What will it take for Palo Alto to live up to its lofty goals on climate change?
That's a question that the Utilities Department has been struggling to answer since 2016, when the City Council adopted a goal of reducing its greenhouse emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2030. It's also one that the council will consider this Monday, when it discusses the city's Sustainability/Climate Action Plan and weighs new options for making progress after years of relative inertia.
The city is still finalizing an analysis of what types of measures it would take to reach the "80x30" goal and how much it would cost to get there. But according to a presentation that the city's Utilities Advisory Commission received earlier this month, the effort would necessarily require widespread conversions of city buildings, including single-family residences, from gas to electricity; overwhelming adoption of electric vehicles by local residents and employees; and a 40% reduction of emissions from major facilities.
It will require the Utilities Department to scale up its electricity operations, or hire contractors, to facilitate the electrification effort to rethink the viability of the city's gas utility.
It may also likely require the city to go to the voters between 2022 and 2024 for approval of broad new energy mandates or potentially contentious policies like carbon pricing.
In rolling out the plan, Utilities staff is trying to balance the need for urgent action on climate change and the community resistance that would inevitably ensue if the city adopts mandates without giving residents adequate outreach, technical assistance and financial support. The strategy that Jonathan Abendschein, the city's assistant director for utilities resource management, presented to the commission on Feb. 3, thus placed a heavy emphasis on encouraging early adopters, expanding education and getting participation from neighborhood leaders and community volunteers.
At the same time, Abendschein underscored that the city would have to take some major steps in the next few years if it has any hope of reaching its climate change goal, an issue that has only grown in urgency since 2017. When the council adopted the 80x30 target, some talked about it as an "aspirational goal." Now, it looks like a bare minimum.
He pointed to the 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a panel of scientists from across the globe that recommended limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report states that meeting that goal would require "rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings) and industrial systems."
"These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio or mitigation options and significant upscaling of investment in those options," the IPCC report states.
The report's findings, Abenschneider told the utilities commission, suggested that the city's 80x30 goal is now vital to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
"Palo Alto isn't necessarily going above and beyond what's needed," Abendschein said.
Despite the growing sense of urgency, Palo Alto's actions haven't kept up with its words. City officials celebrated a major milestone in 2013, when the city adopted a "carbon neutral" electric portfolio. That policy has been credited with reducing the city's emissions by 36% from 1990 levels, or 56.5% when one considers the city's purchases of carbon offsets.
Since then, however, the city's environmentalists have had little to cheer about. The city has failed to meet its goals for energy efficiency in both 2019 and in 2020 and its plans to accelerate the "electrification" of buildings has also failed to advance, thanks in large part to the high costs of replacing and retrofitting gas appliances and installing heat pumps.
Christine Luong, Palo Alto's sustainability manager, reported last April that the city achieved savings of just 0.61% in electric efficiency in 0.44% in gas efficiency in 2019.
David Coale, a member of the group Carbon Free Palo Alto, called the recent trend discouraging. While city staff has been creating and revising analyses, the city hasn't rolled out any new programs to achieve major emission reductions. The delay just means the city will have to do that much more in future years if it hopes to meet its ambitious goals.
"The more we wait, the steeper the curve and the harder it is to get there," Coale told this news organization.
Last month, Coale was among residents who successfully lobbied the council to declare climate change as an official priority for 2021. By doing so, the council signified its intent to devote "particular, unusual and significant attention" to the topic this year.
The Monday hearing will give council members a chance to pin down exactly what this means.
Among the thorniest questions that the council will have to confront is: How fast and how far should it go to encourage — or mandate — building electrification? Abendschein noted that the work is only beginning on figuring out how to electrify commercial buildings, a task fraught with technical and economical challenges.
"That means we will likely need to commit heavily to single-family residential electrification as ... our most cost-efficient and technical course of action," Abendschein said.
Such an effort, however, would come with its own challenges. Some residents may prefer gas appliances to electrical ones. Others may have recently purchased or upgraded their gas infrastructure. Still, others may be unable to afford electrification or unwilling to pay more than $15,000 to electrify their homes.
Commissioner Greg Scharff, a former council member, cautioned staff against moving too fast to create broad mandates on energy. That task, he argued at the Feb. 3 meeting, is best left to the state.
"I think we all agree that climate change is the single biggest threat facing us at the moment," Scharff said. "There is some question in my mind frankly about … how much money we're going to spend on this, and what that does to change the community, and the unrest it will cost once people figure it out — versus, frankly, the benefits of statewide action on something like this, which is more conducive to how you actually move something forward like this."
To address potential resident concerns, Utilities Department officials are exploring mechanisms such as on-bill financing, which would allow homeowners to finance electrification upgrades by paying "efficiencies fees" on their bills over a long period. This, Abendschein said, would allow homeowners to pay for electric systems over many years without having to take on debt and without having these obligations affect their credit scores. And because the goal is to electrify buildings rather than tax residents, obligations for paying these fees would shift when a home is sold.
The Utilities Department is also trying to make electrification more attractive by packaging with two other municipal services: the extension of the city's fiber network to homes (also known as "Fiber to the Premises") and the undergrounding of overhead electric equipment.
Commissioner A.C. Johnston said the city also needs to allay people's concerns about the resiliency of all-electric buildings.
"Until people are comfortable that they're going to be able to have power, they're going to be reluctant to give up gas, which is kind of an alternative source when the power goes down," Johnston said.
Commissioners said they were excited about staff's proposed approach, which focuses on education and outreach in its earliest phases and which is prioritizing incentives over mandates. They also noted that when it comes to evaluating the city's climate action plans, the devil will be in the details. Some of these details will be publicized in April or May, when Utilities staff plans to release reports outlining specific actions that would need to be taken and the costs of implementing these options.
Even though that analysis won't be out until later this year, Commissioner Don Jackson lauded staff's approach to advance the 80x30 goal, including its focus on education and on early adopters.
"If those early adopters and volunteers have reasonable experiences, it helps the snowball start rolling down the hill," Jackson said. "That's a good thing."
Bret Andersen, a member of Carbon Free Palo Alto who supported the council's adoption of the 80x30 goal, said he found the latest signals from the city encouraging. Palo Alto officials are at last coming around to an idea that his group has been advocating for years: focusing on reducing gas use in buildings.
Andersen told this news organization that he believes the city will have to adopt a mandate for building electrification to meet its emissions goals. Before it does so, however, the Utilities Department needs to make sure that residents have an easy and affordable way to make the needed change.
Given that the city owns its utilities, it is well-positioned to make this happen, even despite the years of delays in getting the programs implemented. And strong leadership by the city in promoting — and, ultimately, mandating — building electrification is necessary if Palo Alto were to meet its goals on emission reductions, he said.
"What's clear is that we can't do it by waiting for the free market to provide the incentives," Andersen said. "We don't have time now."