Seeking to make the city a model in the global battle against climate change, the Palo Alto City Council adopted on Monday night an ambitious goal of making the city carbon neutral by 2030.
The new target, which the council approved by a unanimous vote, builds on the city's existing goal of cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline. So far, Palo Alto has reduced its emissions by about 50.6%, thanks in large part to its switch in 2013 to a fully carbon-free electricity portfolio.
But if you discount the impacts of the pandemic, which resulted in fewer drivers commuting to the city, the decrease in emissions is only about 42%, according to staff projections. Even as council members, staff from Public Works and Utilities departments and a growing contingent of community volunteers have spent the past 15 months crafting plans to cut emissions, actual progress on achieving these cuts has been glacial.
Now, the city is preparing to put these plans into action and speed up its transition to green energy. On Monday, the council voted 6-1, with Greg Tanaka dissenting, to approve one of its most significant sustainability programs to date. The program aims to have 1,000 residents replace their gas-powered water heaters with heat pump heaters by the end of 2023 by providing subsidies, on-bill financing and contracting services. Later this month, the council plans to update the city's building code and raise the requirements for electric-vehicle charging equipment in new commercial and multifamily developments.
The council also voted unanimously to approve the goals and key actions of the city's new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, a document that will serve as a road map to carbon neutrality. According to the document, Palo Alto would need to effectively eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions from single-family appliances for water heating, space heating, cooking and clothes drying. In nonresidential buildings, the city would need to electrify heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) units as well as cooking equipment and gas appliances.
With transportation accounting for an estimated 61.9% of its emissions, Palo Alto would have to get people to drive less and to encourage those who do to go electric. The sustainability plan suggests that the city would need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions related to transportation by at least 65% when compared to 1990. The council hopes to achieve this by aggressively promoting and supporting residents' purchase of electric vehicles, expanding the city's bicycle network and increasing the availability of transit and mobility services, according to the plan. This includes creating a bike- or scooter-share program, a service that the city has been exploring for years with little to show for it.
Despite the city's mixed record in recent years, Mayor Pat Burt offered some reasons for optimism, including the low cost of renewable energy and the advent of technology such as low-watt appliances, which make electrification cheaper and easier, and two-way chargers that allow electricity to flow from the vehicle to the grid. Once these chargers become more common, local car owners will be able to use their vehicles to power their homes or sell excess energy, making the grid more stable.
While the city is lagging behind its 80x30 goal, Burt argued that it remains well ahead of most other municipalities. And if Palo Alto manages to get close to an 80% reduction, it could close the remaining gap by purchasing carbon offsets as it works to implement new technology.
"We want to move toward more sequestration, we want to have more reductions. But actually hitting the goal of carbon neutrality by 2030 is, compared to almost anybody else, much more doable in Palo Alto," Burt said.
The Monday meeting was the council's second hearing in two weeks on the topic of sustainability. But while the Sept. 27 meeting was devoted to broad overviews and didn't feature any votes, on Monday the council took numerous actions. These included creating a new citizen commission devoted to climate action. To date, much of the work on the topic has been done by a council ad hoc committee, which consists of Burt and council members Alison Cormack and Tom DuBois. That committee will remain in place for the time being, though both Cormack and council member Greer Stone supported creating a permanent commission with dedicated spots for local youths who are involved in combatting climate change.
"This is an eight-year project and we need people to dig in deep," Cormack said.
Some of the commission's potential members addressed the council Monday and encouraged the council to approve the heat pump water heater program and the Sustainability Climate Action Plan.
"The climate crisis put us a very tight timeline and right now we have the opportunity to continue the great progress we made in past decades," said Maya Perkashi, a member of the Palo Alto Student Climate Coalition. "Approving these key goals and actions from the Sustainability Climate Action Plan, particularly its carbon neutrality goals, its investment in electrification and its heat pump water programs, is crucial to this progress because electrification serves as the next great hurdle to significantly reducing our emissions."
Members of the group Carbon Free Palo Alto, which worked with staff and the council to develop new electrification programs, also supported the council's new plan to go carbon neutral by 2030. Group member Bret Andersen noted that this would put the city well ahead of California, which has a goal of carbon neutrality of 2045.
"We don't have that much time, and I think we are more focused on what we can do locally on a science-based goal over the next 10 years," Andersen said.
Burt and others argued that Palo Alto is particularly well positioned to go carbon-free. The city has its own municipal utility and if its pilot programs on electrification prove successful, they could be scaled up to serve even more customers. As part of its actions on Monday, the council approved a $7.7 million contract with the company Synergy for installation of heat pump water heaters at local homes.
Burt acknowledged that the switch to electrification poses a challenge for the city's aged electric grid, which will need to be gradually upgraded over the coming years. He suggested, however, that thanks to emerging technology like two-way chargers and low-watt appliances, the city can move ahead with its sustainability efforts while performing these upgrades.
"We're seeing these problems ahead of almost any other city," Burt said. "Because we have the highest electric vehicle adoption rate in the country … and we're beginning the home electrification program. So we've run into challenges that other cities will be facing in the coming years as they go through similar adoption cycles similar to what we've done."
Not everyone was convinced that electrification should be the top priority. Tanaka made the case for doubling down on transportation and providing incentives to residents to get around on electric bikes. Tanaka said that after calculating the costs of various carbon-reduction programs and the actual amount of greenhouse gas being reduced, he had determined that the city would get 7.3 times more carbon for the dollar with e-bike incentives than for the heat pump program.
"This has to do with just the fact that natural gas is a much smaller percentage of our carbon output than transportation," Tanaka said. "Transportation is the lion's share of it."