Palo Alto plots greener future at Sustainability Summit

Close to 300 attendees debate new goals, policies for slashing carbon

Car-free corridors, a carbon tax and a charging station for every hungry vehicle.

Solar panels, smart meters galore and a farewell to natural gas and free parking.

The ideas for transforming Palo Alto into a greener and more resilient community came flying from every direction at the city's Sustainability Summit, which brought a crowd of almost 300 residents on Sunday to Jordan Middle School.

Organized by Gil Friend, the city's chief sustainability officer, the summit featured a TED-style talk from a retired Marine who advised the Joint Chief of Staff on a "Grand Strategy" around sustainability; a presentation about the city's new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan; and a group exercise in which attendees broke into groups and discussed potential goals – as well as anticipated obstacles – in the city's renewed charge to cut carbon.

In his introductory comments, Mayor Pat Burt called the event "perhaps the largest and most important environmental gathering in Palo Alto's history."

"Your guidance and commitment today will help determine whether we will pass on a sustainable community to our children and their children," Burt said.

The event took place at a time when the City Council is preparing to renew its vows to cut carbon. The City Council had adopted its last Climate Action Plan in 2007, becoming one of five cities in the nation to do so, according to Friend. On Monday night, the City Council is set to discuss the new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, which will set out new goals and strategies for achieving them. Specifically, it will recommend a goal of slashing emissions by 80 percent by 2030. This would be well ahead of California's aspirational goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Friend cited the city's recent accomplishments in promoting carbon reduction, including a carbon-neutral electric portfolio and a green-building ordinance that goes well beyond state requirements for sustainable construction.

"California leads the country and we're a step ahead of that," Friend said. "Not just because we can, but because it makes good sense."

The event began with a video presentation from Mark Mykelby, a retired Marine colonel who served as an advisor to the Joint Chief of Staff and who champions the idea of a national strategy built around sustainability. Initially scheduled to give the keynote address at the summit, Mykleby attended the event via videoconference after snowstorms impacted his travel plans. After a video of his talk screened, Mykleby was digitally transported to Jordan for a round of questions and answers.

Mykelby made a case in his presentation for a more urgent response to the globe's growing population and the corresponding depletion of resources. By the middle of the century, he said, the world will have to fold in 9 billion people. In places like China, water supply will be strained by population growth. And food continues to grow more expensive, he said.

"We are depleting the ecosystem at a rate we've never seen before," Mykleby said. "We just don't have enough s--t in the world to support what we're doing. Come to grips with that!"

He encouraged a strategy built around three main pillars: walkable communities, regenerative agriculture and a productivity revolution in manufacturing and energy.

In his live remarks to the enthusiastic Palo Alto crowd, Mykleby lauded the city for its efforts on sustainability and for putting together the Sunday summit.

"You're one of the examples I like to use as to what it means to be citizens and get stuff done," Mykleby said. "What you're doing is real and important."

Then the crowd got to work. Over a series of rounds, groups gathered around tables and debated a series of broad questions: What if Palo Alto was leading the way? What obstacles might we face and how can we overcome them? If our success was completely guaranteed, what bold steps might we choose?

Each group was assigned a category to focus on: either transportation, energy, water or the natural environment. After a round of brainstorming, attendees would rotate into new groups and grapple with new topics.

The answers were all over the map. Sven Thesen, a leading proponent of renewable energy, cited as one of his group's ideas an underground transportation system stretching from Marin County to San Jose, with high travel speeds and numerous stops along the way. Arthur Keller, a former long-time member of the city's Planning Transportation Commission, proposed more charging stations for electric vehicles.

"Several generations ago, we talked about having a chicken in every pot," Keller said, alluding to the famous slogan of Herbert Hoover. "It would be nice to talk about having an EV charger in every parking space."

Other attendees focused on electricity, water and building construction. Given the city's carbon-neutral electricity supply, the idea of switching homes from natural gas to electricity proved generally popular. Because of the high costs of changing the heating systems, Friend said staff is thinking about promoting this switch through attrition and replacement.

One attendee proposed keeping University Avenue free of cars for the entire summer. Another lobbied for making parking more expensive. Another proposed a carbon tax, an idea that staff considered but does not expect to include in the new plan.

Others ideas are even longer shots. Will all of Palo Alto go vegan? Will the city's groundwater become a significant source of hydroelectric power? Highly unlikely.

But while behavior preferences and political (not to mention, appreciation of meat and cheese) will undoubtedly limit how far the city goes with the new sustainability plan, money doesn't have to, Friend argued. His message, often reiterated throughout the Summit, was that "done well, sustainability is a damn good investment."

"It's not a matter of trading off money and environmental benefits," Friend said. "It's a matter of designing programs that pan out."

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18 people like this
Posted by Gleason
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 25, 2016 at 7:22 am

This is great. But how many of our children and their children will be able to afford to live here and enjoy ?

22 people like this
Posted by Middle class Palo Alto?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2016 at 8:43 am

Is it greener for someone to make a two-hour commute in an electric car or to walk to work from their downtown apartment?

Making everyone buy an electric car is incredibly expensive - it's just another way to push out the middle class. It doesn't cost anything to allow taller apartments downtown within walking and biking distance of work and let people live in them. If you make the companies give incentives to people who live locally, you can make it possible for middle class people to live in those apartments.

And that's greener than burning coal to charge up an electric car so it can drive from Antioch to Palo Alto.

17 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2016 at 9:18 am

Those of us already living here and have lived here for over a decade are not likely to decide to move again just because it is "greener" to live nearer a job in Sunnyvale when the job we moved here for was just a short bike ride away.

It is not green to keep moving home. It is not green to choose to work a particular job because it is walking distance of where a spouse works.

Real life issues are never green.

What would make a big difference is getting us all to where we need to go with a lot less stress than we do now. We have several reasons to get to an airport this month and next for our family. From a time point of view alone, it is much more expedient to give rides to and from the airport. If we had airport shuttles that stopped along 101 between SFO and SJC, it would mean that instead of one car driving both ways along 101, a short trip to a shuttle stop would keep two vehicle trips off 101.

Getting all our students to the high schools by bike is a fine theory but for many and varied reasons does not suit all students all the time. Improving shuttles so that all areas of town can get students to the high schools and secondary schools without parent or self driven cars would make sense.

Many of us are trying to live "green" at present but are hassled by no alternatives. We live where we live and work where we work. Making what we have already is a much more viable discussion than all of the building and buying of EVs. BTW, we already own one "green" vehicle used for commuting at off peak hours.

PS, all the talk about zero period at the high schools for "green" reasons would have made a lot more green rationale if we also had 8th period options also. Staggering school start and end times would be really helpful to the traffic nightmares around town as traffic is always a lot lighter on non school days particularly those outside of summer break. (I don't approve of zero period really, but I would approve of an 8th period option).

25 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 25, 2016 at 10:32 am

Is the city going to buy us all new kitchens and furnaces to the tune of $20,000-$50,000? Are they going to do it again when they figure out that electricity is too expensive?

Palo Alto is about as green as we can get. Enough with the preaching and the expensive mailings and the nonsense about banning cars.

If they want to do something useful, maybe they can start lobbying to stop Nestle from pumping out and selling California water during a drought!

By the way, how much does it cost each PA household to pay to recharge all the ecars of commuters, visitors and residents?

19 people like this
Posted by Johnny
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 25, 2016 at 11:09 am

"Car-free corridors" will worsen congestion. Congestion increases stress and road rage, perhaps causing a frustrated driver to turn right on red without checking over his shoulder, hitting an innocent cyclist who is less attentive because he thinks the brand new sharrows will protect him.

All the road upgrades have made things worse. The green lanes and sharrows are absolutely excessive, as are the obnoxious yellow bumps as if a 25 mph road is a freeway.

They should tax us less and leave the roads of Palo Alto untouched.

But then the bureaucrats wouldn't have jobs.

13 people like this
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2016 at 1:26 pm

Wonder how many of the attendees were Palo Alto residents?

1 person likes this
Posted by Madicyn
a resident of another community
on Jan 25, 2016 at 2:39 pm

[Post removed.]

24 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 25, 2016 at 3:20 pm

There are a lot of seniors who would LOVE to sell their home and move to a saner, less crowded place. If they've lived here for any length of time, the tax 'hit' is severe until the first spouse passes away - dies. If I am the survivor, I'll be packing the day after the funeral and move out of this crazy town. Who ARE these people dreaming up the weird ideas for the other people who live here? Being "green" used to mean "nauseated". That fits. [Portion removed.]

25 people like this
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 25, 2016 at 4:13 pm

"Given the city's carbon-neutral electricity supply, the idea of switching homes from natural gas to electricity proved generally popular."

Switching from gas to electricity would substantially INCREASE our net carbon footprint. Despite vague "carbon-neutral electricity" claims, Palo Alto's electricity comes from the same grid and the same generators as every other city in the Bay Area, so it has the same REAL carbon footprint per kilowatt hour. Illusions are comforting to many, and they are welcome to them, but somebody at City Hall ought to have a grip on the hard realities.

9 people like this
Posted by Carbon_Fetish
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2016 at 6:38 pm

Quite obsessing on climate change. Let's get back to basics on managing real pollution (Poisons not carbon), habitat loss, ecosystem development, water quality and over population.

I doubt anything we do in Palo Alto will reduce the amount of smog in Beijing. However, we can make a big difference on the health and well being of the wildlife in our environment and the quality of life for our citizens by protecting our local environment.

Protecting the unique and special environment of the bay area is the best way to show global leadership.

8 people like this
Posted by Exposed agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 26, 2016 at 12:56 pm

[Portion removed.]

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

C.S. Lewis

2 people like this
Posted by wmconlon
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 27, 2016 at 2:34 pm

wmconlon is a registered user.

Let me reinforce the remarks by 'An Engineer' using a hot water heater as an example.

Natural gas produces 117 pounds of CO2 per Million Btu of heat. [Web Link]. A hot water heater at 80% efficiency (there are more efficient models) therefore produces 145.25 pounds of CO2 per Million Btu of Hot water.

Palo Alto obtains its electric power from the grid, having no significant generation inside the city limits. Any renewable power contracted by CPAU goes into the overall generation mix, and is NOT specifically delivered to Palo Alto, except in an unrealistic accounting mindset. Accordingly, we must consider the carbon content of California's electricity. In 2013 this was 630 pounds per Megawatt-hour [Web Link].

Neglecting any losses to deliver the electricity to or within Palo Alto (not a realistic assumption), we would need 0.293 Megawatt-hours to provide a million Btu equivalent of heating. The generation of this amount of electricity would result in 184 pounds of CO2 being produced.

Accordingly, it is LESS carbon intensive to use natural gas for hot water heating. Of course, the California energy mix is changing, and at some point in the future, we would be indifferent, from a CO2 perspective. But that point may still be 30 or 40 years from now, and until then, we don't want our city policies to make climate change worse.

Now there is also the matter of methane emissions, since that is a significant greenhouse gas. But emissions in CPAU territory are insignificant, and would NOT be changed by this policy, because the gas transmission and distribution system, from which methane might leak, will still be in place.

Finally, there are some practical considerations. The gas-fired heater can provide 40 Million Btus per hour of heating, which would provide 74 gallons in the first hour. This about three times as much as a tankless hot water heater.

We need to put our brains toward real solutions, not just feel-good, knee-jerk reactions.

2 people like this
Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 27, 2016 at 3:28 pm

Who are these employees who are dreaming up all of these rules? LEAVE US ALONE!!! The city "employees' thinking this up most probably don't live here. The 'young renters' and 'greeneies' who dream this up won't be here long. Does the city really think that seniors on fixed income and Social Security are going to dump their gas water heater, gas stove, and gas furnace to comply with some ridiculous idea dreamed up in Silly Haul??? I doubt if this were to hold up in a court of law. Palo Alto lis getting crazier by the minute. To justify their 'positions' with big titles, new hires in more 'departments' have to dream up something to do. Next thing you know, they will mandate that all residents must be fluent in at least two languages besides English. (and I'm sure the Weekly 'censor' with block this off.

2 people like this
Posted by Green for real people
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 27, 2016 at 3:59 pm

What was NOT explored at the Summit is as telling as what was: anything that doesn't meet with the City Managements' big growth and Palo Alto elitism vision. Here are some no-brainers:

1. STOP ADDING commuters to our congested streets by continually allowing more office space to be created.
2. Allow the housing to catch up to the current job imbalance, by building high density housing for the people who work here, like teachers, firefighters, medical workers, retail and restaurant workers--near public, car/bike-share, transit options! And stop adding more offices and more workers.
3. Reduce the number of car rides to schools--stop the PAUSD school choice craze--elitism that sends people all over town 4 trips a day.
4. SHUT DOWN the Palo Alto Airport which is an unnecessary contributor to Greenhouse gases! Make it community gardens, Park 'n Ride w/ solar panel shading, a small cafe for Baylands visitors, and more wetlands park.
5. Charge for parking and use those funds to support free or lower cost transit options around town.

Like this comment
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 27, 2016 at 4:44 pm


Right on and well said.

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

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