Palo Alto plans to plant thousands of trees, accelerate the installation of more electric-vehicle chargers in local garages and — at long last — retire this summer the energy-sucking, sludge-burning incinerators in the Baylands as part of City Hall's renewed push toward environmental sustainability.
These efforts and many others will be highlighted on Monday when the City Council reviews the annual Earth Day report and considers a staff plan for pursuing sustainability initiatives in 2019 and 2020. The council will also consider following in the footsteps of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which this week passed a law requiring protected bike lanes to be added to roads that are undergoing reconstruction and that have been identified in the city's bicycle master plan.
The council agreed in February to designate "climate change" as one of its top four priorities for the year. Monday's meeting will give council members a chance to weigh in on the city staff's sustainability plan, which is geared toward reducing the city's greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline.
The two-year work plan, which the council's Policy and Services Committee endorsed earlier this month, focuses on four key areas identified by the council last year as pressing priorities: energy, mobility, electric vehicles and water management. It also includes three additional areas: sea-level rise, natural environment and the reduction of waste bound for landfills.
To reduce energy consumption, the city plans to update its building code by introducing new energy-efficiency measures, with the goal of saving between 2% and 5% of electricity through voluntary and mandatory programs. The Earth Day report notes that energy-efficient buildings "require less electricity, natural gas and water, while saving customers money." (The city already adopted a goal in 2017 to achieve electric-energy savings of 5.7% and gas savings of 5.1% between 2018 and 2027.)
Given Palo Alto's "carbon-neutral" electricity portfolio, city staff is also trying to encourage residents to convert from gas appliances to electric ones — an effort that has been hampered by high upfront costs for electric appliances, such as electric heat pump water heaters, and a lack of expertise among contractors about alternatives to gas appliances, according to staff. Utilities staff is recommending offering rebates for heat pump water heaters, providing technical assistance and encouraging "all-electric" construction projects. In 2018, the city provided rebates for 26 heaters, according to staff, up from 10 in 2017.
A bigger and more pressing challenge is addressing transportation, which produces about 94% of local greenhouse-gas emissions.
Palo Alto is already providing funding for the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association (TMA), the nonprofit that the city established in 2015 with the goal of reducing solo commuting. According to TMA surveys, the percentage of downtown commuters who were drive alone has dropped from 57% to 49%.
But in addition to the TMA, the city is also trying to accelerate residents' transition to electric vehicles by installing more EV chargers and by requiring new commercial buildings to include EV-ready infrastructure. The city is also providing incentives of up to $18,000 for multifamily homes and $30,000 for schools and nonprofits to install EV infrastructure.
The Earth Day report notes that Palo Alto's adoption rate for electric vehicles is the highest in the country, with a recent report by the International Council on Clean Transportation finding that 29% of Palo Alto's new vehicles in 2017 were electric (in California, the rate was 5%).
Councilman Greg Tanaka, who regularly bikes and rides an electric skateboard to meetings, argued at the Policy and Services Committee meeting last week that the city should think beyond cars when it considers incentives for electric vehicles. Given the growing popularity of smaller electric modes of transportation, including scooters, bikes and skateboards, the city should offer incentives to riders who choose these options over cars.
"We make infrastructure for cars, which are very expensive, which have a huge carbon footprint, but we don't make the same for these electric portable vehicles, which have a much more dramatic impact on the environment," Tanaka said at the April 3 meeting. "The same money we spend here, if we spend just a small portion of it for small electric portable vehicles, I think the impact would be much, much greater."
In unanimously endorsing the work plan, the committee added Tanaka's suggestion that the city's mobility efforts include all types of electric vehicles. The committee also agreed with Tanaka that the city should consider following Cambridge's example and adopt a policy requiring protected bike lanes in major road projects.
Another new initiative that the city plans to roll out is the planting of thousands of trees. The city has gone out to bid for companies that can create a digital tool that can analyze the percentage of canopy coverage in any area of town, down to an individual parcel. Such a tool would help the city reach the goals of its recently updated Urban Forest Master Plan, according to staff.
The city already has a plan to plant as many as 10,000 trees in south Palo Alto on private property, the report states, and Palo Alto Urban Forester Walter Passmore said the city has been in discussions with various corporations about funding the program.
"Whereas with a lot of (the city's) programs, we rely on sources outside of our city, state or even nation to do the right thing, I think it's very significant that we're looking at doing something locally that everyone can see and directly benefit from," Passmore said.
While these initiatives are relatively new, the city is also moving ahead this year with plans that have been years in the making. Staff expects to retire in June the pair of incinerators that have been burning local sewage for decades and that today represents the city's biggest single source of greenhouse gases.
The one issue that council members and staff are particularly concerned about when it comes to sustainability is waste management. With China recently declining to accept the vast majority of recycled goods from other nations, Palo Alto like other cities has been surveying new ways to dispose of its paper and plastic.
Phil Bobel, assistant director of the Public Works Department, said that while the city has found other domestic markets for its mixed-paper recyclables, its mixed plastics are now bound for other nations in Asia, including Malaysia and the Philippines. China's new policy has prompted some cities to stop recycling altogether or to incinerate its waste, but Bobel noted that Palo Alto has so far been able to find markets for its recycled materials.
Committee Chair Liz Kniss said she has become "more and more concerned about recycling."
"Once again, we're going to have to lead the way," Kniss said.