What would it take for Palo Alto to slash its carbon emissions by 80 percent?
According to the city's ambitious new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, a host of new transit services; a shift from natural gas to electric heating; a potential carbon tax and the citywide replacement of traditional gas-powered automobiles with electric vehicles, with the goal of having 90 percent of Palo Alto vehicles be emission-free by 2030.
All these measures -- along with hundreds more -- are included in the new plan, which lays out a path for cutting local greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent from the 1990 baseline. Known as "80x30," the goal aims to build on the city's accomplishments to date, which have resulted in a 36 percent drop between 1990 and 2015. Among the city's most notable achievements: the recent adoption of a carbon-neutral electricity portfolio -- a commodity that the city hopes to leverage by converting existing gas-powered systems into electricity.
If the city continues all existing green initiatives -- which include new bike boulevards, its "zero waste" program, and the various efficiency-improving programs in the Utilities Department -- it would cut an additional 16 percent of emissions from the 1990 level, for a total of 52 percent. That far exceeds California's adopted goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030.
The new plan, which the council is set to discuss on Monday night, acknowledges that going from 36 percent to 80 percent isn't going to be easy. It will require the city to transform its transportation system and dramatically reduce the use of natural gas to heat buildings and water.
But the aim will be worth it, according to Chief Sustainability Officer Gil Friend, who is spearheading the plan. He said the goal isn't just to reduce carbon emission but to do it in a way that promotes a better quality of life, makes economic sense and improves Palo Alto's resiliency.
The plan includes about 350 actions, many of which are co-dependent and would need to go through thorough vetting by the council and the community. Some will undoubtedly prove controversial, including charging for downtown parking, encouraging denser development near transit lines and possibly exploring a carbon tax. Yet Friend noted in the draft plan that the city doesn't plan to ask people to do things that aren't cost effective and that don't have other benefits.
Not surprisingly, rethinking transportation is one of the major themes of the new plan. Currently, about two-thirds of Palo Alto's emissions come from road travel. Another 27 percent is from natural gas. The remainder comes largely from industrial emissions and "life-cycle emissions" from land-fill bound waste.
The plan recommends pursuing a model, called "Mobility as a Service," in which cars are replaced by a system of services that people can use seamlessly, including improved transit, shared bikes, on-demand shuttles, walking and biking amenities, and smart apps.
This means, among other things, creating new bike boulevards and offering transit passes to residents and employees to encourage Caltrain and VTA bus use. It also means rethinking the longstanding policy of providing free parking throughout downtown.
Friend told the Weekly that the city has had a policy of discouraging automobile use since 1998, but "We have a policy that says one thing and a practice that says another thing."
The plan is also bullish when it comes to electric vehicles, as its 90 percent target indicates. The plan also sets a goal of having 50 percent of inbound vehicles (those based outside of Palo Alto) to be zero-emission vehicles. To help facilitate the shift, the plan calls for expanding car-charging infrastructure; electrifying the city's own fleet; developing pricing policies to encourage electric-vehicle charging at local homes, businesses and public facilities; and exploring opportunities with companies like Tesla and Google "to identify policy roadblocks and collaboration opportunities."
Electric heaters for water and space offer another opportunity, according to the plan. With natural gas making up about a quarter of the city's carbon footprint, the plan calls on Palo Alto to "first seek to reduce natural gas usage through energy efficiency and conservation, followed by electrification of water heating, space hearing and cooking where cost effective."
This means exploring new building codes to encourage energy-efficient buildings and to encourage, or even require, existing buildings to switch from gas to electric hot-water systems. The sustainability plan also calls for hosting a pilot all-electric hot-water program at a major city building, such as City Hall.
The plan has a target of having 50 percent of all commercial water and space heating be electric by 2030. In the residential sector, the goal is to have 70 percent of the water heaters and 60 percent of space heaters be electric -- a target that the city would pursue through education, outreach and financial incentives.
In addition to these proposals, the sustainability plan includes strategies for protecting the city from sea-level rise, preserving the natural environment, and pursuing what the plan calls the "utility of the future" an agile system that includes energy generation, storage and services.
Once adopted, the sustainability plan would be updated every five years. In addition, staff plans to create more granular five-year work plans as the process rolls forward.