You may not realize it, but as a Palo Alto resident you're living in a city that's leading the fight against climate change.
Our group, Carbon Free Palo Alto, was instrumental in convincing the city of Palo Alto and its electric utility to commit to delivering 100 percent carbon-neutral electricity to all customers, starting in 2013. This single action has reduced the total carbon footprint of the entire city by about 20 percent at no additional cost to ratepayers.
We're one of the few cities in the world to accomplish this, and recently have been featured in national publications such as Slate, Grist and Inside Climate News. We're gaining attention in the national and international arena for our efforts and providing sorely needed leadership.
While this is a huge milestone, there's a lot more that we can and should do to prevent dangerous climate change.
It will take a drastic reduction in carbon emissions worldwide in the next 20 years to give the entire planet a fighting chance of avoiding severe climate impacts for generations to come. Carbon Free Palo Alto is now calling for 50 to 60 percent reduction of Palo Alto's greenhouse gas emissions in the next 10 years. This is the kind of reduction that needs to occur in the entire industrialized world. It sounds daunting on the surface, but we think it's possible, and that the co-benefits are significant.
To achieve such reductions, we must transform our energy infrastructure from one based on coal, natural gas and oil to one that is primarily based on electricity generated from renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and water.
Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson and colleagues have authored an impressive number of papers that provide extensive analysis and present this transformation in more detail. Other research and analysis efforts have reached similar conclusions, including a recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
To help accomplish this transformation, Carbon Free Palo Alto is promoting a broad effort centered on the concept of "fuel switching." The idea is to switch from devices that consume gasoline and natural gas to their high-efficiency electric-based equivalents. Here in Palo Alto we're fortunate: The electric replacements will have a near-zero carbon footprint!
Some will say, "We heard that natural gas is better than coal," and natural gas is being touted as a "clean" bridge to a low-carbon future. While this may have been a viable strategy 15 or 20 years ago, it no longer is. Numerous studies have shown that continued reliance upon natural gas provides no net benefit in attaining emissions reductions.
Several other factors make natural gas a fuel to avoid. The increase in fracking operations in the United States has threatened water supplies, increased earthquake activity and overwhelmed the ability of water-treatment plants to deal with the toxic water produced from the wells. A lot of much-needed capital is also being diverted into an infrastructure that contributes nothing to the transformation we so desperately need.
Natural gas is also itself a potent greenhouse gas, and there is much evidence to indicate that the unintentional release of natural gas into the atmosphere is woefully underestimated. When this is taken into account, natural gas can have the same carbon footprint as coal. Two fossil-fueled devices used extensively in Palo Alto are excellent candidates for fuel switching: cars and water heaters.
The obvious replacement for a fossil-fueled car is an electric vehicle (EV). EVs are a common sight on Palo Alto streets. No wonder, because EVs charged in Palo Alto have near-zero carbon emissions and can cost up to $10,000 less than a gasoline-powered car to buy and operate over the vehicle's lifetime. In addition, Californians can collect $10,000 in rebates and tax credits within a year of buying an EV. Electric vehicles are fun to drive and reduce air pollution and associated health impacts such as asthma and other lung-related diseases. To put things in perspective, even a car like the Toyota Prius is highly polluting in comparison with an EV.
Many potential EV buyers express "range anxiety" (for example the Nissan Leaf has about a 90-mile range). In practice, however, such a limitation is not much of an issue in most cases. EVs work well for many commuters and for local trips, and with a little planning they can even work well for round trips to San Francisco and the East Bay.
Another great way to reduce your natural-gas emissions is by replacing your natural-gas water heater with an ultra-efficient heat-pump water heater, which is available for about $1,000, but is eligible for $800 in rebates. Depending on your electricity rate and other assumptions, heat-pump water heaters can have about the same lifetime costs as natural-gas water heaters.
Palo Alto is in many ways ideally positioned to respond aggressively and intelligently to climate change. It is a nexus of technological innovation, has a highly educated populace and possesses significant financial resources. If not Palo Alto, then who?
This is an outstanding opportunity for Palo Alto and its citizens to deploy effective solutions to this unprecedented global issue. Your actions are amplified by the unique position that Palo Alto enjoys as a symbol of innovation and forward-thinking action. By switching from fossil-fuel devices to the new and exciting future of energy-efficient electric devices such as EVs and heat-pump water heaters, you will make a meaningful contribution to solving the climate crisis.