Seeking to wean local residents and businesses off natural gas, Palo Alto adopted on Monday night an ambitious new building code that requires every new building to be "all-electric."
The all-electric requirement, which applies to water heaters and space heaters and heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, also will kick in for major remodeling projects where 50% or more of the walls are being replaced or raised or where 50% or more of roof structural framing area is replaced.
Hailed as a huge step in the city's path toward carbon neutrality by local environmentalists, the new mandate is part of about a dozen amendments that the council unanimously approved Monday as part of its update to the city's building code. It expands on the existing "all-electric" requirement, which the council adopted in 2019 and which only applies to low-rise residential buildings, with exceptions for accessory dwelling units. Now, all building types will have to be all-electric.
The new building code also prohibits the extension of gas infrastructure to pools, spas, fireplaces and grills and requires homeowners to install heat pump water heaters when their existing ones are replaced as part of a residential addition or alteration project. It also beefs up requirements for electric vehicles so that new homes, apartment buildings, hotels and nonresidential buildings would have to provide "EV-ready" spaces with panels, conduits, cables and plugs. The prior requirement requires only "EV-capable" spaces -- those furnished with panels and conduits -- in single-family homes, hotels and non-residential developments and EV-ready spaces in multi-family complexes.
The overarching goal of the changes is to help the council meet its newly established target of achieving full carbon neutrality by 2030. Chief Building Official George Hoyt noted during Monday's discussion that the building emissions represent about a third of the city's total greenhouse gas emissions.
"Because Palo Alto already has a carbon neutral electric power supply, building electrification reduces greenhouse gas emissions and also improves indoor air quality and reduces fire risk," Hoyt said.
An all-electric building, he added, is cheaper to build and operate over the lifetime of the building.
For the council, the Monday vote was the latest in a series of recent actions that aim to facilitate electrification. Earlier this month, council members approved a new program that would replace 1,000 gas-powered water heaters with heat pump water heaters by the end of 2023. The Utilities Department will work with customers to facilitate the upgrades and allow them to finance them through fees on their utility bills.
Some environmental activists argued that even the new "reach code" doesn't reach far enough. Members of sustainability focused group Carbon Free Palo Alto and 350 Silicon Valley urged the council to use this occasion to also mandate electric space heaters as part of remodels. Utilities staff had urged the council to delay this step until the city updates its electric grid and ensures that it has the capacity to accommodate the new electric appliances.
Hilary Glann, who serves on 350 Silicon Valley Palo Alto Climate Team, didn't buy that explanation and suggested that gas furnaces will "become the forgotten stepchild in our switch-to-electric efforts" if the council does not address them during the current update.
"Gas furnaces last a lot longer than gas water heaters so we can't wait two or three years to focus on them," Glann said.
Bruce Hodge, founder of the group Carbon Neutral Palo Alto, which has been working with staff and council members to launch the new programs, also suggested that the impact of requiring electric furnaces during remodels would be relatively low. Many homeowners are already installing heat pump space heaters, which are both cleaner and cheaper in the long run than gas-fueled appliances.
"It seems this requirement is going to happen anyway just from regular upgrades, so we might as well include it now with the reach code instead of waiting for years," Hodge said.
But John Abendschein, assistant director of utilities, made the case for the gradual approach and suggested addressing the Utilities Department's staffing shortages before moving on to furnaces.
"The concern is avoiding a situation where we put a mandate in and our engineering team gets overwhelmed and it delays occupancy on projects while people wait for transformers," Abendschein said.
Not every update pertained to sustainability. Some changes seek at making laws clearer or more consistent with state codes. One takes aim at a relatively recent phenomenon: the "pod house," a single-family home with more than a dozen residents and allocates to each one a two-tiered "pod" roughly the size of a bed. One such house, on Ramona Street, made headlines earlier this year when city inspectors uncovered a host of code violations, including improperly installed electric wiring and a lack of smoke detectors.
City officials also had flirted with the idea of limiting the number of occupants at the pod house but dropped it after concluding that the city doesn't have any laws in place that govern resident capacity. That is about to change. A new provision sets a limit on residents based on square footage, by requiring a room that is used for sleeping to be at least 70 square feet of floor area. If more than two people occupy that room, floor area needs to be increased by 50 square feet for every additional occupant.
With the provision in place, a home like the Ramona Street "Pod House," which currently has pods for 14 residents, would be reduced to an occupancy of about eight, Planning Director Jonathan Lait said. The goal, he said, is to avoid creating overcrowded conditions.
While the council supported adding a capacity limit, which is based on a San Francisco ordinance, council members Alison Cormack and Greer Stone sought assurances from staff that the city won't penalize residents for sharing a microunit or inviting family members to stay in their home. Lait assured them that the city does not intend to enforce the capacity limit in such situations.
"I'd rather have slight overcrowding in a dwelling than people being forced to live outside," Stone said.