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.