Palo Alto moves toward 'carbon free' natural gas

New program leans heavily on carbon offsets to achieve emission reductions

Having already slashed carbon out of its electricity portfolio, Palo Alto is now looking to do the same to natural gas.

By a unanimous vote, the council agreed on Monday to pursue a "carbon neutral" natural gas plan and to have such a plan in place by 2018. Yet in doing so, the council faced criticism from some members of the environmental community who argued that the city's plan is more of a feel-good measure than a real carbon-reduction effort.

That's because, at least in the near term, the effort consists entirely of the city purchasing carbon "offsets" from environmentally friendly projects in other communities, like out-of-state dairy farms that capture methane emissions from their cows and convert them into energy.

The plan also limits the rate impact to Palo Alto's natural gas customers to 10 cents per therm (under current prices, the city's cost for offsets is about 4 cents per therm)i. This means that for the median residential customer, the program would add about $1.80 to the monthly bill during summer and $5.40 during winter (or about $43 per year). The council also specified that the offset program would give preference to local projects, as they come online in the years to come.

For the critics, the program didn't go far enough. A few people argued that the city would be better off focusing on local reductions by encouraging electrification of natural gas appliances and by improving energy efficiency in local homes and businesses. Bret Andersen, a member of local group Carbon Free Palo Alto, said that while the program might be useful as as a "bridge," the city would be better off investing in local initiatives.

"That represents money leaving our community and not being invested in our homes for the comfort and benefits we're getting for higher efficiency and functionality," Andersen said.

But others said the new program is a positive early step in the city's quest to remove carbon from its natural gas portfolio. Resident Grant Dasher said offsets represent a useful tool, at least in the interim, to fight the global impacts of climate change.

"Us funding the reduction of carbon elsewhere in the world is a useful thing for us to do with our money to solve the problem globally," Dasher said. "And as a relatively wealthy community, I think it's something that we should be doing."

Sandra Slater, who serves as Northern California Program Director for the Cool City Challenge, cited the city's recent success with electricity and characterized the new initiative a great next step.

"Let's continue down the moral path with a program that goes in the right direction and know that we're doing as much as possible, as quickly as possible," Slater said.

The council largely agreed and voted 8-0 to move ahead with the program, even as it acknowledged that "offsets" are an imperfect solution.

"I don't understand how taking this positive step in any way inhibits taking further steps ... how pricing methane prevents us from pursuing electrification and efficiency in our system or efficiency in homes," Councilman Cory Wolbach said.

Vice Mayor Greg Scharff agreed, calling the new carbon-neutral portfolio the "right way to go."

"I don't think it takes away from the efforts on how we'll look at this issue in the long-term," Scharff said. "But now, there's something we can do that's possible. And we should do it right now."

To emphasize its desire to do more locally, the council also endorsed an amendment by Mayor Pat Burt to have staff return with a a set of programs that would reduce natural gas usage within Palo Alto. It also supported a proposal by Councilman Tom DuBois to give preference, when purchasing offsets, to projects closer to home. Burt said the city's commitment to carbon-neutral gas is particularly important given the recent national election and president-elect Donald Trump's skepticism on climate change.

"Given our national circumstance and where we may be headed on federal climate-change protection, we're really sort of where we were before the Paris Accord, where the initiatives of local, regional and state governments and in the private sector will be the primary drivers in the time being in the U.S. on climate protection," Burt said.


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11 people like this
Posted by SuperD
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 7, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Stove top cooking with electricity sux; I have no problem paying a bit more to keep natural gas.

8 people like this
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 7, 2016 at 12:16 pm

We need natural gas and oil as national security and prosperity measures. Palo Alto seems to have bought into the agenda of global warming alarmists. There is nothing wrong with solar and wind , unless they prevent the use of fossil fuels. BTW, Palo Alto gobbled up hydro power contracts decades ago, thus depriving other cities from sharing them, and blocking the wild salmons runs. Palo Alto should not get a smug, superior feeling, because it does not deserve it.

8 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 7, 2016 at 9:38 pm

"the city's plan is more of a feel-good measure than a real carbon-reduction effort."

It is ENTIRELY a feel-good measure. We pay someone else to emit carbon so we can fool ourselves into feeling less guilty about our own unreduced carbon emissions. By this strange logic, money equals innocence.

Outcome: we got our same carbon emissions and less money in the bank; they got more carbon emissions and more money. Who's the winner here?

2 people like this
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 7, 2016 at 11:05 pm

We have a solar-thermal system at our home. Our domestic hot water and radiant heating system use solar energy with natural gas backup for cloudy days. Aside for cloudy winter days, close to 100% of our hot water and home is heated entirely by the sun.

The system works great. I would encourage others to consider it.

2 people like this
Posted by Mary
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 8, 2016 at 9:18 am

"Let's continue down the moral path...." [Sandra Slater, local lobbyist]

In the 80's, we had people like Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority attempting to use the power of government to force us all to live according to his moral vision for society. Fortunately, Falwell is mostly discredited, although that doesn't prevent his ilk from trying even today.

How ironic - and sad - that now we have local Falwell types like Sandra Slater who see no problem with using government power to dragoon us all into her particular moral universe. Too bad that the City Council fell for this nonsense.

Note that what the Council is doing is voting to charge Palo Alto residents higher gas rates with the money being sent to (likely Trump voting) dairy farmers in Wisconsin so that they can put the manure their cows produce into big plastic bags.

Maybe this is "moral", but as is clear from other commenters here, this opinion is far from universal.

The city did not have to drag dissenters from Slater's moral vision into compliance. It would have been simple to set up a billing system so that people who wanted to send money to Wisconsin for moral purposes could have done so voluntarily, while others could use the extra money for their own moral or other purposes - like helping the homeless perhaps.

In addition, many might ask why we're sending money to Wisconsin farmers when we're in the midst of a budget deficit crisis.

Like many - or even most - moral crusaders, Slater and her local soulmates seem not to have confidence that their position is persuasive. She COULD have tried to convince doubters that her moral vision is the right path to follow. I guess it is easier to work on 8 gullible politicians and simply trample the heretics in the process.

3 people like this
Posted by margaret
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2016 at 2:14 pm

[Post removed.]

5 people like this
Posted by Tom Kabat
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 10, 2016 at 5:29 pm

Palo Alto could produce local GHG offsets at its landfill by operating it tighter than the allowed state standards for methane leakage. Palo Alto could increase the frequency of leak testing, and crack fixing, and landfill gas collection system tuning, vacuum pressure etc. and quantify the reduced leakage. This could also demonstrate a replicable savings path for other communities to follow.

5 people like this
Posted by Deplorable Denier
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2016 at 8:56 pm

Deplorable Denier is a registered user.

Dasher said. "And as a relatively wealthy community, I think it's something that we should be doing."

"Let's continue down the moral path with a program that goes in the right direction and know that we're doing as much as possible, as quickly as possible," Slater said.

When energy policy is driven by ideology the taxpayer always get screwed. It is obvious the city council sees their community as a personal piggy bank to fund their pet projects. They are virtue signaling at our expense.

As the global temperature hiatus is about to extend into its third decade, they need to update their dogma and stop picking our pockets. If I hear a local politician say Palo Alto is a wealthy community so we can afford it (choose from an infinite list of pie in the sky ideas) one more time, my head will explode like a melon in the hot but no longer warming climate.

3 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2016 at 9:32 am

These offsets using carbon credits are mostly bogus. A state wide or national carbon tax would allow sellers and buyers to make economically justified purchasing decisions rather than just political grand standing.

5 people like this
Posted by Stephen
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 11, 2016 at 12:48 pm

Dear Deplorable Denier: Sorry, but you are absolutely wrong about global temperatures. You might want to try getting your information from people who know something about the topic - say NASA as opposed to post-truth entities like Breitbart. Take a look at NASA's web page at Web Link or the NYTimes article Web Link

13 people like this
Posted by Had Solar Once
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2016 at 4:28 pm

We had solar panels once! The roofer installed them after replacing our roof, BUT he didn't tell us that the panels were made in China. We would never have consented to that, had we known. Worse, we had specified " no Chinese products" before re- roofing and re-insulating!

The panels ended up ruining the large portion of the new roof where they were installed! It was not until the panels were removed that we found out they were made in China! Worse, the manufacturer ignored our numerous requests for a refund, so that money is gone for good.

Turns out that American-made panels are pretty cost-prohibitive, as is installation. The whole debacle was quite expensive the first time; we won't be converting back to solar anytime soon-- especially since the cost savings on utilities really weren't enough to offset the cost of the panels plus installation!

Like this comment
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 12, 2016 at 2:39 pm

Marie is a registered user.

It is not enough that the city is pushing us into a deficit budget by overly generous salary increase, far above inflation, but they also have to raise utility rates for feel good measures, that make little or no difference to climate change. We need real changes, not just charging customers more money so the city can say we are carbon neutral, when in fact we are not.

That money would be far better spent subsidizing more efficiency in heating and cooling, reducing demand, than again making those who can afford it least, pay so the city can pat itself on the back. Oh - and they might actually consider changes that would reduce the amount of time we sit in traffic, trying to drive to a grocery store. Why is slowing traffic to a crawl, and making it take longer for the fire department to respond to an emergency, considered a positive?

And the deficit - well that will be made up by reducing benefits and increasing charges for city services.

Example one: there is now a plan to tear down a perfectly functional Junior Museum, which had a major upgrade to its zoo in the past few years, put up a much bigger facility - and then start charging a "nominal admission" ($20 for one parent and two kids). For the one per cent, it is indeed nominal. For the rest of us, not so much.

Example two: form a "public-private" partnership for a new animal shelter. Does anyone doubt that the new partnership will reduce services and increase charges for spaying/neutering, adoption and surrendering pets? Compare the costs of Partners in Need in RWC with the Palo Alto Shelter. This is not to denigrate PIN - they are a great organization, but do not offer the range of services of our city-run shelter nor can they do so for the same cost, unless the city subsidizes it. Not all services should be cost neutral.

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

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