An aerial view of the city of Ithaca.

Students help Ithaca building owners see progress on emissions

In May, on top of exams, work for his engineering project team and prep for summer opportunities, Joey Armstrong ’25 was crunching numbers for the community.

As an intern for the Ithaca 2030 District, an initiative to reduce the carbon footprint of Ithaca’s commercial buildings, Armstrong is one of a number of Cornell students who have been responsible for calculating and making legible the district’s progress.

Cornell impacting New York State

According to Armstrong’s work on this year’s annual report, released May 17, the progress is good: In 2023, property owners of 43 Ithaca buildings achieved 37% in energy savings, with a 10% increase in savings over 2022. Water use is down 46%, with a 6% reduction from the previous year. And the district as a whole reached 2025 targets while also adding more than 150,000 square feet of space committed to the project.

“Seeing the progress of the buildings, and seeing them get closer to or even surpassing their 2025 targets has been really rewarding,” said Armstrong, a chemical engineering major in Cornell Engineering. “It’s been really cool to learn about sustainability on a local scale and to learn specifically about Ithaca.”

The Ithaca 2030 District is one of 24 districts in the U.S. and Canada that have committed to goals, set by the nonprofit Architecture 2030, to reduce the energy and water consumption of commercial buildings, which are major contributors to greenhouse gases. In Ithaca, commercial buildings contribute an estimated 38% of total emissions. Property owners voluntarily opt in to the district and receive recommendations and support in how to reduce emissions, as well as the data tracking and progress reports compiled largely by Cornell students.

Armstrong’s work builds off the contributions of previous interns, many of whom have gone on to careers in sustainability, such as solar energy development, consulting, and state and city government positions. Aurora Namnum Robertson ’19, now a senior policy analyst for environmental sustainability and resiliency in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, helped launch the Ithaca 2030 initiative in 2016 and stayed with the project throughout her time at Cornell, as well as a year after graduation. Two years into her work, she saw a need to better communicate buildings’ progress both internally and externally, to the property owners and the community.

“Before, we didn’t really have a central way to see how the buildings were performing or to track progress or see how far they were from their targets,” said Robertson, who majored in civil and environmental engineering in Cornell Engineering.

Robertson taught herself how to code and created a public-facing dashboard for the district and private dashboards for each building, where stakeholders can easily see the energy and water use and progress over time. Subsequent interns have tweaked, added to and maintained the dashboards, and used them, as Armstrong did, to compile data for annual reports.

“The dashboard is really the backbone of the whole operation. It gives us something to communicate with the building owners in terms of the progress they’re making,” said Peter Bardaglio, executive director of the Ithaca 2030 District and founder of its parent nonprofit, the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative. “We’re by far the smallest district, but we like to think we punch above our weight, and the dashboard, created by our interns, is a big part of that.”

For the students, the internship has provided an opportunity for real-world problem-solving and to channel their passion for sustainability to make an impact.

“I was so well-prepared because of this experience, and I gained a lot of skills that I’m honestly still using today, in communicating with people, in knowing how to translate the engineering, math and science to a real estate or business owner and to just really focus on the why of what we’re doing,” said Robertson, who recently played a key role in drafting New York City’s first climate budgeting publication, released in April, which evaluates how past and future budget decisions contribute to climate goals and needs. “I’m so thrilled to see it continue and to see students still involved.”

The experience has also connected students to the community. Armstrong said his knowledge of specific buildings adds layers of meaning to a walk around downtown, and to his time in Ithaca generally.

“And it makes me think of the town I’m from in North Dakota, and whether we could do something similar. It’s really fascinating to me,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong will stay on with the project through his senior year, while seeking candidates to take his place and then training his successor, in a tradition of continuity that both makes the job easier and passes on an enthusiasm for the opportunity.

“I’m just so impressed with these undergraduates,” Bardaglio said. “Not just for their smarts but their communication skills, the way they present themselves professionally. I think they’re really purpose-driven, because they understand the challenge that’s facing them, and they want to be a part of the solution.”

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Kaitlyn Serrao