On Deadline: No more "dithering" — Palo Alto pushes 'carbon free' electricity to fight climate change
Palo Alto must "quit dithering" and expedite its carbon-reduction efforts significantly, starting with its electrical utility, City Council members unanimously and enthusiastically agreed this week (Monday, May 21).
"Dithering" and its take-action opposite became the virtual theme of City Council members discussed a plan to get the city's electrical utility to be "carbon neutral" by January 2015 — years ahead of state or federal targets.
Some wanted to move even more quickly.
"Dithering" was raised early in the discussion by Councilman Larry Klein, who recounted his recent reading a review of the book "2312," which purports to look back at 20 years of degrading conditions. It includes a section entitled simply, "The Dithering" that describes what is happening, or not happening, in the early decades of this century.
Other council members repeatedly used "dithering" as they stated their personal sense of urgency. Even City Manager James Keene picked it up following the council's official vote, which "seems to have added an 11th Commandment: 'Thou Shalt Not Dither!'" He pledged to keep the council and public informed of progress on an expedited schedule that includes completing an initial staff investigation by December. The goal is to achieve carbon neutrality in the city's electrical supply, through its city-owned electric utility, by January 2015.
Palo Alto and other cities, and the state itself, have been moving in that direction for several years. In Palo Alto, strong community interest followed completion of a Green Ribbon Task Force report several years back. But active vocal support waned in the face of economic concerns and other community priorities.
The new energy behind the "carbon-free" plan is largely the doing of Bruce Hodge, a relative newcomer to Palo Alto civic affairs but a long-time environmentalist who first tuned into climate change concerns at a Sierra Club "Cool Cities" event in 1985. He was involved in a critique of the city's Climate Action Plan. In his day job, he is a computer scientist for Adobe Systems. His wife, Elizabeth Weal, is a former Apple employee. Their two daughters also have environmental interests: Chelsea, 24, works for a clean-tech firm in Oakland and Caroline, 21, is a Stanford junior interested in psychological and social aspects involved in motivating people to become more environmentally involved.
"My vision for Palo Alto is to go the last 15 percent on electric power — the focus of the current campaign," Hodge said. "If we're successful on electricity we'll move on to bigger fish." Vehicles, for one. Buildings, for another. Manufacturing processes.
Hodge teamed up with local environmentalists, most specifically Walt Hays, who chaired the Green Ribbon Task Force.
"Unfortunately the enthusiastic momentum dissipated" after the task force finished its report, Hodge said. He formed the "Carbon Free Palo Alto" organization in 2011. He and Hays met with individual council members. They found a receptive Utilities Department under Director Valerie Fong and Assistant Director Jane Ratchye. They brought the concept to the city's Utilities Advisory Commission (UAC) last November, with detailed reports attached to the new city manager's report.
The UAC unanimously endorsed the plan in December. One council member Monday night asked why it has taken five months to get to the City Council. "It got bumped" due to heavy agendas, a staff member replied. Not likely again after Monday's meeting.
Monday, Mayor Yiaway Yeh led off by noting the city's "Palo Alto Green" program in which about 25 percent of residents pay extra to obtain clean green energy. A "Palo Alto Clean" effort is about to be launched to complement the "green" program.
"There's a lot of community interest in this area," Yeh said.
Councilwoman Gail Price said she supported the plan but cited staff concerns about "significant uncertainties" in future state and other regulations, and potential rate increases to cover added costs. She asked for examples of other communities moving toward carbon-free power.
But Klein stated his support powerfully: "There's hardly anything we're going to be considering that is more important than this item tonight," he said.
He said he had just read a book review of "2312," which describes "the first half of the 21st Century as 'The Dithering.'
"That's what our society has been doing. We've been dithering." He said global warming "will have irremediable impacts on Earth." Yet he worried that "talking about degrees of uncertainty. There is one certainty: If we do nothing we will pay far more in dollars than any here."
"To me this is the great moral issue of our time," Klein later added. He expressed disappointment that only 25 percent of residents participate in Palo Alto Green. He noted that some local neighborhood issues jam the council chambers while only four speakers showed up for the carbon-free item. He said it's nice to be a leader community but he'd like to see Palo Alto "tied with thousands of others" pushing for carbon freedom.
Councilman Greg Schmid said he is excited that Palo Alto is close to carbon neutrality, but cautioned about reliability of hydro power during parts of each year or even between dry and wet years.
The subject "is the most important issue facing our planet, Councilman Sid Espinosa said. When he was mayor last year, a member of the council of "a city to the south" contacted him and asked how he could generate support for climate-change actions, as neither the mayor or any other council members believed in global warming.
Michael Clossen, executive director of the environmental group Acterra, called the plan "an idea whose time has come.
"We have an urgent, unprecedented threat in global climate change," he said. Yet there still is dithering, much of it at the federal level — meaning that effective action must "come up from the bottom" in a way that a local action could become a catalyst for other communities and levels of government.
"We have to step up and find ways to reduce our personal footprints as well," he added.
No time for dithering along the path, either.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org with a copy to email@example.com. See his blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).