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What does it take to get a home off fossil fuels? Upgrades, electrification, and a party

Todd Saddler (front) and Laurie Konwinski prepare to turn off the gas connection to their home in Itha
Rebecca Redelmeier / WSKG News
Todd Saddler (front) and Laurie Konwinski prepare to turn off the gas connection to their home in Ithaca's Fall Creek neighborhood.

There's a feeling of anticipation inside Todd Saddler and Laurie Konwinski’s house in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood on a rainy April afternoon. Friends mill about, waiting for the main event to begin. Each has been invited to what Todd termed a “valve-turning party” — a reference, he explains, to the gas connection outside.

“We’re going to proceed out to the gas valve out there,” Saddler tells the crowd, raising a beer. “And we’re going to shut off the gas, with great ceremony.”

It’s a day the couple has long been working to realize. Saddler and Konwinski built this house 20 years ago with the goal of living sustainably with low-carbon emissions. They put solar panels on the roof and installed a masonry heater, a kind of efficient, wood-burning fireplace.

In recent years, they’ve made even more upgrades, installing a heat pump and changing out their gas stove for an induction one. They also switched their electricity source to a company that offers 100% renewable energy.

That means their connection to the gas supply, which requires burning fossil fuels, isn’t necessary anymore. And now, they hope to reap some of the rewards. After turning off the gas valve — and calling the local utility NYSEG to finalize the disconnection — they won’t have to pay that bill anymore.

“We’re going to end up paying less,” said Saddler. “Because it’s almost $20 a month just to have this connected.”

The gas valve locked in its off position.
Rebecca Redelmeier / WSKG News
The gas valve locked in its off position.

For the couple, powering their home without fossil fuels marks a great achievement. But their success in going gas free has also exposed the barriers of this kind of project — the expenses, the logistics, and the lack of greater accessibility to the home upgrades they made.

“It’s not really economic justice or environmental justice yet, until more people can afford it and do it,” said Konwinski.

That reflects a reality across the state. A new report from the think tank Win Climate found that low-income New Yorkers are disproportionately burdened by unaffordable energy bills, but they don’t get the same benefit from some emission-reduction tax credits, like ones for rooftop solar installations. That’s because those credits only reduce homeowners' tax burdens. If a homeowner doesn't owe a lot in taxes, then they can’t take advantage of the full incentive.

“There's a blind spot, which is that lower-income folks just can't get as much of the subsidy that anyone else could get,” said Juan-Pablo Velez, the organization’s executive director. “The result is the money is overwhelmingly going to wealthier people, instead of going to everybody.”

New York’s Climate Act, which requires the state to curb 40% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, mandates that no less than 35% of the benefits of the state’s climate investment goes towards disadvantaged communities. But the structure of tax credits skips over lower-income New Yorkers, Velez said. And while other programs allocate funds specifically for low-income residents, those remain difficult to take advantage of, he added.

However, that could also soon be changing. The federal government recently announced a $158 million investment for New York to fund a rebate program to help families save money on energy-efficient electric appliances. At least half of those rebates will go to low-income households.

As for Saddler and Konwinski, they plan to advocate for greater access and affordability for emission-reduction upgrades. But that will have to wait until after the valve-turning party is done.

Back outside next to the gas valve, Saddler holds up his monkey wrench to the crowd of friends and neighbors.

“Turn, turn, turn!” the group cheers as Saddler pulls the wrench around.

Finally, the valve is off. As for the NYSEG gas bill, Saddler said he looks forward to not having to pay for that gas connection ever again.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists AssociationEditorCorps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.