As President Obama promised to take on the threat of climate change in his inaugural speech last week, Palo Alto residents can take comfort that their city has been focused on the effort to reduce greenhouse gases for quite a few years.
Showing more determination to reduce the production of carbon pollutants than during his first term, the President promised a vigorous attack on emissions that cause global warming, like those produced by coal-fired power plants. No such effort will be required in Palo Alto, where the city's utility officials note that this year they expect the entire operation to be "carbon neutral." Reaching this milestone means that overall, the city's electric power will have net zero carbon emissions when the purchase of all energy types is balanced out.
The definition of carbon neutral was approved by the City Council in November. It says, "A carbon-neutral electric-supply portfolio will demonstrate annual net-zero greenhouse GHG emissions, measured at the Citygate, in accordance with the Climate Registry's Electric Power Sector protocol for GHG emissions measurement and reporting."
Palo Alto residents benefit from not only living in a community that is leading the way in reducing GHG emissions, but doing so without pushing electricity rates above those charged by PG&E. Although not the best measure of comparison, in November the median residential electric bill was $48.49 for Palo Alto residents and $59.98 for PG&E customers, according to city staff. And when the slightly higher cost of going carbon neutral is included next year, the additional average cost increase will be between $2.60 and $4.20 a year, literally just pennies a month.
In addition to purchasing clean electricity and holding down costs, the city has moved on numerous other fronts to act on global warming. Back in 2006, environmentalists formed the area's first Green Ribbon Task Force that issued a call for the city to take numerous actions to reduce emissions. Among the highlights in its report: promote public transportation; create a much tougher green building code; and reduce emissions from the city's own vehicles. One goal that may have been considered a nearly insurmountable challenge back then was reaching carbon neutrality in the purchase of electric power, a benchmark that the city will surpass this year.
From this modest beginning, the city has moved forward on many fronts, to:
Strengthen the green building code;
Install electric-vehicle charging stations in public garages;
Require downtown developers to offer Caltrain passes to building tenants, and;
Explore ways to bring smart-meter technology to electricity customers.
Another success story for the city's electric utility is PaloAltoGreen, a program that allows residential and commercial customers to purchase energy exclusively from wind and solar sources for an additional 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour. The percentage of participants by neighborhood is impressive, with Crescent Park leading the way at 35 percent, but closely followed by College Terrace, Community Center, Duveneck/St. Francis and Leland Manor/Garland. Barron Park, Fairmeadow, Palo Verde, Southgate and Greenmeadow had close to 30 percent participation.
More than 200 commercial users are also in the program, including HP, Lockheed, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and the Vi at Palo Alto. Overall, 21.5 percent the electric utility's customers took part in the program, enough to win first place in the Dept. of Energy's national contest for the sixth time.
Finally, another bright spot is a modest reduction of GHG emissions from the city's operations in the last seven years. Direct emissions from natural gas use and the landfill were down 4,400 metric tons between 2005 and the projected amount released in 2012. In other areas, emissions from electricity generation is down 66,000 metric tons during the same period, and down 43,000 metric tons from transportation and solid waste.
If a city the size of Palo Alto can bring its emissions down by more than 100,000 metric tons in seven years, other Bay Area and U.S. cities can follow the lead and join in a concerted effort to go green. It will take much more effort by cities, as well as the state and federal government, to make a real impact on the dangerous greenhouse gases that continue to contribute to global warming. But at least we're proving that it can be done with minimal pain and sacrifice.