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By Douglas Moran

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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