Warming to the challenge | June 21, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - June 21, 2006

Warming to the challenge

City leaders target global climate change as important local issue

by Sue Dremann

When City Council candidates run for office, they traditionally focus on issues of immediate concern to citizens, such as traffic, libraries and other services, and the city budget. Last fall, however, some Palo Alto council candidates decided to take on something slightly larger: global warming.

"Overwhelmingly, it's the most significant problem we face," said Palo Alto City Council Member Larry Klein, one of those who included the topic in his campaign platform.

Environmentalist Peter Drekmeier, who also succeeded in gaining a governing seat, made climate change a focus of his election bid as well.

It's not only council candidates who are taking a hard look at the global problem, either. Mayor Judy Kleinberg, as part of her state of the city address in March, announced the formation of a new committee, the Mayor's Green Ribbon Task Force on Climate Protection. The group held its first meeting May 25.

Meanwhile, the Palo Alto City Council recently voted to update the City's Comprehensive Plan to include the reduction of greenhouse gases as a major goal, according to Drekmeier.

Global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which elevate the amount of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere. The gases act like glass in a closed car: They pass light, but trap heat.

Across the globe, glaciers are melting and weather patterns are changing, causing floods and hurricanes to increase in some regions and droughts to occur in others, according to scientists.

California is predicted to suffer decreases in snow-pack levels of 30 to 90 percent by the end of the century, massive heat waves, temperature elevations, and decreases in precipitation, affecting the food supply and drinking water, according to an August 2004 National Academy of Sciences report.

Palo Alto is certain to be affected by climate changes. Existing models for Bay Area 100-year floods are being revised by some scientists to 10-year intervals, as sea levels rise. In short, thanks to global warming, the lower areas of the city could one day be under water.

Around the country, other cities have been taking on the challenge. Spurred by an international environmental agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol —which has been signed by most major industrialized countries except the United States and Australia — the mayors of 243 cities have signed the U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement. They've pledged to lead their cities to meet or beat Kyoto Protocol goals by 2012 by reducing carbon-dioxide emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels. Kleinberg signed the pledged in January.

Seattle, Wash. and Portland, Ore. are frequently cited as leaders in the anti-warming crusade. Seattle City Light — the city's utilities division — became the only utility in the country to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions in November, by investing in wind and hydroelectric power, divesting in coal-fired energy and embarking on an aggressive conservation program, according to Steve Nicholas, director of Seattle's Office of Sustainability and Environment. The aggressive use of environmentally friendly (so-called "green") building methods, mass transit, recycling and sustainable forest programs has reduced carbon-dioxide emissions.

Portland became the first U.S. city to adopt a sustainable-development plan in 1993, according to Michael Armstrong, Portland's Office of Sustainable Development conservation-program manager.

Carbon-dioxide emissions there have fallen 12.5 percent per capita despite rapid population and economic growth — an achievement likely unequalled in any other major U.S. city, according to a 2005 city progress report.

The addition of two major light-rail lines and the Portland Streetcar have boosted public-transit ridership 75 percent since 1990, Armstrong said. More than 750,000 trees and shrubs have been planted since 1996 to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The city also is close to finalizing an agreement to supply 100 percent wind power near the end of 2007, he added.

And yet, Armstrong said: "It's not enough."

Global warming and sustainability have been priorities for Kleinberg for many years, she said, but seeing the images of glaciers crashing into warming Arctic seas in an HBO television special, and reading former Vice President Al Gore's book, "An Inconvenient Truth," made it imperative to her that Palo Alto become a model of climate protection, she said.

Council member Dena Mossar, who recently returned from a Cambridge, Mass. conference on cities and energy, agrees Palo Alto needs to urgently address the issue.

"I came away fundamentally understanding there is clearly a problem. We have 10 years to solve it, or we've hit a tipping point. It's hard to go back," she said.

The city spews more than 700 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually — and that figure doesn't include emissions from liquid fuels, such as gasoline, according to a recent city utilities-department document.

Fortunately, the city has a base of innovation to build on, having received high marks for its energy programs.

The city has enrolled 14 percent of its utilities customers in PaloAltoGreen, a renewable-energy program through which customers pay a bit more on their utility bills to support the city's purchase and development of clean and renewable energy, such as wind and solar power.

The program has cut greenhouse emissions by nearly 19 million pounds, the equivalent of planting 2,257 acres of trees or taking 1,652 cars off the road, according to the program's Web site.

A two-hour ride showcases what the program helps buy.

In the Montezuma Hills overlooking San Pablo Bay, windmills whoosh in the wind. On the rolling hills, sheep graze on grasses beneath the crackling power lines carrying wind-powered electricity to Palo Alto.

PPM Energy, a Portland-based company with wind farms throughout the country, is providing the energy through long-term contracts to customers including Palo Alto, Modesto Irrigation District and PG&E. Palo Alto, a repeat customer, also obtains wind power through PPM's High Winds farm and its new Shiloh facility.

On June 1, Shiloh began providing Palo Alto with one-sixth of the power the farm generates. The Shiloh electricity is enough to power 9,500 Palo Alto homes.

The city now receives a 13 percent of its power from wind at the two sites. Plans are in the making for another 13 percent in new contracts, according to City Utilities Senior Resource Planner Karl Knapp.

The City had a stated goal of buying 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2008; that figure has been surpassed. Knapp expects to meet — as early as next year — the 20 percent goal the City Council wants by 2015.

In comparison to conventional energy sources, wind power costs a bit more, but with rising prices for fossil-based fuels such as natural gas, and as more clients buy in to wind power and more facilities come on line, the price is coming close to at par with natural gas, according to Knapp.

In addition to wind energy, the city has also explored solar — although power from large-scale solar farms costs three times as much as natural gas, landfill gas and wind, and power from photovoltaic panels costs nearly eight times as much.

Still, solar power hasn't been ruled out completely. Knapp hopes to see solar panels installed at the Municipal Service Center on Embarcadero Road, Cubberley Community Center and the Baylands Interpretive Center. And there are is a small solar site at Escondido Elementary School.

Carbon-dioxide reduction won't come from renewable energy alone, Knapp said. A large portion of carbon-dioxide savings — and financial benefit — comes from improving efficiency.

The City has converted traffic signals to LEDs, reducing wattage by 80 percent and saving $120,000 annually. It retrofit lighting systems in 60 city buildings. An energy management system that manipulates temperatures in the buildings has reduced energy demand by 10 to 15 percent during peak times annually. Adding software to put computers to sleep after 10 minutes of non-use, the City saves enough energy to power 35 Palo Alto homes for one year.

Eighty percent of Palo Alto's energy use comes from business and industry, and Silicon Valley firms are big users of electricity, according to Knapp. The city is working with businesses to upgrade to energy-efficient equipment and offering them incentives to adopt environmentally friendly practices.

So far, through efficiency, the City itself has reduced its energy load by nearly 4 percent since 1999. Combined savings from reduced gas and electricity consumption saves more than 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to an April 17 report to the council.

Meanwhile, another city initiative, the Zero Waste program, could also significantly reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in the city. Its task force is currently developing an operational plan to divert up to 90 percent of the city's waste from landfills. Seattle credits its aggressive recycling program with being one of the biggest factors in its dramatic greenhouse-gas reductions, since landfill decomposition creates gases.

Transportation remains the biggest culprit in greenhouse-gas emissions, accounting for an estimated 6 million pounds of carbon dioxide from Palo Alto City facilities and an estimated 500 million pounds citywide, according to Knapp's calculations. Statewide, transportation accounts for 41.2 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the California Energy Commission.

Getting people out of their cars is one solution, and closely related to that would be creating a blueprint for making home and work spaces easily accessible without driving.

Drekmeier believes new models for housing and land-use planning, such as the town-square model in many European cities, would encourage people to drive less. Europeans use one-quarter to one-half as much gas as Americans. Their cities are designed to function so that people can get around by using highly efficient public transportation, or shop in close proximity to their homes, he said.

Higher-density housing, such as the 800 High St. development, can build more energy efficiency into housing, according to Knapp. Drekmeier agrees.

"A lot of people say the best thing we can do through land use is to grow up versus out," he said. One working model is at Stanford University, where priority in housing is given to people who work there. At Stanford West, people who work at the hospital can bike to work.

High housing prices are a continuing obstacle to reducing transportation-related greenhouse emissions, Drekmeier said.

"Proximity is more important than the efficiency of a vehicle. Our biggest impact on climate change is driving. The challenge is to make housing affordable. It can be controversial. People don't want (lower income and high-density housing) in their area, but we can put it in downtown," he said.

Klein said reducing the effects of transportation raises its own sets of problems.

"We don't have a good handle on what emissions are now. How do you know if you've reduced things, if you don't have a way to measure them?"

The Mayor's Green Ribbon Task Force is looking at ways to quantify those numbers, such as doing an inventory of the number of gallons sold at gas stations.

Getting residents and businesses to buy in to making changes in their lives is an obstacle Kleinberg hopes the task force will help solve, as they examine ways to educate residents and businesses. The task force includes Stanford University officials and private sector groups, including the Palo Alto Parent-Teacher Association, faith groups, environmental organizations, businesses, architects and builders.

To get people to buy in, solutions will have to be practical, and achievable, she said.

"Everybody has their particular focus and obsessions: finances, home. Getting people's attention to something that is so incremental is difficult, but the changes are now unavoidable. To make behavior changes will be a challenge. People abhor change — it's human nature. When people see something changing, (they perceive) it will make things better or make them afraid. It's human nature to want stability, and stability means no change," she said.

At its June 8 meeting, the fledgling group considered the feasibility of following the Kyoto Protocol.

Given there are only six years left to meet the Kyoto challenge, the group voted to recommend adopting Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's Climate Action Report rather than the Kyoto Protocol. The governor's plan calls for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions to year 2000 levels by 2010, and 1990 levels by the year 2020, with an 80 percent reduction by 2015.

Task-force subcommittees plan to meet throughout the summer, researching other cities' plans and developing baseline measurement for each area of concern. Based on the members' areas of expertise, they will develop solutions and a strategic plan along with possible targets, and develop methods for measuring the results of carbon-dioxide reductions.

The group plans to make recommendations to the larger group by September. A complete report is expected to be presented to the City Council by early November. •

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.


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