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.