News


Palo Alto to explore incentives for slashing natural-gas use

City's 'fuel switching' initiative aims to drive people toward clean electricity

After cutting carbon out of the city's electric supply, Palo Alto officials are now fixing their sights on the next frontier in their battle against global warming: a reduction of natural gas.

The City Council will consider on Monday night a proposal from council members Marc Berman, Pat Burt and Larry Klein to explore new programs that would promote the switch from natural gas to electricity. The "fuel switching" initiative would consider changing the building code to require, where feasible, the use of electric rather natural-gas appliances in newly constructed and renovated buildings; new incentives to encourage customers to make the switch; and changes to utility rates to ensure the switch doesn't penalize users.

Natural gas, the memo argues, is "only marginally better than coal." The main harm comes from its high amounts of "fugitive" emissions unintentional releases of methane gas during natural-gas extraction and delivery.

The three council members call the fuel-switching proposal "a bold and significant" initiative with "game-changer" potential. They are requesting that staff conduct a "thoughtful assessment" of the opportunities and constraints that this switch would represent and directing staff to return in early February with a report on the timeline and resources such an assessment would require.

The switch isn't expected to be cheap or simple. Because Palo Alto owns its own natural-gas utilities, any effort to discourage natural gas could result in a reduction in bottom line. Because of the gas utility's high fixed cost, a reduction in use could require higher rates to compensate for the lost revenue.

During a Dec. 8 discussion of the city's various greenhouse-gas initiatives, Councilman Greg Scharff said he was skeptical about hampering the city's natural gas utility, a move that could prompt citizens to demand a switch to PG&E. Any policy that would lead to a switch from natural gas to electricity has to be carefully vetted with heavy input from residents.

"Getting rid of gas utilities is one of the biggest issues we could have," Scharff said. "If you're going to go down that path, it has to be a community decision. It can't be something you inch to."

The conversation about the "fuel switching" proposal is expected to kick off in earnest next year as part of the city's development of a new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, a broad document that aims to set new carbon-reduction targets and outline a "strategy and policy framework for aggressive, imaginative and achievable results on climate and sustainability." It will aim to build on the city's recent accomplishments in the green area, including a 34 percent reduction in carbon emissions since 1990. Gil Friend, the city's chief sustainability officer, told the council this week that the plan will provide "a centerpiece for many of our sustainability efforts."

The natural-gas proposal lauds the city for providing 100 percent carbon-neutral electricity (a policy that went into effect last year), but stresses that this accomplishment only addresses about a fifth of the city's greenhouse gas emissions. The clean electricity provides what the council members describe as an "exceptional opportunity to be used as a clean energy foundation to reduce our other major GHG sources, in support of the city's Climate Action Plan."

In particular, the council members hope to use the clean electricity as motivation for addressing other major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, including transportation. To tackle emissions from transportation, the city has adopted an aggressive biking-improvements plan (there are about 25 bike boulevard projects currently in the works) and has taken some steps to encourage usage of electric vehicles, including installing chargers at various public garages and streamlining the permitting process for residential installations.

Klein, who is concluding his council term this month, called the city's climate-change effort "the most important issue that we as a council, or indeed any City Council across American can be focused on." He argued that sustainability should be the "driver" of the city's update of its Comprehensive Plan.

"If we don't get a handle on this problem, all the other problems become really immaterial," Klein said.

Comments

8 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 13, 2014 at 9:53 am

Where does the replacement electricity come from? from coal or natural gas fired plants - especially since furnaces run at night (when solar power is not being produced) as well as during the day. Electricity is fungible - Palo Alto is part of an electrical grid system, and the additional demand will come coal/gas fired plants.

And with the tiered rates for electricity use, this would push many utility bills much higher than utility bill which is split between electricity & natural gas.

But let the council members be the guinea pigs - they should be the first ones to replace their furnaces, stoves, water heaters, swimming pool heaters with electrical equivalents. They should try it out for a few years and report back.


9 people like this
Posted by Justin
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 13, 2014 at 12:28 pm

This is a totally pointless endeavor. Palo Alto is plugged into a regional electric grid that gets electricity from both coal and natural gas. The city would have to go completely off the grid to actually be carbon neutral. Using natural gas for heating is more efficient than using it in a power plant and converting to electricity.


4 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 13, 2014 at 1:51 pm

Larry Klein has drunk the climate warming alarmist kool aid. He is almost gone...time to ignore him on this issue.

Natural gas is abundant and cheap (thanks to fracking). The climate warming extremists are against it, because it far outcompetes solar and wind in the marketplace...not because of "fugitive" escapes at the well head, which can be prevented.

[Portion removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by The Shadow knows..........
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 13, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Maybe they'll let us go back to fireplaces and Franklin stoves........... Oh wait, never mind.........


3 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 13, 2014 at 2:48 pm

I'd like to see the accounting for the supposed 34% carbon emission reduction since 1990.
Is our terawatt-hour of annual electricity usage really now counted as zero carbon?
How does the City determine the contribution from traffic, and has it declined in 25 years?
Do we count economic activities we generate outside of city limits, like production of our food?
Do we get to subtract carbon uptake by our foliage?
The EPA says 10 metric tons CO2 equivalent is average annual California per capita emission.
What's the number for Palo Alto and are we reaching it through a shell game?

I'm sure it's all very complicated but voters need some context, global warming debate aside.


7 people like this
Posted by How Green is our Gridlock
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 13, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Anyone measured the emissions stemming from the ridiculous traffic lights on Embarcadero at Town & Country in the 10 years we've been waiting for our Traffic Czar to change the light timing? Or the other poorly timed lights around the city?

Are there off-set credits if you're stuck on top of a silly green sign that benefits our traffic czar?

Until we start taking the pollution from traffic gridlock seriously, I won't take too seriously PA's latest costly "sustainability" initiative.


7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2014 at 6:30 pm

I wish they would stop all this fluff stuff that nobody is impressed with.

Instead why don't they fix what needs to be fixed. Traffic, parking, drains, undergrounding utility wires, Baylands Boardwalk and Interpretive Center, affordable family shopping, for starters. And I mean real fixes, not traffic permits that prevent people parking instead of methods to get people parked in the so called spaces in garages that nobody out of the loop can find.

Palo Alto can't fix global warming. But it could fix some of its own problems with a little effort.


5 people like this
Posted by Oh, Please
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 13, 2014 at 9:06 pm


How about all the global warming generated becaue we have to drive to Menlo Park or Mountain View to do grocery shopping, because the City won't allow grocery stores to be big enough to have affordable prices or enough stock.


6 people like this
Posted by Miriam
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 13, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Keep your hands off my natural gas appliances! What happened to freedom of choice? The Nanny state is alive and well in Shallow Alto.


2 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2014 at 10:45 pm

If the City gave me enough incentives, I'd switch from gas heat, dryer and water heater to electric. But not from their "carbon-neutral" shell game. I'd do it with Solar Photovoltaic Panels and Solar hot water heating. But with the current codes and the Palo Alto way for permits, it's not cost-effective.


6 people like this
Posted by BOB
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 13, 2014 at 10:58 pm

PLEASE!!!! Let us get rid of THIS council majority before it does any more damage to the community - and take a lot of this kooky staff and city manager with it. Don't they understand that the residents of this once nice town are getting fed up with its political and social antics!!, it's overspending on outrageous ideas, and lack of common civic sense. We want our city back on good solid ground,


5 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 14, 2014 at 11:07 am

This sounds like a really bad idea. Electric heat is very expensive. Further, I wouldn't be surprised that switching from gas to electric heat would result in more carbon emissions overall.

I think the stated premise "Natural gas, the memo argues, is "only marginally better than coal." is probably not true.

If the city is going to spend money on this area, they should spend it on putting solar panels on every building in Palo Alto. This is the way to cut carbon emissions. Not this!


3 people like this
Posted by Scholar
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 15, 2014 at 11:19 am

Nanny government


2 people like this
Posted by Frank
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 15, 2014 at 11:30 am

The efficiency of a gas fired power plant is about 45%, in converting the natural gas BTU content into electricity.

The efficiency of current residential condensing gas heaters is near 90%.

Not including electrical transmission losses, replacing natural gas residential heating with electrical heating would require the use of twice the amount of natural gas.


3 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 15, 2014 at 11:35 am

This is the most ridiculous step the city could take. No wonder the old liners were thrown out in November. [Portion removed.] Gas cooking is far superior to electric. It wastes much less energy and allows you to control temperatures better.


Like this comment
Posted by Ellie
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 15, 2014 at 12:38 pm

I too have many of the same concerns as stated above. However, I want to hear more. I want information and more specifics, including not only impact on me and you, but impact on climate concerns. Then I want to balance it all out - the goods and bads, the unfeasible and negligible from the effective, affordable and doable. Then I can decide intelligently. Why be so negative now when you don't have enough information to justify it? You can still be negative afterwards but I hope it will be a rational position.
So let's wait and see, shall we?


2 people like this
Posted by jerryl
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 15, 2014 at 12:42 pm

If such a dramatic shift were to happen, I seriously doubt that the Palo Alto Electrical Grid would be able to handle the required energy flows.
This would translate to the need for beefed up transmission lines everywhere,
more "pole pig" transformers on more electric poles and very many homes
having to upgrade their electric meters and breaker boxes from 100 amp service to 200 amp service (or more).

Meanwhile, while the electric infrastructure is being upgraded, the gas transmission infrastructure would still need to be maintained until the very last households had made the transition. It would be a very costly transition.


3 people like this
Posted by Midtowner
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 15, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Wait a minute. In the past, they always encouraged people to switch from electric to gas, and now this? My gas furnace and my gas water heater are both recent but I should replace them with new electric systems or be punished through higher rates?

Our City Council IS out of touch!


5 people like this
Posted by Concerned Retiree
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 15, 2014 at 2:09 pm

I like using natural gas. It is more efficient for heating than electricity -- and as many have already pointed out, all that supposedly "carbon free" power has to come from somewhere.

Please let's focus on reasonable and pragmatic goals, such as parking for new developments and catch up parking for downtown. Making California Avenue viable and pleasant again. Doable and far more important in the scheme of things.


1 person likes this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 15, 2014 at 2:43 pm

The next time we hear about the existential threat of global warming, and the need to "buy insurance", make sure to hide your wallet and checkbook. This alarmist movement is a naked attempt to gain political power. We need to reject it.


2 people like this
Posted by cumudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 15, 2014 at 5:11 pm

On-grid electric power is the environmentally dirtiest energy we can get. It is generated from burning coal, incinerating natural gas (both are prime GHG makers), splitting atoms, drowning river valleys, killing birds with windmills, and solar farms ruining the land they shade. Nuclear energy is potentially the cleanest of these, because its wastes can be easily sequestered. The rest stay what they are.

Don't mistake so-called "carbon neutral" electricity for genuine "carbon free" juice. As noted by Slate magazine Web Link, "In 2013, 39 percent of the town’s [Palo Alto's] electricity came from a category it calls 'unspecified power'—essentially electricity that Palo Alto buys in the wholesale market. These electrons most likely come from plants that burn coal or natural gas." The article goes on to explain how our utilities department buys its way out of legal responsibility for the associated carbon emissions, although they continue unabated.

No matter what mix of generated power Palo Alto pays for, what comes out of our wall sockets is a perfect mix of what everybody puts on the grid: coal, gas, nuclear, etc. Although our city piously purchases its indulgences and illusions, in practice we are just as carbon-dirty as Mountain View, Menlo Park, and the rest of our neighbors.


2 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 15, 2014 at 7:59 pm

>On-grid electric power is the environmentally dirtiest energy we can get. It is generated from burning coal, incinerating natural gas (both are prime GHG makers), splitting atoms, drowning river valleys, killing birds with windmills, and solar farms ruining the land they shade. Nuclear energy is potentially the cleanest of these, because its wastes can be easily sequestered. The rest stay what they are.

Good post, cumudgeon.

Palo Alto refuses to come to grips with environmental and economic reality. I agree with you that nuclear power (the newer versions)is probably the best way to proceed into the future. Rooftop solar probably has a good future, too, if storage issues can be overcome...but that is a big task, which cannot be easily overcome.

In the meantime, we have this amazing discovery of new sources of natural gas (thanks to fracking). We are in a sweet spot, and we should exploit it. Natural gas is the bridge to the future...and it provides for national security.

It would be hard to fathom why PACC doesn't get it...except that they have bought into the global warming alarmism.

The truth is that we are facing an amazing future of abundance, not scarcity. The PACC (along with many Palo Altans) are locked into a weird neo-Luddism, based on guilt, I guess. If Hewlett and Packard were still around, they would help us blaze our way into the future. But we don't have that kind of leadership, anymore.


3 people like this
Posted by Cheese and Rice!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 15, 2014 at 8:14 pm

The powers that be should stop changing the definition of what is "green". A couple of years ago, CNG was touted as the safest fuel for cars, because the only emission was a little water. Warren Buffett has driven one for years now, and loves the ease of hooking it up to the gas line in the garage to refuel it. Now natural gas is evil? Seems to be a fairly inexpensive alternative to oil, or coal-generated electricity. Electric cars have many, many limitations, especially the price tag.

I converted my kitchen, furnace, and laundry room to natural gas a few years ago due to better control and less cost. Also, these appliances will still work in a power outage.


2 people like this
Posted by Steve Eittreim
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 15, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Craig Laughton's global warming "alarmism" remark cannot be left unchallenged.

If you are NOT alarmed by the 400 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere, you are either not informed or you have your head in the sand. Looking back in the geologic record for times when CO2 was that high, one has to go back many millions of years before modern man arrived. Atmospheric temperatures follow CO2 concentrations, if you believe the geologic record. Modern man has always enjoyed a mellow climate period, with relatively small variations like the little ice age in the dark ages. Variations like that will be trivial compared to what my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be experiencing. It is a vital moral imperative to change the way we power our economy. Doing anything less will allow climate chaos and be looked at as criminal by our grandchildren 50 years hence.

So many other decisions of today flow from these basic facts. Please don't listen to the drumbeat of lies coming from the fossil-fuel industry. Of course, their basic economic model depends on us not believing these basic facts.


Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 15, 2014 at 8:22 pm

>Atmospheric temperatures follow CO2 concentrations

Wrong. All the ice core data demonstrate that increased temperature precedes CO2.

Best to do your homework, Steve.


1 person likes this
Posted by PAmoderate
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 15, 2014 at 8:50 pm

PAmoderate is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 15, 2014 at 9:25 pm

@Steve Eittreim - if you were really looking at the geological record, you'd be much more worried about a potential ice age than 1,2, or 5 degrees of warming. If CO2 emissions really do have an impact (that's not completely overwhelmed by other natural effects), it may even be positive. Look at it this way, if tonight was 10 degrees warmer, I could turn off my heat, and stop emitting CO2.



Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 16, 2014 at 10:06 am

"All the ice core data demonstrate that increased temperature precedes CO2."

The rejoinder is that warming temperatures triggered by a small CO2 rise release the methane stored in the permafrost, which decays to H2O and CO2 in the air.

But ixnay the onay. If you and I are going to make nuclear happen we got to convince people it's the only viable baseload no-carbon source. Repudiating the main incentive ain't the best ad campaign. It's like Macy's denying Christmas.


1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 16, 2014 at 11:26 am

Woohoo, does this mean it's politically correct again to heat my bedroom electrically with old fashioned 100-watt incandescents?


3 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 16, 2014 at 12:03 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

Thew global warming alarmist constitute on 97 of percent of climate scientist. Why should this sway those who rely on the views of that brilliant climate science prodigy, Senator James M. Inofe of Oklahoma?


1 person likes this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 16, 2014 at 12:05 pm

This electrification is nonsense on all fronts.


Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 16, 2014 at 12:15 pm

"does this mean it's politically correct again to heat my bedroom electrically with old fashioned 100-watt incandescents?"

Sure is, under the dual-use and re-use environmental paradigms. You get 99.999% of the heat from a 100-watt heater, with the light along the way.


1 person likes this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 16, 2014 at 12:25 pm

>Thew global warming alarmist constitute on 97 of percent of climate scientist

It is very easy to switch those numbers 180 degrees: Just restrict all government funding of scientists to those who submit publications that demonstrate that anthropogenic (man caused) global warming is not a major concern. Then 97% of published scientists, as well as their government funded reports, will be on the side of the current global warming skeptics. Current skeptics, among whom are some of the top level climate scientists, are not funded. Which is to say that political science is for sale.

In the meantime, we citizens are being bullied by the alarmists. Our PACC is leading the way, as exemplified by this crazy idea to give up natural gas.


1 person likes this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 16, 2014 at 3:37 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

Current skeptics, among whom are some of the top level climate scientists, are not funded. Which is to say that political science is for sale. >

Oh yes they are. By the Koch brothers and oil companies, and funded very well.


Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 16, 2014 at 3:49 pm

>Oh yes they are. By the Koch brothers and oil companies, and funded very well.

If and when the equation flips, as I described, the alarmists will get funded by Tom Steyer and other super rich alarmists.


Like this comment
Posted by PAmoderate
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 17, 2014 at 8:46 pm

PAmoderate is a registered user.

How about stop stuffing our envelopes with waste paper? That'll be more green than forcing electrification.

Only a government-run utility would have nonsensical ideas like this.


1 person likes this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 18, 2014 at 7:33 am

mauricio is a registered user.

If and when the equation flips, as I described, the alarmists will get funded by Tom Steyer and other super rich alarmists.>

You forgot to mention all those round earth alarmists.


Like this comment
Posted by Jo Ann
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 18, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Maybe we need another $500,000 study on community priorities.

This is ABSURD. Solve some real problems.


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

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