Ever since Palo Alto adopted an ambitious "80x30" climate change goal, its ambitions have far outpaced its accomplishments.
The goal, which the City Council adopted in 2016, calls for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in the city by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline level. And even though the city remains nowhere near the target, the council decided last year to set its sights even higher and aim for true carbon neutrality.
Now, the council is preparing to refresh its roadmap for getting there. The city's new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan work plan includes dozens of eco-friendly initiatives the city wants to debut between this year and 2025: from planting trees and eliminating single-use food containers to improving transit services and — most crucially — modernizing the city's electric grid.
It focuses, however, on three specific areas in which the city wants to make significant progress: converting single-family homes from gas appliances to electricity, building charging stations for electric vehicles in and around apartment complexes and getting commercial properties to install electric rooftop HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems.
Last year Palo Alto adopted a new building code requiring all-electric construction for new buildings and launched a pilot program for residents who wish to ditch their gas water heaters in favor of heat pump water heaters. Under the program, Palo Alto's contractors install the new system and customers pay for it over time through a fee on their bills.
The city has a goal of signing up 1,000 households for the program by the end of this year. According to John Abendschein, assistant director in the Utilities Department, 481 customers expressed interest in participating in the program as of May 18, and 235 signed up for a site assessment. Eight have completed the installation, according to a May 24 presentation that Abendschein gave to the council's Sustainability/Climate Action Plan (S/CAP) Committee.
According to the new work plan, the city plans to further expand the water heater program later this year and to launch a pilot program for converting commercial HVAC systems to become electricity powered. In 2024, staff would move ahead with a full-scale commercial HVAC program, which would encourage participation by providing technical assistance to support voluntary electrification and financial incentives to building owners to "close the cost gap between the electric equipment and its gas equivalents," a city report states. It would also launch a new program that would offer rebates to customers who go all-electric.
When it comes to the transportation sector, which in 2021 accounted for 58.8% of the city's emissions, Palo Alto's most ambitious new program would install electric-vehicle charging stations at multi-family complexes. Staff plans to design a pilot program by the end of this year. The program would provide chargers for 1,100 dwellings in multi-family developments by December 2025, according to the work plan. Staff hopes some of the early adopters would be affordable-housing complexes, which may be eligible for grants and other funding sources.
"EV chargers are relatively easy to install without City assistance in single-family homes, but the City's multi-family EV program will help multi-family building owners and condo associations install EV chargers so residents can access the savings and emissions reductions from EVs," the work plan states.
Vice Mayor Greer Stone, who serves on the S/CAP Committee, said it's critical for the city to come up with ways to give renters — who make up about 47% of the city's population — access to vehicle chargers. Stone, a renter whose apartment complex does not have charging stations, said the absence of this amenity made him hesitant about buying an electric vehicle. He ultimately bought one earlier this year after confirming that there are charging stations available for public use at Mitchell Park.
"It was the knowledge that I'd be able to charge nearby overnight that gave me the confidence to be able to do it," Stone said of his decision to get an electric vehicle.
Stone suggested that the city consider installing public charging stations within walking distance of areas where multi-family developments cannot accommodate new charging station – an initiative that Abendschein said staff fully supports.
Converting commercial buildings to all-electric HVAC systems could prove trickier. When the Peninsula Conservation Center, a hub for eco-friendly nonprofits such as Acterra and Green Foothills, installed the new HVAC system at its East Bayshore Road building in January, the accomplishment was remarkable precisely for how rare it is. For the city to meet its climate goals, such projects would have to become a rule for local commercial buildings rather than an exception.
City staff acknowledged in the work plan that they have less experience and knowledge when it comes to electrification of non-residential building equipment than with other types of equipment. The initial pilot program would aim to complete between four and five HVAC installations by the end of this year (the city is currently recruiting participants).
Once that program advances, staff would work to expand the pilot program and consider a mandate requiring commercial buildings to get rooftop HVAC systems when their existing systems reach the end of their life.
Does plan go far enough?
While the work plan includes a bevy of new programs, some argue that it's not going far enough. David Coale, a longtime climate activist and member of the group Carbon Free Palo Alto, noted that every year that the city fails to make progress on greenhouse-gas reduction requires a steeper reduction in ensuing years.
"The rate of climate change is happening faster than government can react," Coale told the committee. "How are you planning to meet our goals and get ahead of that? It seems to me the city will have to push out of their comfort zone to move us faster in all areas to get this done."
City staff, for their part, believe that once the new programs are established, the city's electrification efforts will speed up. The agreements, relationships, funding sources and processes that the city is building to support its pilot programs could be used to support future programs as well, Abendschein said.
"My expectation is that it's not a linear process," Abendschein said. "It's slow in the beginning and then it accelerates very quickly later on."
Council member Pat Burt, who chairs the committee, acknowledged the challenge of meeting the city's climate goals and noted that it will take many different initiatives and significant resources to accomplish the goals of the city's sustainability plan.
"What I think we've seen to date is it's a lot more complex than most of us in the community and perhaps even staff thought a couple of years ago when we began that process," Burt said. "And there's a lot of hurdles that we're going to have to overcome, but there don't appear to be any brick walls — any things that we clearly have identified (as) not going to be feasible. It's going to take a lot of work on a lot of different fronts."