Palo Alto's green community buzzed with excitement Monday night as the city joined an elite club of municipalities that draw all their electricity from carbon-free sources.
With little discussion and no dissent from any council members or from the public, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a staff plan for achieving a 100 percent carbon-free electric portfolio this year.
The plan, which had also been approved by the Utilities Advisory Commission, specifies that the carbon-neutral portfolio would not have a cost impact greater than .15 cents per kilowatt-hour. Staff estimates that the new policy would cost an average residential customer about $3 per year.
To get to 100 percent carbon neutrality, the city is relying on its existing renewable-energy sources, including wind farms, solar energy, renewable gas captured from landfills and hydro-electric generation, which provides about half of the city's entire electricity load. While these sources make up the vast majority of the portfolio, the city would fill in the remaining gap with new contracts and, if needed, by purchasing "renewable energy certificates" in the short term. These certificates support renewable energy from other regions of the state and country and allow the city to claim credit for the carbon-free energy.
The council gave the green light to the plan when it approved its consent calendar, a list of items that get voted on at the same time. While "consent" items typically get approved with no discussion, Councilman Pat Burt wavered from the typical process to recognize what he called "a really significant event." Burt said he has heard for a long time from many people across the country and from other nations that getting 100 percent clean electricity is "unimaginable and unobtainable" without high costs. By moving ahead with the plan, the city is proving these naysayers wrong, Burt said. Palo Alto, he said, has "disproved the claim" that a strong economy and clean energy are "mutually exclusive ambitions."
"There are a lot of eyes on what we're doing here from the environmental arena," Burt said.
The council's action drew much praise from some of the leaders of the city's robust environmental community. Bruce Hodge, founder of the group Carbon-Free Palo Alto and leading proponent of the new policy, praised the council's action Monday night and said the city has now "vanquished one of the three pillars of carbon emission" (the other two pillars are transportation and natural gas).
"We can now claim to be one of the few cities in the nation to have carbon-free electricity," Hodge said, noting that the cost of the all-green portfolio is within 5 percent of standard "brown" energy.
Walt Hays, an attorney who in 2006 chaired the city's Green Ribbon Task Force, called the Monday action a "very important step" but asked the council not to get complacent now that it has reached the milestone with its electric portfolio.
"Climate deterioration is proceeding much more rapidly than a lot of people realize," Hays said. "We have to take much more drastic actions than most people realize."
The Monday action is just the latest milestone in the city's long quest toward clean electricity, an effort that has as its blueprint the 2007 report from the Green Ribbon Task Force. In approving the carbon-free portfolio, Palo Alto joins a handful of American cities that are pushing carbon out of their electric operations. Seattle City Light, which gets most of its energy from hydroelectric sources, became the first major utility in the nation to go carbon-free in 2005. Austin now powers all city facilities with renewable energy while Aspen, Colo., looks to get its electric portfolio carbon-neutral by 2015.
In a statement, City Manager James Keene cited this latest accomplishment as another benefit of having city-owned utilities.
"As a City, we've had cheaper, greener power for our citizens for decades, and being able to make this recent move to 100 percent carbon-free electricity is just another example of how owning our own utilities pays off," Keene said.