Palo Alto moves to make new buildings electric-vehicle friendly

City Council committee endorses law that would require new developments to accommodate electric vehicles

Seeking to get ahead of an expected and desired electric-vehicle revolution, Palo Alto officials on Tuesday endorsed a new law that requires builders of new developments to go along for the ride.

The City Council's Policy and Services Committee unanimously recommended approving a new electric-vehicle ordinance that would require new commercial buildings, multi-family residential developments and hotels to include parking spaces that accommodate electric vehicles. These accommodations will come in three tiers: an actual Level 2 charger; an outlet that makes it easy to plug in a charger; and a conduit (also known as a "raceway") that could accommodate future installation of an outlet and charging equipment.

Exact requirements will vary by development type. Muti-family complexes will have to install chargers at 5 percent of their guest parking spots. They will also be required to supply a charger-ready outlet for each unit in the development.

"Everyone that rents or owns a condo has the ability to park and charge their electric vehicle," Development Services Director Peter Pirnejad said of the new ordinance.

A staff report on the new requirements includes various scenarios based on factors such as deed restrictions and whether or not parking is attached to the dwelling unit. These factors would determine how many parking spots would have to be charger-ready and how many would merely have to include conduits.

Under the proposed ordinance, many hotels would be required to have chargers installed at 10 percent of their parking spaces and have conduits at 20 percent. Other types of commercial development would be required to install chargers at 5 percent of spaces and conduits at 20 percent.

The new ordinance, which is scheduled to be considered by the full council on June 16, follows in the footsteps of a law that the council passed last year, which requires new single-family developments to provide the necessary circuitry to accommodate future installation of chargers.

Even before these new laws, Palo Alto leaders had emerged as passionate proponents for electric cars. Over the past two years, the city has installed charging stations at several public garages and included the provision of charging stations on a list of "public benefits" for zone-busting "planned community" developments, including Lytton Gateway, at the corner of Lytton and Alma streets.

A staff report from the planning department notes that in order to meet California's health-based air quality standards and greenhouse-gas-emissions goals, "significant gains are needed in the transportation sector in terms of reduced petroleum usage."

Gov. Jerry Brown's executive order in March 2012 directed the state government to actively support zero-emission vehicles, with the goal of having 1.5 million of them on the roads by 2025.

"In order to meet this goal and in order for electric vehicles to proliferate, it is important that early consumers have a positive experience and that facilities be readily available to provide convenient charging stations for the electric vehicles," the staff report states.

Other cities and organizations have taken notice of Palo Alto's action. On April 24, the city received the 2014 Most Electric Vehicle Ready Community award at the Charged & Connected symposium. The city now has 9.4 electric vehicles per 1,000 residents, according to statistics from the California Clean Vehicle Rebate Program. The rate, officials say, is among the highest in the state.

"We're on the cutting edge of this innovative policy," Pirnejad said Tuesday. "There are no other cities doing this. We're really setting the stage."

Much of Tuesday's discussion focused on the cost of meeting the new requirement. The price tags will vary widely, based on the types of chargers developers want to install ("smart" chargers that provide information about energy use typically cost more) and economies of scale. Staff estimates that providing the needed circuitry would cost in the ballpark of $3,000 per space; adding equipment to make the space charger-ready would raise the cost to about $4,000; and having an actual plug installed would cost about $6,000.

The council expressed some concerns about these figures, with Greg Schmid wondering whether the new law would create another burden for potential providers of affordable housing. Staff estimates that a 30-unit, 30,000-square-foot multi-family apartment building would have to spend between $68,000 and $89,000 (the lower cost corresponds to buildings with attached parking). A 30,000-square-foot commercial building would cost an added $53,000.

Councilman Larry Klein noted that given the cost of constructing a new development, including the purchase of land, the burden would add roughly 0.5 percent to the total price tag. Pirnejad also noted that these costs could be recovered by providers of charging stations.

Yet cost recovery might not be an option in the near term. One stipulation that the committee added at the behest of Councilman Greg Scharff is that the driver should be able to charge a vehicle at these stations without being charged for the privilege. Plugging in should be free at least for the first few years, Scharff said.

Councilman Larry Klein was reluctant to set such a requirement and suggested letting the market dictate the price.

"The market may well shift and I don't think we have any role to play in the market," Klein said.

Yet he ultimately went along with Scharff, who noted that the entire purpose of the ordinance is to spur the demand for electric vehicles.

"If it's market driven, we shouldn't be doing anything at all," said Scharff, a Tesla driver who as mayor last year chose the high-end electric-vehicle company's Palo Alto headquarters as the setting for his "State of the City" speech. "What we're trying to do is encourage a certain policy and create the infrastructure in which charging electric vehicles is an easy and convenient approach."

Schmid also said he was "skeptical" about whether the city has the authority to mandate that charges be provided for free. Otherwise, he said he was happy with the new law and voted to go along with it. The committee also mandated that the ordinance return to the council for a review in three years, at which time the issue of free charging can be revisited.

Despite a few reservations, all four council members lauded the new law.

"I'm pleased our city is moving ahead and that we're at the cutting edge of this," Klein said.


Like this comment
Posted by Jon Castor
a resident of Woodside
on May 14, 2014 at 11:30 am

I really appreciate Palo Alto's leadership in helping support the build out of electric car charging infrastructure.... although I believe requiring free charging is too good a deal for those of us driving electric cars. It would be a very favorable deal if all we have to pay is the actual cost of electricity that the infrastructure provider has to pay plus ~ 10 per cent. Those who provide us with charging options should not see a car parked at their charging station as an expensive ongoing burden that they wish would go away. They will have every incentive to not maintain the station, creating an enforcement burden. I'd much rather pay something for the privilege and see stations kept in great shape.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 14, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Why isn't this online newspaper reporting that last Monday night, the PA City Council voted to endorse a proposal to explore overturning part of Proposition 13???

Like this comment
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on May 14, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Want to help the EV community? Require every gas station in Palo Alto to install 2 level 3 chargers. The rest of this is all hand waving. They don't have to be free, just a fair return on investment.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Greene
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 14, 2014 at 12:32 pm

All for making a statement about the importance of clean energy, but... providing the electricity for FREE is essentially the same as levying a tax on all Palo Altans. I guess the City Council took its cue from the lawmakers who brought us "Cash for Clunkers."

Like this comment
Posted by iconoclast
a resident of University South
on May 14, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Electric vehicles seem great at the point of use. They give the illusion of clean transportation.

In terms of their global impact, however, EVs are the dirtiest transportation option available. Like, what other form of contemporary transportation derives some of its motive energy from burning coal?

Pollution dumped in somebody else's backyard is still pollution.

Like this comment
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on May 14, 2014 at 8:11 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Electricity does not grow on trees.
High capacity Batteries are TOXIC.
All a EV does is dump the dirt elsewhere.
Lets agree that EV's are not lily Green

EV's are quiet
EV's don't idle and leave a local cloud of pollutants in stop and go traffic.

Those are good, but quit waving the pure GREEN flag

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of another community
on May 14, 2014 at 10:36 pm

To the two posters above:

@iconoclast: Palo Alto actually generates a fair amount of its electricity from renewable sources, and you're able to purchase (for a small extra fee) energy that comes from 100% renewable resources (source: Web Link). Even with dirty electricity production techniques, the efficiency of those power plants is higher than that of a gasoline engine, since they're able to have the generator constantly operating at its peak efficiency RPM, whereas a car's engine needs to deal with constant stopping and acceleration (that's why a car's city mileage is worse than its highway mileage). Obviously, using non-renewable resources to power your electric car slightly defeats the purpose, but it's a step in the right direction.

@SteveU: the only thing I want to add is that I hope battery recycling technology advances to meet the growing supply of electric vehicles, since as you mentioned, the batteries used within them are incredibly toxic. It's a non-ideal situation, and people should realize that as things stand, electric vehicles aren't all sunshine and rainbows, as some imagine.

Finally, it's interesting to think about whether the Palo Alto will pay attention to this when they're buying their next car. Teslas are all over the road, but when the next model is released, how many current owners will upgrade to that? That's the real crux of the issue - the consumerism. Palo Altans are performing a service by becoming early adopters of EV technology, helping fund future research and development, and I believe electric vehicles *are* the way of the future, but how many people will stop to consider where the hundreds of lithium ion batteries from their old model are going to go?

Like this comment
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on May 15, 2014 at 8:24 am

SteveU is a registered user.

Thanks anon

I am not holding my breath that a battery recycle solution will be found.

Nuclear fuel pellets were supposed to be reprocessed (poisons removed and more Uranium added to the blend). Somewhere that part got derailed and we have those huge holding ponds that were never planed to be used for any other than transient operation.

I imagine huge stacks of dangerous batteries in the not so distant future as all those older vehicles batteries reach EOL

Like this comment
Posted by iconoclast
a resident of University South
on May 15, 2014 at 12:56 pm

"@iconoclast: Palo Alto actually generates a fair amount of its electricity from renewable sources, and you're able to purchase (for a small extra fee) energy that comes from 100% renewable resources..."

Another convenient illusion. (1) "Renewable" energy comes from rivers dammed for hydropower and windfarms that kill birds and visually blight the countryside. There's no free ride there. (2) Once generated, that "renewable" energy is put on the grid, which distributes a perfectly mixed menage of power generated by every method that is connected to it. It's that grid mix that powers your toaster and EV; only a very tiny fraction is the "renewable" energy you are promised and pay extra for. Experiment: pour a cup of fresh drinking water into the ocean, then dip a cup of water from that spot. How's it taste?

"a car's engine needs to deal with constant stopping and acceleration (that's why a car's city mileage is worse than its highway mileage)..."

Sorry, wrong again. A car's city mileage is worse because its kinetic energy is being irrecoverably dissipated in the brakes every time it has to stop, which is often. That's why the brakes get so hot. Hybrids recover some of that energy, which makes them the truly greenest transportation option.

BTW, the generators powering the grid operate at constant RPM so they generate the correct AC frequency. They are of course designed for peak efficiency at that speed, but that is secondary. The net power plant efficiency is actually determined by the motors powering the generators.

Like this comment
Posted by so
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 15, 2014 at 2:42 pm


The western grid has a very low coal percentage. Cal ISO where we get most of our electricity is even lower still. I suspect you want to think of the grid just ebbs and flows like water, but it doesn't. Lines have capacity, so there are limits to what moves about. Also gasoline generation is not clean, so when you are making your comparisons keep that in mind most energy generation has its issues. Gasoline production requires 5Kwh of electricity per gallon. Most electric cars can go just as far as a gas car can on that 5KWH and it can do it cheaper since 5KWH of electric will always be cheaper . Than 1 gallon of gas and all that unclean (according to you) electricity generation is a component of that gallon of gas, so gas will always be dirtier. Electric cars aren't perfect they don't solve all our transportation needs, but for a commuter car, most people would be better off financially with one over gas. As a final note, my car travels 122 miles on the equivalent energy in a gallon of gas.

There are also economic reasons and security for buying domestic electric vs off shore oil. I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Like this comment
Posted by iconoclast
a resident of University South
on May 15, 2014 at 3:41 pm

"my car travels 122 miles on the equivalent energy in a gallon of gas"

Another instance of neglecting the hidden costs.

What matters is the total "well to wheel" efficiency. You didn't account for the approximately 33% efficiency of the electrical generation process -- 67% of the energy in the fuel the generator burned to make your kilowatt went goes up the stack or out the cooling system. If you account for that, you'll find that your energy-equivalent mileage is 0.33*122 = 40 MPG, not accounting for ISO transmission losses.

My hybrid easily tops that.

Like this comment
Posted by so
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 15, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Actually my car gets 122 MPGe, your math is wrong.
and my gallon of energy costs less that yours. ;-)

Now for grins, lets assume your math is right for the moment.
That same loss is in the electric used to make your gas.

I am glad you are happy with your car though.

Like this comment
Posted by iconoclast
a resident of University South
on May 15, 2014 at 5:09 pm

"That same loss is in the electric used to make your gas."

Sorry again. Refineries are not powered by electrical energy. It would be far too expensive. Your number for kilowatthourage is simply the energy invested in gasoline production, expressed in metric energy units. People unfamiliar with the metric system often get confused that way, largely because they don't realize that all electrical quantities are metric.

Like, when was the last time you bought a 1/30 horsepower light bulb, or a 1/30 hp-equivalent bulb? Stumped? Well, it was when you bought your newest 25-W or 25-We bulb.

But I digress. Since your 5 kWh is not electrical energy, "That same loss is" not "in the electric used to make your gas."

Like this comment
Posted by so
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 15, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Here even simpler

1 gallon of gas $4.05
I'll give you an MPG of 50
8.1 cents per mile

My car costs 2.8 cents per mile

Anyway I can be done here.

Like this comment
Posted by iconoclast
a resident of University South
on May 16, 2014 at 9:48 am

"Here even simpler"

But no closer. Here's how it all works.

Driving an electric vehicle around Palo Alto will almost certainly put you on the Tier3 rate schedule: $0.174/kWh. Gasoline's energy content is about 33 kWh/gallon, so you are effectively paying $5.57 per gallon. At 40 MPG equivalent mileage (including the generator overhead discussed above, which is a component of the electricity pricing), that's $5.57/40 = 13.9 cents per mile.

General principle: The laws of thermodynamics favor nobody. The net "Well To Wheel" energy utilization efficiency is around 25-30% for all forms of transportation.

Thanks for helping lead our readers through this short course in energy and efficiency. Let's do it again sometime.

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on May 16, 2014 at 10:28 am

EVs make some sense. Electric motors are highly efficient, no need to idle at stop signs, regenerative braking. The main problem, as already mentioned is the electricity generation. Coal is dirty, and displacement of pollution, or large hydro projects, should not be something that is celebrated. However, modular nuclear (aka nuclear batteries)seems to make sense, since it is local generation, and is not dependent on active cooling backup systems.

Lithium ion batteries are likely to be the motive force for the foreseeable future, although other technologies are being discussed. Panasonic appears to have Tesla's attention to build a mega-plant to produce lithium ion batteries. Not too sure about the recycle issues, although I would think that Tesla is forced to think about them.

Like this comment
Posted by so
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 16, 2014 at 11:04 am


I pay for the energy that goes across my meter.
Using your figure of .174, which is more than I pay for electric but I'll use it just the same, and your figure of 33kwh,
I agree that I would pay 5.74 to drive my 122 miles,
(sorry its the mileage I get, you dont get to tell me what mileage I get).
If your car gets 50 MPG, you would take 2.44 gallons to go 122 miles
2.44 gallons x 4.05 (arco regular gas) cost you $9.88

I really pay about 3.42 for 122 miles given my electric tier, you really need to check your energy consumption if your in the top tier, turn some lights off once in a while.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Burger chain Shake Shack to open in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 15 comments | 3,837 views

Eat, Surf, Love
By Laura Stec | 4 comments | 1,253 views

The Cost of Service
By Aldis Petriceks | 1 comment | 867 views

One-on-one time
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 274 views