu Visweswariah

“A Tale of Two Cities” is an 1859 historical novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. This blog is about the City of Ithaca, NY and the Town of Bedford, NY before and during the climate revolution.

It has been a good week from a climate perspective as United States climate policy took a U-turn with the announcement of a number of climate actions. The U. S. is rejoining the Paris Accord, the Keystone XL oil pipeline’s federal permit is revoked, the Government will buy 645,000 electric vehicles, scientific integrity will be restored, a Climate Summit will be held on Earth Day, and so much more.

To stave off the worst effects of climate change, the IPCC has been very clear that we need to cut greenhouse gases in half by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2040. The “low hanging fruit” in the decade of the 2020s consists of decarbonizing electric grids, buildings and light-duty transportation. What will be left in the 2030s is the tail of the building stock, heavy-duty transportation, ships, ’planes and industrial processes like manufacturing, mining and making cement. It is therefore extremely important to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles and decarbonization of building energy in this decade.

As an aside, General Motors announced this past week that it will sell only zero-emission vehicles starting in 2035, an announcement that “took the industry by storm.” I found the announcement mildly amusing because I don’t expect there to be a market for gasoline and diesel cars beyond 2030 – this industry is going to shift at a dizzying speed!

So, what does this have to do with London and Paris? Or Ithaca and Bedford? New Yorkers for Clean Power organized a recent webinar (slidesrecording) on how towns and cities in New York can transition off fossil fuels. Amy Turner, Senior Fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School explained that there are two legal pathways for cities and towns to get off fossil fuels for building energy. She explained that an “All-electric construction code” was a gentler synonym for a “Natural gas ban.”

Let there be no doubt about the massive harm done to our environment from methane and hence the urgency to achieve a natural gas ban.

The first legal pathway is called “Municipal home rule and police 

powers” which allow municipalities to pass regulations for the protection of its citizens. The city of Berkeley, CA has successfully banned natural gas connections to new buildings using this pathway. Mark Thielking, Director of Energy and Sustainability for the Town of Bedford explained that if the Town were providing contaminated water to citizens, it could spend public money to ensure access to clean water in an equitable way.

Given the clear harm from burning fossil fuels (such as global warming, particulate emission, carbon monoxide, indoor air quality, lack of economic opportunities), the Town of Bedford intends to appeal to “Municipal home rule and police powers” to ban gas and oil furnaces and provide assistance to citizens (with New York State help) to convert to clean energy. Bedford’s goal is 80% GHG reduction by 2030. It considers its activism as creating a new public benefit, that of “decarbonization of existing buildings.”

Specifically, Bedford is proposing spending $26.5M for upgrading 2,137 housing units, resulting in $1,001 extra tax per year per household. They will work with the New York EFC (Environmental Facilities Corporation) to obtain 15-year financing at 2.5%. Mr. Thielking points out that this is no different from when the Town spent $21M for a water filtration plant. A similar plan statewide is estimated to cost $64B. It is important to note that the energy savings from more efficient building systems will more than pay for the upfront capital cost.

There is another legal pathway, one that Ithaca is pursuing, which is to modify building codes as described in its “Ithaca Green Building Policy” website.

San Jose, CA and Santa Rosa, CA have successfully used this legal pathway. “Ithaca seeks 40% greenhouse gas reduction in 2021, 80% by 2025, and 100% by 2030,” said Nick Goldsmith, Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Ithaca. In other words, all buildings in Ithaca will be net-zero carbon by 2030 according to this plan.

The New York State Uniform Fire and Building Code allows higher local standards if the municipality can show special conditions prevailing within the local government (N. Y. Executive Law Sec. 379). This is a more difficult and bureaucratic path to pursue. Instead, the New York State Energy Conservation Construction Code allows higher local standards if the Code Council finds them to be “more stringent” than state code (N. Y. Energy Law Sec. 11-109). The latter “Energy Code” is a relatively easy way for a municipality to achieve an “all-electric construction code” which can be enforced right away even while the Code Council reviews the changes.

In the case of Ithaca, the new code (Ithaca Energy Code Supplement or IECS) has been published and distributed for public comment on January 28, 2021. It sets up a point system for compliance.

Ms. Turner of the Sabine Center at Columbia warns that there are legal hurdles in both pathways, but adds that they are not insurmountable. For example, New York State has an “obligation to serve” law. NYS 2 Public Service L. §30 says “It is hereby declared to be the policy of this state that the continued provision of all or part of any such gas, electric and steam service to all residential customers without unreasonable qualifications or lengthy delays is necessary.” NYS 2 Public Service L. §31.4 says, “In the case of application for service to a building which is not supplied with electricity or gas, a utility corporation or municipality shall be obligated to provide service to such a building.” The oil and gas industry is expected to rely on such antiquated and out-of-context regulations to challenge the legal pathways pursued by local municipalities to achieve decarbonization. Clearly Ithaca and Bedford are undaunted and charging ahead.

While it would be best to resolve these legal issues at the New York State level, it is now clear that environmentally minded and forward-leaning municipalities can run ahead with one of two different legal pathways to accelerate their decarbonization. I call on all Mayors, Trustees, County Executives and Town officials to seize on this opportunity and move rapidly to get ahead of the curve – we have just 9 years left to decarbonize our villages, towns and cities!

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