Palo Alto faces a tough road ahead to meeting its climate change goals, but Mayor Pat Burt believes the city can still achieve its objective of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030.
In an interview Wednesday, Burt pointed to a number of promising trends and emerging technologies that could accelerate the city's push toward the "80x30" goal that the City Council established in 2016 and that uses 1990 as the baseline. Even though the city has only reduced its emissions by about 42% when one discounts the pandemic's impact on traffic, Burt suggested that the rapid advancements of these technologies could make the goal feasible despite years of lackluster progress.
One such area is heat-pump water heaters, which city leaders see as an environmentally superior alternative to gas-powered heaters and a key component to meeting the 80x30 goal. To get to even a 70% reduction by 2030 would require converting more than 75% of all water and space heaters in local single-family homes to electric heat pumps. This means that over 11,000 gas water heaters and nearly 9,800 gas space heaters would need to be switched out.
Going electric has traditionally been a challenge for homeowners because of high costs and the complexity of getting the new heaters installed. That, however, could change as more manufacturers ramp up production of 120-volt heaters (Rheem and A.O. Smith are among companies that have already begun to do so). Unlike the traditional 240-volt heater, which requires a dedicated circuit, the 120-volt heater can be plugged into a basic electrical outlet, obviating the need for contractors and building permits.
"They're basically plug-ins," Burt said. "You don't even need an electrician to install them."
Burt said that while heat pumps are not a huge business in the United States, the manufacturing of the plug-in heaters devices is accelerating both here and abroad. An expanding volume will ultimately drive down costs, he said.
One company that is making strides in this area is Harvest Thermal, which has developed a "Harvest pod" that uses one heat pump for both water and space heating. Company CEO Jane Melia had served on Palo Alto's Green Ribbon Task Force, which worked with the city to put together its first climate action plan more than 15 years ago.
Electric vehicles also play a major role in Palo Alto's green goals and their technology is improving as well. A key new advancement is the bidirectional charger, which allows electric vehicles to serve as both consumers and providers of electricity. New vehicle models such as Ford F-150 Lightning, the Volkswagen ID.4 and the Hyundai Ioniq 5 are equipped with bidirectional charging, enabling them to serve as batteries that can power up homes and other buildings during peak periods of electricity usage.
"It's actually going to be a greater grid stabilization and reliability factor that reduces the need to upgrade our utility system than home batteries and other things," Burt said.
These technologies, as well as others that are either coming on the market now or will be in the coming years would be key to the city hitting the 80x30 target. According to Public Works staff, the plans that the city is currently working on as part of its Sustainability/Climate Action Plan update would, at best, get the city to a 70% reduction if all of the programs are implemented.
"We still need to look at some additional reductions beyond that that may come from other technologies," Public Works Director Brad Eggleston said Monday night during the council's discussion of the city's sustainability efforts.
Burt emphasized in the Weekly interview that the "other technologies" cited by staff already exist, even if they haven't yet advanced to the point where they can be widely adopted. That, however, will likely change in the next few years, as the city gets closer to 2030.
"The technologies are on a strong path of advancements and cost reduction," Burt said. "They have been on that path and will continue to be on that path."
City leaders have a few other reasons for optimism. Sustainability Coordinator Christine Luong said Monday that the costs of solar panels and lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles have dropped by 85% since 2010, while the costs of wind turbines have fallen by more than half.
Burt said that these trends are also helping the city, which includes solar power in its renewable energy portfolio, to meet its sustainability goals.
"One of the things happening nationally is that, just a few years ago, new solar plants in most circumstances became cheaper than operating a coal plant," Burt said. "That's now happening to national gas plants as well."
Burt highlighted the city's sustainability efforts in his "State of the City" speech on Saturday, in which he touted the emergence of efficient heat pumps and induction cooktops and talked about the importance of Palo Alto serving as a model for other cities across the country.
"Our impact isn't just about our own social responsibilities," Burt said. "It is cities like ours that have huge impacts on other cities and states and in validating what they can do going forward and presenting a model. And we need to borrow from other cities that are doing advancements."
The council's Sustainability/Climate Change Committee, which consists of Burt and council members Alison Cormack and Tom DuBois, is now in the midst of preparing a work plan for reaching the 80x30 goal. The plan is scheduled to be finalized by this fall.
Though emerging technologies may help the city reach its climate goals, Burt stressed he's not trying to be Pollyannaish when it comes to getting to 80x30, an effort that will rely on the cooperation from the wider community.
"We're expecting the technologies will continue to advance to enable 80x30, but we still have a tough road to get to 80x30," Burt said.
In the meantime, city staff and members of the Sustainability/Climate Action Plan committee are prioritizing residential electrification, a complex effort that will require convincing residents to switch their gas appliances for electric ones, creating ways to finance the conversions and investing in upgrades to the city's aged utility grid, which currently is unable to handle the mass conversion.
"We are really super focused on getting gas out of people's homes," Cormack said. "That's the work we're doing and there's a really heavy lift that we're going to have to do on the utility side or infrastructure here to be able to handle it."
The city is expecting to release a work plan in September for implementing the needed initiatives. Council member Greer Stone said that while that timeline is reasonable, he is concerned about the likelihood of the city meeting the 80x30 goal given such a late adoption date. He asked whether the plan should be thought of as aspirational rather than realistic.
Eggleston said staff believes the goal can still be achieved.
"We know it's a heavy lift and it'll be difficult, but that's why we're putting in this effort with the teams and really trying to hit all the fronts of what financing, engagement and technology look like so that we have a plan that really can achieve that," Eggleston said.
on Apr 15, 2022 at 8:07 am
on Apr 15, 2022 at 8:07 am
I'm glad Mayor Burt mentioned "social responsibilities".
The overhaul of the average Palo Altan's lifestyle from one based largely on fossil-fuel pollution to one based on renewable energy will cost money for the city and its residents. If those "responsibilities" are not articulated in a thoughtful manner however, most residents won't understand WHY that money should be spent.
The city, our utility, and the Palo Alto Weekly could join together to help connect the dots for people - from the causes (pollution from household gas, conventional cars, as well as purchases of cheeseburgers and airline tickets), to the horrible consequences (famines, resource wars, mass migration, petro-dictatorships, etc).
Without being given a careful explanation of the magnitude of the problem, and our role in creating it, I don't believe most residents will want too much effort taken to resolve the matter.
As evidence, look at the comments section following articles like this one. There seems to a lot of misunderstanding.
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 15, 2022 at 8:10 am
on Apr 15, 2022 at 8:10 am
Protestors have been causing havoc in the UK.
Practically everything we use on a daily basis is made with oil (fossil fuel) by products.
The emissions do need to be reduced, but everything from the tires on our bikes to the plastic in our high tech devices, and the shoes on our feet and the clothes on our backs have them too.
The next generation should be thinking of alternative materials to replace plastic, nylon, etc. just as much as alternative energy sources.