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By Douglas Moran

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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Sustainability: better management needed

Uploaded: Jun 5, 2017
I was trying to read the Staff report for tonight's Council decision on funding for the sustainability program. While measuring the effectiveness of these programs can be very difficult, I have often been disappointed that there only seems to be belief with little or no effort at analysis.

Just over a year ago, I was at a meeting where City Hall's Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) Gil Friend reported that the City had "hundreds" of initiatives. It struck me that there were more initiatives than work days in a year (guessing 235), so I asked how the initiatives were reviewed and how priorities were set. He gave a vague answer--"the usual way". The CSO has negligible staff, with most of the initiatives being handled by staff in other City Hall departments.

I failed to get through the Staff report and didn't get any satisfaction from what I managed to read. I just don't seem to still have the ability to plow through page after page of buzz words, vague generalizations and vacuous claims.

First recognize that measuring the success of the sustainability programs the City Hall is sponsoring is very different from measuring reductions in Palo Alto carbon footprint.

PA's carbon footprint: A first approximation would be to take the amount of electricity and natural gas distributed by PA Utilities and add in the amount of gasoline sold. Take a moment and think of all emissions that aren't caught by this, for example, most of the trucks making deliveries in Palo Alto get refueled elsewhere. And the reverse: If someone who has being buying gasoline outside Palo Alto replaces that car with an electric vehicle that is charged at home, that would be counted as Palo Alto increasing its carbon footprint (slightly)--we would be dinged for the increased electricity used while not getting credit for the gasoline no longer being consumed. Then try to account for the carbon footprint of all the products consumed in Palo Alto, and the foot print of handling the wastes. I hear you say "Just use national averages" (that was my first thought). However changes in local behavior won't be reflected in those averages.

Even where we can make local measurement, it can be hard to ascertain the cause. For example, there has been substantial improvements in the efficiency of many home appliances and other electrical devices--as people replace the less efficient ones we see a reduction in our carbon footprint. Similarly, as many people switched from desktop PCs to laptops and then to smart phones and tablets, there was a substantial reduction in electricity usage. However, some of that--processing and data storage--was transferred to distant server farms. Good if that server farm is powered by clean electricity; bad if it is powered by coal-fired generators. To its credit, the Staff report does include a graph that calls out this aspect, but I didn't see how they computed it.

I hope that I have convinced you of the hazards and difficulties of trying to use these measures as a metric for the City-sponsored programs.

Outdated incentives, subsidies ...: Part of managing the initiatives is knowing when to declare success (or failure). For example, back when I replaced my refrigerator, there were two subsidies. The first was a rebate for buying a certain level of energy efficiency. However, all the refrigerators I looked at qualified for the rebate. By that time, the rebate was pointless because it had achieved its goal: It had shaped consumer demand so that stores were no longer stocking non-qualifying models, and that had in turn shifted what the manufacturers built. The second subsidy was for getting rid of the old refrigerator. That was probably still valid because many people reportedly kept the old ones, moving them to the garage or basement where they were potential dangers to children as well as using lots of electricity for minimal usage.

The rebate program seemed to have persisted because the people running it thought of it only as a good thing to do, without understanding what was to be accomplished.

Diminishing returns: Some initiatives should be judged out-dated because they have gone far enough into diminishing returns that the costs of running the initiative could be better used elsewhere.

Remember the program to replace the common sizes of incandescent light bulbs? The replacement at the time were CFL (Compact Fluorescents) which used roughly 80% less power: A CFL equivalent to a 60 watt incandescent used only 13 watts. They seemed expensive--$4 each in 2008--because people tended not to factor in the much longer life span. A short-lived rebate program was a reasonable way to overcome the hesitation from this misconception. Now, there are more efficient bulbs available: An LED with similar light output uses only 9W, a 30% reduction in power usage. Is there a justification for having a subsidy program? Before you answer, realize that those LED bulbs routinely go on sale for $2 each (in a multi-pack).

Life cycle costs: Increasing the insulation in buildings can have a short payback period in hot and cold climates. But in a mild climate such as Palo Alto, increasing the insulation in older buildings can increase the carbon footprint. The reason? The materials and labor used in the renovations may have a larger carbon footprint than the energy savings over the expected lifespan of the building. Recognize that the calculation should include the costs of removing what was there.

When you look at life cycle costs, not just operating costs, you may find that only certain improvements are worthwhile. Continuing the insulation example: Increasing the insulation in ceilings produces the largest improvements in efficiency and is much easier and cheaper to do than most of the other changes.

Premature and wasteful replacement: This is a variant of life-cycle costs. I was at a sustainability talk where the presenter advocated immediately replacing all gasoline-powered vehicles with electric ones. The engineers in the audience were appalled: One pointed out to the speaker the amount of energy used to construct vehicles, both gasoline-powered and electric, and that prematurely scrapping cars wasted much of that invested energy. Disturbingly, none of the sustainability advocates seemed to understand this.

Salvage, recycle, dispose: I worry that this important distinction is not part of the evaluation of programs. Why? In a discussion on sustainability, the difference between salvage and recycle didn't seem to register with CSO Gil Friend. Salvage is when you re-use an item largely as-is; recycle involves substantial reprocessing, such as using recycled glass bottles to reduce the energy needed in furnaces to produce new glass for new objects.

Councilmember Karen Holman has been a long-time proponent of salvage and reuse, and trying to get City Hall to take into account the effects of replacing old buildings. At the League of Women Voters forum in the 2016 campaign, now-Councilmember Lydia Kou in her response to the question about sustainability cited the costs of replacing buildings, especially the very high carbon footprint of concrete.

Administration has its carbon footprint: In doing calculations of the carbon reductions of an initiative, you need to include the carbon footprint of managing the effort. Recognize that the money budgeted comes from activities that have their own carbon footprints. This includes labor (staff), promotional materials (literature, giveaways ...) and ???

Prioritization: Where would the City get the most bang for the buck? What sort of projects is City Hall essential or the best leader? I would point to transportation and congestion. We have seen a number of such proposals being deferred because of a lack of staff. For example, real planning for grade separation for Caltrain has been deferred for more than 15 years. Are the "hundreds" of initiatives currently being pursued having more impact than if we shifted that money to the big impact transportation problems?

False measure: Awards: Because of the difficulty of producing good metrics, and potentially a disinclination to do so, much of the evidence of "success" comes in form of awards. But you should question whether that award was for actually achievement, or just for great paperwork. When I was in tech, there were publications that gave awards for products that weren't yet working reliably. And people in Marketing would tell you that if your product didn't have a slew of awards, you probably had both a horrible product and a horrible Marketing Department.

News article: (added) "City crafts battle plan to fight climate change" (2017-06-06)

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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What is it worth to you?


Posted by Renewable Energy Professional, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jun 5, 2017 at 11:28 am


Thanks for the post -- this is unfortunately long overdue. You opened your post with what has been a sore point for me:

"Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) Gil Friend reported that the City had "hundreds" of initiatives. It struck me that there were more initiatives than work days in a year (guessing 235), so I asked how the initiatives were reviewed and how priorities were set. He gave a vague answer--"the usual way"."

Our Chief is highly paid, yet not subject to the simplest accountability that exists in the private sector.

How many years has it been? Why hasn't Mr. Friend produced a Cost/Benefit of each of his "hundreds" of initiatives? If the benefit is monetary or environmental (lbs of carbon offset, etc.), he should be quantitative. If the benefit is squishy, such as "raises awareness," he should be prepared to prove out the value as best he can.

Absent such a demonstration of value, the city would be better served spending Mr. Friend's generous compensation package elsewhere. A simple illustration of the green opportunity cost of employing a highly paid professional: the city could instead buy and install about 100kW each year, and use the mostly free power to green up our electrical mix and lower utility rates.

Posted by Wondering, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jun 5, 2017 at 12:32 pm

Thanks very much Doug for raising this important topic.

I've always wondered about Palo Alto's claim our electricity is green, which presumably means we buy only electricity made from clean and renewable sources. That sounds great, but does that mean less non-green electricity is produced altogether or does some other city instead just buy the non-green electricity that we don't? If the latter, while we can trumpet how green we are and collect lots of awards, as you mention, there's no real benefit for the planet at all. In fact, it's actually harmful, as it encourages many that good progress is happening, when in fact it's just what might be called an accounting trick.

Even if all our electricity comes from *new* green sources, that still doesn't prove that we caused those sources to be created. Rather, we may just be snapping it up to make ourselves look good before others, and again the total amount of green electricity generated is unaffected by our actions.

As the song says, it's not easy being green. But it's sure easy to look green - and the lack of clarify from our city government makes me think that's all we're doing.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 5, 2017 at 6:55 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.


The accounting for green energy is difficult because it is not the only variable: You having an increasing population, a growing economy, climate change, changing energy usage,... This complexity permits many different assessments.

If you are buying solar-generated electricity from a site east of Los Angeles, those electrons are probably going to LA and your electrons are probably coming from a power plant near here using natural gas turbines. But there is the benefit of a prime location for solar power without the cost of transmitting it from there to here (the transmission lines are already over loaded and long overdue for expanded capacity). There are various views on the "proper" way to account for that.

More fun with numbers: For average wind farm, there is about 50 acres for each 2 megawatt turbine (spacing). Of course, the turbine itself and the access roads use only a tiny fraction of that, allowing other activities such as grazing and certain types of farming. However, this imposes a cap on how much wind-power can expand.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 5, 2017 at 6:59 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

@Renewable Energy Professional

I hope that this blog makes it easier for you to share your concerns with others. I have long been dismissed as "one of the usual suspects" so it takes City Hall hearing from others to have them believe that topics such as this are of broader concern to the citizenry.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 6, 2017 at 4:37 pm

You are being naive, Doug. The point is not to BE green; it is to BE PERCEIVED greem. That's much easier, and you get more awards, which seems to be the major motivator at 250 Hamilton.

Same goes for our hollow bragging about our "green" electric power leadership. Other communities do not have the option to duplicate our federally-built and owned and operated hydro sources. You cannot lead others to where they cannot go. We just lucked out.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 6, 2017 at 5:02 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Curmudgeon

If one thinks that some of those doing virtue signalling (below) can be persuaded to engage in effective activities, it is ill-advised to label them.

On the other hand, for sustainability professionals, awards may not be virtue signalling, but rather be useful to be listed on their resumes -- actual achievements are so much harder to convey.

Readers: For web search: The effect that Curmudgeon is talking about is often referred to as "Virtue Signalling" -- the current common usage implies vanity, but earlier uses included trying to influence others by setting a good example.

Related labels are "Slacktivism" (Slacker + activism) and "Clicktivism" for people who equate activism with minor acts such as clicking on a "Like" button.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 6, 2017 at 6:54 pm

"If one thinks that some of those doing virtue signalling (below) can be persuaded to engage in effective activities, it is ill-advised to label them."

I wish I could discern your point. If you're saying one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, I concede the point. But what does one then do with all those flies?

Attaching a label to a problem does not solve it, however recondite the label. It is much more effective for staffers engaged in ineffective activities to be reassigned to effective activities by their supervisor than to persuade the staffers to re-engage (especially if the would-be reformer has no effect on their performance review or compensation). The operative issue is whether the supervisor (or his/her supervisor, etc.) knows the difference between ineffective and effective activities.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 7, 2017 at 3:02 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.


Recognize that the push for many of these sustainability initiatives come from residents, not Staff. For example, Cool City Challenge.

Rather than focus on Staff, I would put the focus on the "enablers" of the many initiatives. Budgetary pressure has the potential for pushing City Hall to re-align the goals and incentives for Staff away from awards and to practical achievement.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 7, 2017 at 5:07 pm

"Budgetary pressure has the potential for pushing City Hall to re-align the goals and incentives for Staff away from awards and to practical achievement."


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