News

New committee seeks to boost Palo Alto's climate-change efforts

Group pledges to work with community to accelerate emission reductions

Moises Gonzalez hands a tool to Ramiro Martinez to secure a solar panel at an installation in Hillsborough on May 18, 2021. Photo by Daniela Beltran B.

It's been more than five years since the Palo Alto City Council adopted an ambitious goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030, and progress remains stubbornly slow.

Since April 2016, when the council adopted its goal, the city has taken several small steps in support of this target: modifying the building code to require electrification in residential developments; implementing bike improvements to encourage alternatives to driving; and installing solar panels on the roof of a public garage; and taking a formal stance against car idling.

But much to the chagrin of local environmentalists, Palo Alto has not launched any bold pilot programs to further its sustainability goals, which increasingly appear to be aspirational rather than realistic. As of 2019, Palo Alto has achieved emission reductions of just 38% from the 1990 baseline level, with nearly all of it attributable to the council's 2013 decision to make the city's electric portfolio "carbon neutral." The city's current path forward toward a more sustainable future remains murky at best. Under the latest plan, which the city's newly created Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Ad Hoc Committee discussed earlier this month, city staff would spend the next year in analysis mode, upgrading the city's strategic plan and commissioning a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis for various sustainability programs it includes.

Palo Alto's lagging progress and protracted timeline has frustrated residents at the forefront of the city's emission-reduction efforts. Dozens attended the committee's first meeting and more than 40 people addressed the committee, which consists of Vice Mayor Pat Burt and council member Alison Cormack. Their message was clear: Palo Alto needs to move faster.

David Coale, who has long urged more aggressive action on climate change, was one of many residents who suggested that the city's methodical approach is too slow. Coale called on the city to seek exemptions from CEQA for programs that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. He also urged city officials actually adopt some of the pilot programs that the city has been discussion for years, which include creating incentives — or requirements — to facilitate a switch away from natural gas and toward clean electricity.

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"You have to break out of the city's mold to go slow, and you need to go fast," Coale said. "It's past time for these arguments to take hold. I'm pretty discouraged because it's been so long and there's been so little action."

A group of eight students from Gunn High — some taking a break from class — Zoomed into the virtual meeting to send a similar message. Saman de Silva, a member of Gunn's Green Team, criticized the city for proposing to wait another 16 months before adopting the city's new plan for cutting emissions.

"When push comes to shove, climate change is not waiting for bureaucratic red tape, and neither should this committee," de Silva told the committee.

Palo Alto's Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Ad Hoc Committee holds its inaugural meeting on Aug. 12, 2021.

Resident Debbie Mytels urged the committee to immediately set goals for shutting down aged gas lines and creating a program that allows utility customers to electrify their homes through on-bill financing, a mechanism that would allow them to pay for the upgrade over time. Government action, she said, will be necessary to spur collective action on climate change.

"For a decade now, the city has been putting out programs that educate and gently nudge the public into action but we need to do more," Mytels said. "We need to create programs that support and compel collective actions."

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Both members of the new committee agreed with the public that the city needs to be more aggressive when it comes to climate change. Burt and Cormack both supported exploring pilot programs that could be launched sooner rather than later, potentially through CEQA exemptions. They also assured the public that — contrary to popular conceptions of how committees work — the new panel is designed to speed up, rather than slow down, the city's green efforts.

"I think the ad hoc is here to break bottlenecks," Cormack said. "That's what I view this as — as a way for us to get moving faster, for us to work as partners with staff, members of the community and experts."

According to recent staff analysis, achieving the 80x30 goal would require a series of dramatic actions, including the electrification of gas appliances in nearly all single-family homes by 2030, and widespread adoption of electric vehicles, which would have to constitute at least 85% of local car purchases (up from the current rate of 30%). It may also entail adoption of a carbon tax or another type of tax measure to fund the new programs.

Burt acknowledged the challenge but suggested that even these actions may not be enough to address the new normal. Climate impacts, he said, are "no longer something in the future," as evidenced by California's prolonged drought and increasingly intense wildfire seasons.

"Now the events of the last year and even month — and the recent IPCC report — have made it apparent that that 80x30 goal was not the end. It's a critical foundation, it's going to be very difficult to achieve and yet we'll have to go beyond that," Burt said.

The committee plans to begin delving into specific programs at its Sept. 9 meeting, which will focus on residential building electrification. Its following three meetings will focus on commercial building electrification, electric vehicles and mobility programs, respectively, according to the schedule presented by staff. Later meetings will focus on topics such as wildfire protection, sea level rise, financing mechanisms for sustainability efforts and low-carbon construction materials.

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New committee seeks to boost Palo Alto's climate-change efforts

Group pledges to work with community to accelerate emission reductions

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Aug 24, 2021, 5:12 pm

It's been more than five years since the Palo Alto City Council adopted an ambitious goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030, and progress remains stubbornly slow.

Since April 2016, when the council adopted its goal, the city has taken several small steps in support of this target: modifying the building code to require electrification in residential developments; implementing bike improvements to encourage alternatives to driving; and installing solar panels on the roof of a public garage; and taking a formal stance against car idling.

But much to the chagrin of local environmentalists, Palo Alto has not launched any bold pilot programs to further its sustainability goals, which increasingly appear to be aspirational rather than realistic. As of 2019, Palo Alto has achieved emission reductions of just 38% from the 1990 baseline level, with nearly all of it attributable to the council's 2013 decision to make the city's electric portfolio "carbon neutral." The city's current path forward toward a more sustainable future remains murky at best. Under the latest plan, which the city's newly created Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Ad Hoc Committee discussed earlier this month, city staff would spend the next year in analysis mode, upgrading the city's strategic plan and commissioning a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis for various sustainability programs it includes.

Palo Alto's lagging progress and protracted timeline has frustrated residents at the forefront of the city's emission-reduction efforts. Dozens attended the committee's first meeting and more than 40 people addressed the committee, which consists of Vice Mayor Pat Burt and council member Alison Cormack. Their message was clear: Palo Alto needs to move faster.

David Coale, who has long urged more aggressive action on climate change, was one of many residents who suggested that the city's methodical approach is too slow. Coale called on the city to seek exemptions from CEQA for programs that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. He also urged city officials actually adopt some of the pilot programs that the city has been discussion for years, which include creating incentives — or requirements — to facilitate a switch away from natural gas and toward clean electricity.

"You have to break out of the city's mold to go slow, and you need to go fast," Coale said. "It's past time for these arguments to take hold. I'm pretty discouraged because it's been so long and there's been so little action."

A group of eight students from Gunn High — some taking a break from class — Zoomed into the virtual meeting to send a similar message. Saman de Silva, a member of Gunn's Green Team, criticized the city for proposing to wait another 16 months before adopting the city's new plan for cutting emissions.

"When push comes to shove, climate change is not waiting for bureaucratic red tape, and neither should this committee," de Silva told the committee.

Resident Debbie Mytels urged the committee to immediately set goals for shutting down aged gas lines and creating a program that allows utility customers to electrify their homes through on-bill financing, a mechanism that would allow them to pay for the upgrade over time. Government action, she said, will be necessary to spur collective action on climate change.

"For a decade now, the city has been putting out programs that educate and gently nudge the public into action but we need to do more," Mytels said. "We need to create programs that support and compel collective actions."

Both members of the new committee agreed with the public that the city needs to be more aggressive when it comes to climate change. Burt and Cormack both supported exploring pilot programs that could be launched sooner rather than later, potentially through CEQA exemptions. They also assured the public that — contrary to popular conceptions of how committees work — the new panel is designed to speed up, rather than slow down, the city's green efforts.

"I think the ad hoc is here to break bottlenecks," Cormack said. "That's what I view this as — as a way for us to get moving faster, for us to work as partners with staff, members of the community and experts."

According to recent staff analysis, achieving the 80x30 goal would require a series of dramatic actions, including the electrification of gas appliances in nearly all single-family homes by 2030, and widespread adoption of electric vehicles, which would have to constitute at least 85% of local car purchases (up from the current rate of 30%). It may also entail adoption of a carbon tax or another type of tax measure to fund the new programs.

Burt acknowledged the challenge but suggested that even these actions may not be enough to address the new normal. Climate impacts, he said, are "no longer something in the future," as evidenced by California's prolonged drought and increasingly intense wildfire seasons.

"Now the events of the last year and even month — and the recent IPCC report — have made it apparent that that 80x30 goal was not the end. It's a critical foundation, it's going to be very difficult to achieve and yet we'll have to go beyond that," Burt said.

The committee plans to begin delving into specific programs at its Sept. 9 meeting, which will focus on residential building electrification. Its following three meetings will focus on commercial building electrification, electric vehicles and mobility programs, respectively, according to the schedule presented by staff. Later meetings will focus on topics such as wildfire protection, sea level rise, financing mechanisms for sustainability efforts and low-carbon construction materials.

Comments

Barron Park Denizen
Registered user
Barron Park
on Aug 25, 2021 at 10:35 am
Barron Park Denizen, Barron Park
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 10:35 am

Our modest 70-year-old house in Barron Park has gas space heating, water heating, stove, and dryer. (One nice part: the heat works when the electric power is out.) Our electrical service is a measly 70 amps. We are senior citizens who, at some future point, will need to sell our house, but have no such intention at present. I can see making it an ordinance that all brand-new houses be all-electric, but don't punish us with huge expenses for a new service and appliances that will be wasted when our little house is eventually scraped.

There is also the reality of the neighborhood electrical and transformer capacity. We are at a dead end of the power grid--multiple electric cars on top of an all-electric world could overtax the grid, on this street and elsewhere, even with a "smart grid". A Level 2 car charger is around 6 or even 7 kW, or 30 amps at 240 volts. The local pole transformer is 25 kVa, equivalent to roughly 25 kW. I wonder who will get to pay for upgrading the City's power distribution system.............take a guess. Paying for this upgrade and for the new service and for the major refit of appliances would be difficult for us, even if spread out over a decade or more of monthly bills.

The saddest part is, Palo Alto's carbon-reducing contribution would be massively overwhelmed by one new Chinese coal power plant. Or one small forest fire. Lots of money + negligible effect = bad idea. This is why nothing much has happened over the past five years.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 25, 2021 at 10:36 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 10:36 am

"It's been more than five years since the Palo Alto City Council adopted an ambitious goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030, and progress remains stubbornly slow."

It's been more than five years since Palo Alto awarded the traffic light timing contract worth millions of dollars to its ousted former Transportation Czar Jaime Rodriues yet there we sat and sat -- all traffic lanes stopped dead -- at Embarcadero & Newell just yesterday at 3PM while traffic backed up behind all of us.

(He was the same highly paid PA employee who spent more 8 years NOT fixing the traffic light timing at Town & Country and Paly and who was recently sued for sticking an unnecessary but profitable 24/7 blinking light in front of someone's Los Altos bedroom window. The couple cried in relief when they finally won and it was removed)

Instead of tackling ambitious goals and awarding big contracts to known incompetents, maybe the city could start fixing known and tangible problems like light timing that other cities and states mastered decades ago,


Kristin Pierce
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Aug 25, 2021 at 10:47 am
Kristin Pierce, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 10:47 am

Until the rest of the world and U.S. assumes and endorses this position , what Palo Alto endorses or does will have minimal impact on the global environment.

Talk is cheap


DebbieMytels
Registered user
Midtown
on Aug 25, 2021 at 10:59 am
DebbieMytels, Midtown
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 10:59 am

Thank you, Barron Park Denizen. You have raised some legitimate concerns. As a community, we need to address them, rather than assuming that some individuals will be saddled with all the costs and problems. For example, if there is an agreement that gas lines would be shut off within say, 10 or 15 years, it's likely that seniors now living in an aged home that is likely to be scraped would not be affected because they will have moved out of the home and sold it as "a scrape" within that time frame. The new owners would be responsible for creating an all-electric home on the site.

The point about being "at the end of the electrical transmission line" is also an important one. Our city utility needs to ensure that, before shutting off the gas lines, we have upgraded our electrical transmission system so that EVERY house along the line would have adequate capacity for an EV or two, all electric heating/cooling, cooking, water heating, etc. as well as the usual fridge, TVs, computer equipment, etc. (If someone wants to do arc welding in their garage, that seems "a little" out of the ordinary, so they could be charged a fee to cover the cost of providing their house with some extra amperage.) In short, we need to view this change as a COLLECTIVE responsibility, not an individual one.

In so doing, we can provide an example to other communities, in the US and around the world, of how we are coming together as people to solve this climate problem that we have all unwittingly been responsible for creating this past 200 years. We need to cooperate to create the solution, not leaving anyone behind or unfairly burdened.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 25, 2021 at 11:49 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 11:49 am

I would like to see more effort put into infrastructure from our cash concerned City, if indeed it is as cash concerned as it claims.

We have poor public transport, dreadful traffic and worrying parking concerns. We have been concerned about school crossing guards and yet there are no shuttles anymore that can get children to school. Does this mean more parents are once again driving their kids to schools instead of the shuttle? We have been promised signage at City garages showing if and where there are empty spaces, but this has been ignored. I was recently parking in Redwood City for lunch and easily found a parking meter for 25c an hour. Where are our parking meters?

Public transport and preventing the need for circling around looking for parking would do a lot to prevent traffic and emissions. Those things would make for more immediate changes around town.


Mondoman
Registered user
Green Acres
on Aug 25, 2021 at 1:12 pm
Mondoman, Green Acres
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 1:12 pm

If I remember correctly, a story on this subject within the past year reported the PA staff were pushing the banning of gas for single-family residential because they didn't think they could persuade commercial to make similar reductions.
I don't think we would be a *good* example to other communities if we decided to shut off gas in 15 years and force seniors to sell and move out instead of asking commercial properties to shoulder much of the burden instead.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 25, 2021 at 3:08 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 3:08 pm

Remember the story about the abuses in the city's Solar-Permitting Process by one employee who managed to alienate so many solar companies they stopped operating in PA after costing homeowners tens of thousands of dollars when their contractors backed out of their jobs.

This is the same PA staff that did nothing until the PAO story broke and then they blamed email problems and -- after thinking long and hard about the problem -- decided the perfect fix was to double-team employers at twice the cost during the budget crunch that closed libraries!


Steve Dabrowski
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 25, 2021 at 3:25 pm
Steve Dabrowski, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 3:25 pm

So Palo Alto is going to save the world from climate change! Our oh-so PC stance on using carbon fuels within our city is just what the world needs and we are going to do it. Oh how great and satisfied our city council must feel today, it is almost like winning the Battle of the Bulge, giddiness and dancing in the streets is the plan of the day.

First this is probably not going to happen and even if it does it won't make a bit of difference to global warming. My guess is that if the entire SF peninsula disappeared completely it wouldn't amount to ripple in the pond where global warming is concerned-it is just to big a deal and too late.

If the council was really serious they would take action to make all our traffic signals smart so cars don't sit idling at red lights while there is no other traffic in sight or at four AM in the morning, etc.

What a joke all this is and how much money and effort will be forced on our community by these zealots!


StarSpring
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 25, 2021 at 5:06 pm
StarSpring, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 5:06 pm

Serious Problems:

Collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.
Release of Methane Hydrates from the Arctic.
Collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Unrestrained use of gasoline leaf blowers in Palo Alto (kidding, not kidding).

I agree with Steve Dabrowski above.


[email protected]
Palo Alto Hills

Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 5:23 pm
Name hidden, Palo Alto Hills

Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 5:23 pm

Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.


Deborah
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Aug 25, 2021 at 7:25 pm
Deborah, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 7:25 pm

Last I heard, 63% of City of Palo Alto green house gas emissions come from "transportation," which, I assume, for the most part, means cars. I bought an electric assist cargo bike a couple months ago. It has allowed me to cut my car use by an astounding 90%! I didn't plan that and I'm not doing it out of conscience. Using the electric assist bike simply feels fabulous as opposed to the stress fest of driving a car. If all the able bodied people who could would buy and use an electric cargo bike, Palo Alto would cut it's green house gas emissions by 30% overnight. My range on this bike is from Redwood City to Sunnyvale.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 25, 2021 at 9:05 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2021 at 9:05 pm

Having more commuters driving to Palo Alto sure isn't going to help much, esp. since they used to outnumber residents 4:1. Now the new offices have changed that ratio to 20:1.


Resident
Registered user
Midtown
on Aug 26, 2021 at 5:41 am
Resident, Midtown
Registered user
on Aug 26, 2021 at 5:41 am

Steve Dabrowski is absolutely right, the myopia in this article is breathaking


Hinrich
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Aug 28, 2021 at 7:29 am
Hinrich, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Aug 28, 2021 at 7:29 am

While California burns - as it has been burning for months - it is the worst polluter on the planet, far worse than your neighbor's forbidden bacon cooking on their soon-to-be-prohibited gas stove.
Each year California burns it's forests, grasslands, and homes, destroys millions of acres of habitat, exhausts tens of thousands of firefighters and rewards it's citizens with surprise blackouts and evacuations. During the annual wildfire season, California sends massive clouds of smoke and ash into the air that often drifts all the way to the East coast. You can see this now on sites like purple air.com and windy.com.
Seems real progressives would be in the streets scolding somebody about this. You would think those who suffer the moral urgency to constantly inform the rest of us about how we ought to be feeling, behaving, and thinking would form a committee to raise urgency about this. Governor Newsom (with luck soon known as Recalled Newsom) sitting on a $74 billion surplus hasn't actually done much since the last conflagration to prepare so adding to the growing list of why you might not want to visit or live here (streets full of needles, homeless, trash, crime, tax burden, congestion, poor planning, housing crisis, corrupt single-party rule, open door/anybody welcome sanctuary state, drought, bacon ban, Weiner pushing state control of zoning, etc.) is air you really can't breathe. California, insanely virtuous about global warming is the worst polluter on the planet. Time to clean up the forests and stop building in the woods.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2021 at 11:46 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 28, 2021 at 11:46 am

Our air is foul and unhealthy for sensitive groups today.

We have a park in the hills. We have residents living in those same hills. We have dead trees, trees with dead branches, fallen trees rotting where they have fallen. All these things are fuel for a potential fire.

The most important thing that Palo Alto can do is fire prevention and forest management. We can't stop lightning fires, but we do get lightning causing fires in summer months as we discovered last August. We were very lucky that the CZU complex fire did not come in this direction, and it was just luck. Next time we will not be so lucky.

Get our forest areas, our foothills, our park cleared of dead wood to provide fuel for any further lightning fires. That will be the best effort to make a change for us here.


BobH
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Aug 28, 2021 at 6:44 pm
BobH, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Aug 28, 2021 at 6:44 pm

I think having goals for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030 is fine.
The problem is picking solutions that are achievable and will move us to meeting the goal.

For example, the current push to eliminate natural gas for heating is neither. As other have pointed it can be very expensive to upgrade an existing house to all electric heat, water heat, and cooking. Further, according to the EPA web site that has emissions by sector for 2019:

"Web Link

Commercial and Residential only emit 13% of total emissions. Eliminating all gas usage in Palo Alto homes isn't going to come close to reducing emissions by 80%.


Paly Grad
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 29, 2021 at 6:32 am
Paly Grad, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on Aug 29, 2021 at 6:32 am

Bob,

Thank you for your EPA link. As a state California should consider supporting the relicensing of the Diable Canyon nuclear plant. According to the EPA, one way to reduce emissions from electricity is by:

“Generating electricity from nuclear energy rather than the combustion of fossil fuels. Extending the life of existing nuclear plants and building new nuclear generating capacity.”

Web Link


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Aug 29, 2021 at 1:56 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Aug 29, 2021 at 1:56 pm

Like: comments by Barron Park Denizen, Online Name, Hinrich, Dabrowski, and Bystander. I'm guessing many other readers would, too, if only that button was active.

That Palo Alto is regarded as a leader for recycling and climate/environment-friendly programs has been a point of pride for members of Council and Senior Staff for years now. And yet, many of those same people pushed the commercial development that created an enormous housing deficit, legendary traffic issues, and parking shortages that require new garages which are a significant GHG baddie. Everyone should do what they can, but how about less hypocrisy out of City Hall? Each time a development is proposed, this question needs to be asked: "does this advance our climate change goals or does it add to the problem?" If the answer is that it adds to the problem, CC needs to have the spine to say no.

I'm waiting to see what Council does with regard to Castilleja. If they approve the plan with the underground parking garage we will know how serious they are about the lofty climate change agenda.

Jumping tracks: since fire is a major issue for this state, I recommend watching the documentary Bring Your Own Brigade (available via Amazon).


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