Sustainable Finger Lakes Awarded State Funding for Heat Pump Pilot In Low-Income Rentals

Staff Report, Ithaca Times,  Jan 9, 2023

Ithaca’s Green New Deal just got an extra boost toward its climate goals. Sustainable Finger Lakes has been awarded a performance-based grant through the Innovative Market Strategies program at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to support the installation of high-efficiency heat pumps in 100 lower-income rental units in the City and Town of Ithaca. The Innovative Market Strategies program is a competitive program that provides targeted funding to support promising approaches to building decarbonization that prioritize solutions for disadvantaged communities.

The heat pump pilot has been designed to address the “split incentive” barrier to making energy efficiency improvements in rental properties. When homeowners invest in efficiency measures, they are the direct beneficiaries, and energy savings can help cover the cost of the improvements. When tenants pay the energy bills and landlords pay for the improvements, there is less motivation to invest in efficiency.

“Of course, with climate change snapping at our heels, society has to move beyond zero sum thinking and find equitable solutions that work for everyone,” said Gay Nicholson, President of Sustainable Finger Lakes (SFLX). Dr. Nicholson has worked for three decades on climate change and has focused on making sure low-to-moderate income (LMI) households are not left behind in the transition to clean energy. In 2010, she launched the Finger Lakes Climate Fund, a local carbon offset program which provides a platform for taking responsibility for travel and building carbon emissions by dispensing offset dollars in grants to LMI families to pay for insulation, air sealing, and replacing fossil fuel systems with heat pumps. To date, the Climate Fund has made 82 grants worth over $138,000 to LMI families in 10 counties, keeping almost 8,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere. Previously, NYSERDA awarded SFLX a two-year $250,000 grant to subsidize heat pump installations in LMI homes in Tompkins and Chemung Counties.

The new grant will provide $585,000 in extra incentives for heat pumps, electric panel upgrades, and heat pump water heaters in Ithaca rentals occupied by tenants earning less than 80% of median income for their household size. The project is focused on rentals in buildings with one to four units, which represents 24% of all LMI housing units in New York State. To electrify the fossil gas heating equipment currently used by many of these homes while also working to address the problem of the split incentive, the SFLX team will take a flexible whole systems approach working directly with landlords, tenants, and their equipment installers.

“We’ll be helping tenants be a full partner in the Ithaca Green New Deal by providing energy education and best practices for heating and cooling with heat pumps, along with a dozen free LED light bulbs” said Milena Bimpong, SFLX Tenant Engagement Coordinator. “Tenants will be protected from rent increases for two years and will enjoy all of the benefits of air source heat pumps including much improved indoor air quality, summer air conditioning, and cozier winter heating. Participating landlords will receive a substantial stack of incentives to help with the switch to heat pumps – and will be ahead of the curve.”

As a pilot project supported by the State, close attention will be paid to the energy savings, cost savings and overall comfort from installing heat pumps. Sustainable Finger Lakes will be supported by Performance Systems Development (PSD), an Ithaca-based small business that translates building science expertise into innovative efficiency programs, engineering services, training, and powerful software tools. PSD will support the project with energy and heat pump performance modeling software developed with support from the US Department of Energy and NYSERDA. PSD’s Compass software will increase the building owner’s confidence in savings, as well as optimize contractors’ decarbonization investment.

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