After years of stalled progress on aggressive climate change goals, Palo Alto's newest sustainability program is finally giving local climate advocates something to get pumped about.
If things go as planned, by the end of next year the city will convince 1,000 utility customers to say goodbye to their gas-powered water heaters and adopt heat pump water heaters, efficient electric devices that move air from one area to another. The program will be by far the most ambitious sustainability effort that the council has embarked on since it adopted in 2016 a goal of cutting carbon emissions by 80% from 2030, with 1990 as baseline.
The city's journey toward that goal has been tortuous. Though it has succeeded in dropping its carbon emissions from a little under 800 megatons in 1990 to under 400 megatons today, that decrease could be largely attributed to the city's switch to a carbon-neutral electricity portfolio in 2013 and the impacts of the pandemic. Public Works staff estimate that the city can cut about 50.6% of its emissions, or 42%, if COVID-19 is taken out of consideration.
The new water heater program, which the City Council discussed Tuesday evening, aims to narrow the gap. In a few months, Palo Alto residents will be able to contact the city and get an approved contractor to visit their home to install the new device. They would have the option of paying an upfront cost of $2,700 or paying $1,500 upfront and paying the rest over the next five years through a $20 monthly fee on their utility bills. Customers who want to manage their own installation can do so and then receive a $2,300 rebate from the city.
Jonathan Abendschein, assistant director of the Utilities Department and one of the chief architects of the new program, said the goal is to make it both easy and economically advantageous for residents to get heat pump water heaters. Calling a plumber to install a new gas heater already costs more than $2,000 in many cases. And because heat pump water heaters are more efficient than their gas counterparts, homeowners are expected to save between $5 and $20 each month, according to staff estimates.
Once the pilot program is complete, city staff hope to scale it up to homes throughout the city.
"We're really optimistic that the combination of program features that we're offering here will spur participation in this program to levels that we hadn't seen before in prior programs. And we're hoping to see it jumpstart electrification in Palo Alto," Abendschein said.
The program is the first of many that the city is preparing to launch in the coming months to meet its 80x30 goal. The city is also preparing to update its building code to mandate that any home remodel that involves replacing a gas water heater be required to go electric.
"We recognize the need to start transforming from high-use gas appliances to heat pump technology in existing homes," Chief Building Official George Hoyt told the council Tuesday.
Palo Alto's new "reach code," which the council will consider later this year, would also require all newly constructed buildings, including accessory dwelling units, to feature heat pump technology for water and space heating. As such, it will build on the policy that the council adopted in 2019 that requires low-rise residential projects to be all-electric but that exempts accessory dwelling units from this requirement.
The city is also preparing to institute requirements for new buildings to accommodate electric vehicles. Multi-family developments would need to provide one electric vehicle parking space per dwelling unit, Hoyt said. New non-residential projects that have between 10 and 20 parking spaces would have to have charging equipment at 20% of their spaces and provide electric vehicle supply equipment to another 20% so that they could be "EV-ready" in the future. Those with more than 20 spaces, at least 15% of spaces would need to be "EV-ready" immediately and another 15% would need to be equipped with supply equipment. New hotels would need electric vehicle infrastructure for at least 35% of their spaces.
These programs are part of the city's newly updated Sustainability/Climate Action Plan, a document that serves as a roadmap for reaching the 80x30 goal. The council discussed and generally supported the new plan at its Tuesday meeting but it deferred formal action on the plan and the new heat pump water heater program until next Monday.
The heat pump water heater pilot program and associated code changes are expected to reduce the city's emissions by between 1.3% and 1.8%. Once the programs are expanded throughout the city, they would result in a reduction of up to 5%, according to staff.
Not moving quickly enough?
Though they didn't take any votes Tuesday, council members indicated that they will strongly support the heat pump program. Council member Eric Filseth said that the "turnkey" program, which makes it easy for residents to make the switch, is "how you get across the chasm from the early adopters to the mainstream." Council member Tom DuBois said the program will allow participants to "do the right thing for the environment and do what's in their own best interests, which is very exciting."
"One of the primary challenges in climate change is the inability of governments to move quickly," DuBois said. "Let's break that cliché and really get moving on these programs."
Some residents and local activists suggested that the city move more quickly, particularly in the realm of transportation. The city's sustainability plan calls for reducing transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions by 65%, to get at least 40% of work commuters to walk, bike or take transit (up from 19% currently) and to reduce total vehicle miles traveled by 12% between 2019 and 2030.
Robert Neff, a longtime bike advocate, said he supports the heat pump program but criticized current plans for relying too much on buying new equipment.
"The habit of just buying and consuming more stuff and consuming more energy is the fundamental source of this problem," he said.
By contrast, focusing more on mobility and improving bike and pedestrian connections between homes and shopping centers would "make a positive transformation to living in Palo Alto," Neff said.
Several members of the Palo Alto Youth Climate Coalition said they strongly support the city's new sustainability efforts. Katie Rueff, a member of the group, said she was excited about the plan.
"I know it's not the end-all and be-all and that we have a lot more work to do, but it's exciting to see us stepping into the door and turn the wheels for a lot of progress that will need to be made soon," Rueff said.
The Tuesday meeting followed more than a year of work by the council's Sustainability/Climate Action Plan Committee, which worked with staff and community members to develop the new programs. The committee, which consists of Mayor Pat Burt and council members Tom DuBois and Alison Cormack, is also proposing that the council adopt a policy of being carbon neutral by 2035, a goal that the council will consider at its meeting next Monday.
Cormack was one of several council members to call the sustainability effort the council's most important work.
"It's taking longer than most of us wanted. It's also more complex than many people realize. That's the balance we're trying to strike here," Cormack said.
While the city's slow progress on 80x30 has frustrated some local advocates, Burt pointed at one promising trend: the decreasing cost of renewable energy, including wind and solar, that will make the city's electrification effort more cost effective. New electricity, he said, will cost the city less than existing power.
And while Palo Alto's emission reductions won't by themselves move the needle on climate change, Burt argued that the city can serve as a model for others to follow. He cited his experience at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which convinced him that many cities are looking for models from those further ahead on sustainability.
"This is how we have the impact," Burt said. "It's not the amount of carbon we directly remove, it's how we and others are able to move this course of action forward," Burt said.
Council member Greer Stone said that the city's slow progress has made it seem unlikely the city would meet its 80x30 goal. However, the newly developed plans now make it seem plausible.
"I think these strong actions are going to be able to, if not get us there, at least get us within the ballpark. That's exciting and that's a worthy endeavor," he said.