On Deadline: No more "dithering" — Palo Alto pushes 'carbon free' electricity to fight climate change | May 25, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 25, 2012

On Deadline: No more "dithering" — Palo Alto pushes 'carbon free' electricity to fight climate change

by Jay Thorwaldson

Palo Alto must "quit dithering" and expedite its carbon-reduction efforts significantly, starting with its electrical utility, City Council members unanimously and enthusiastically agreed this week (Monday, May 21).

"Dithering" and its take-action opposite became the virtual theme of City Council members discussed a plan to get the city's electrical utility to be "carbon neutral" by January 2015 — years ahead of state or federal targets.

Some wanted to move even more quickly.

"Dithering" was raised early in the discussion by Councilman Larry Klein, who recounted his recent reading a review of the book "2312," which purports to look back at 20 years of degrading conditions. It includes a section entitled simply, "The Dithering" that describes what is happening, or not happening, in the early decades of this century.

Other council members repeatedly used "dithering" as they stated their personal sense of urgency. Even City Manager James Keene picked it up following the council's official vote, which "seems to have added an 11th Commandment: 'Thou Shalt Not Dither!'" He pledged to keep the council and public informed of progress on an expedited schedule that includes completing an initial staff investigation by December. The goal is to achieve carbon neutrality in the city's electrical supply, through its city-owned electric utility, by January 2015.

Palo Alto and other cities, and the state itself, have been moving in that direction for several years. In Palo Alto, strong community interest followed completion of a Green Ribbon Task Force report several years back. But active vocal support waned in the face of economic concerns and other community priorities.

The new energy behind the "carbon-free" plan is largely the doing of Bruce Hodge, a relative newcomer to Palo Alto civic affairs but a long-time environmentalist who first tuned into climate change concerns at a Sierra Club "Cool Cities" event in 1985. He was involved in a critique of the city's Climate Action Plan. In his day job, he is a computer scientist for Adobe Systems. His wife, Elizabeth Weal, is a former Apple employee. Their two daughters also have environmental interests: Chelsea, 24, works for a clean-tech firm in Oakland and Caroline, 21, is a Stanford junior interested in psychological and social aspects involved in motivating people to become more environmentally involved.

"My vision for Palo Alto is to go the last 15 percent on electric power — the focus of the current campaign," Hodge said. "If we're successful on electricity we'll move on to bigger fish." Vehicles, for one. Buildings, for another. Manufacturing processes.

Hodge teamed up with local environmentalists, most specifically Walt Hays, who chaired the Green Ribbon Task Force.

"Unfortunately the enthusiastic momentum dissipated" after the task force finished its report, Hodge said. He formed the "Carbon Free Palo Alto" organization in 2011. He and Hays met with individual council members. They found a receptive Utilities Department under Director Valerie Fong and Assistant Director Jane Ratchye. They brought the concept to the city's Utilities Advisory Commission (UAC) last November, with detailed reports attached to the new city manager's report.

The UAC unanimously endorsed the plan in December. One council member Monday night asked why it has taken five months to get to the City Council. "It got bumped" due to heavy agendas, a staff member replied. Not likely again after Monday's meeting.

Monday, Mayor Yiaway Yeh led off by noting the city's "Palo Alto Green" program in which about 25 percent of residents pay extra to obtain clean green energy. A "Palo Alto Clean" effort is about to be launched to complement the "green" program.

"There's a lot of community interest in this area," Yeh said.

Councilwoman Gail Price said she supported the plan but cited staff concerns about "significant uncertainties" in future state and other regulations, and potential rate increases to cover added costs. She asked for examples of other communities moving toward carbon-free power.

But Klein stated his support powerfully: "There's hardly anything we're going to be considering that is more important than this item tonight," he said.

He said he had just read a book review of "2312," which describes "the first half of the 21st Century as 'The Dithering.'

"That's what our society has been doing. We've been dithering." He said global warming "will have irremediable impacts on Earth." Yet he worried that "talking about degrees of uncertainty. There is one certainty: If we do nothing we will pay far more in dollars than any here."

"To me this is the great moral issue of our time," Klein later added. He expressed disappointment that only 25 percent of residents participate in Palo Alto Green. He noted that some local neighborhood issues jam the council chambers while only four speakers showed up for the carbon-free item. He said it's nice to be a leader community but he'd like to see Palo Alto "tied with thousands of others" pushing for carbon freedom.

Councilman Greg Schmid said he is excited that Palo Alto is close to carbon neutrality, but cautioned about reliability of hydro power during parts of each year or even between dry and wet years.

The subject "is the most important issue facing our planet, Councilman Sid Espinosa said. When he was mayor last year, a member of the council of "a city to the south" contacted him and asked how he could generate support for climate-change actions, as neither the mayor or any other council members believed in global warming.

Michael Clossen, executive director of the environmental group Acterra, called the plan "an idea whose time has come.

"We have an urgent, unprecedented threat in global climate change," he said. Yet there still is dithering, much of it at the federal level — meaning that effective action must "come up from the bottom" in a way that a local action could become a catalyst for other communities and levels of government.

"We have to step up and find ways to reduce our personal footprints as well," he added.

No time for dithering along the path, either.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. See his blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).


Like this comment
Posted by Lorraine Anderson
a resident of another community
on May 25, 2012 at 9:24 pm

There are lots of people everywhere in the US who are tired of the dithering, and we are watching Palo Alto. Thank you, Bruce Hodge, for stepping up to the largest challenge of our time. Thank you, Palo Alto City Council members, for standing behind Hodge's initiative. You are teaching other municipalities what's possible. Don't lose your focus.

Lorraine Anderson
Corvallis, Oregon

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 26, 2012 at 8:21 am

Are you trying to tell us that my neighbor who gets power from the same power lines that I get my power from has "greener" power. Sounds like the biggest con the greenies have invented to me.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on May 26, 2012 at 9:39 am

>"To me this is the great moral issue of our time," Klein later added

Klein is a true believer, and he will force all of us to spend more money for electricity. Most of the 'clean' energy will come from wind, according to Bruce Hodge's own website. Wind is not baseload, it is inconsistent and it cannot be stored. Wind also kills thousands of birds each year. It turns our remaining wild ridges into industrial factories. And Klein thinks this is green?

Beam me up, Scotty!

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 26, 2012 at 11:57 am

How about instituting "Net-Metering" as the PUC decided for the state utilities to encourage solar electric power? The current plan is for "net-metering" ONLY for electric vehicle owners.

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Lewis
a resident of Barron Park
on May 26, 2012 at 1:27 pm

I am extremely proud of the entire Palo Alto community and its leaders, including the Mayor, Council, City Manager, and Utility Executives (and staff). Having an office in Palo Alto, I consider myself a part-time resident of Palo Alto; even though my home is in neighboring Menlo Park.

Palo Alto's leadership will help all communities see viable pathways to a smart energy future, and I am grateful for the courageous leadership being demonstrated. Bruce Hodge deserves particular praise for initiating the tremendous aspirational goal that is proving to be viable given the admirable response from Palo Alto's elected and appointed leaders. I wish I had been at the Council meeting to voice support directly, but I have been in New York working on related objectives.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on May 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Craig Lewis,

That is a real cheerleader performance on your part, however you fail to address the real issues, which I addressed in my previous post. Are you willing to do your homework? I think Palo Alto citizens are in the mood to accept reality.

Like this comment
Posted by Bruce Hodge
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm

@John, a resident of Midtown

The CarbonFreePaloAlto.org website does not state that "most of the 'clean' energy will come from wind. In fact it cites a mix of potential sources as well as demand side measures.

Neither wind nor solar can supply baseload power when considered in isolation, but when geographically dispersed energy sources are combined with careful management, the result can be baseload power. See Web Link. That's the future. But for now, Palo Alto will not have to solve this problem in isolation in order to become carbon neutral.

While it's true that wind turbines kill birds, that must be put into perspective. A recent report by the National Academy of Science (Web Link) states "Clearly, bird deaths caused by wind turbines are a minute fraction of the total anthropogenic bird deaths—less than 0.003% in 2003 based on the estimates of Erickson et al. (2005)".

Furthermore, more attention is now being focused on siting wind turbines with adequate attention paid to impacts on wildlife. For example: Web Link

Lastly, the increased cost of clean energy in Palo Alto is slight. One estimate is that the average residential bill will increase by perhaps $2 to $4 per month. Furthermore, revenues from the state cap & trade program will likely offset any increased cost during the first few years of implementation.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on May 26, 2012 at 3:46 pm

"20% of Palo Alto residents are participants in the city-owned utilities "Green" program, whereby all their electrical energy is generated from renewable sources (mostly wind)."

Bruce Hodge, are those your own words?

If so, how and where will Palo Alto expand into 'clean' energy? Even more wind (and dead birds, and industrialized wild areas and access roads?). Covering up our deserts with PV farms? Nuclear? More dams on wild rivers? Of the various carbon-free choices, only nuclear is consistent baseload. I will assume that you support nuclear, right?

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 26, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

What will be the effect on global temperature in 100 years if all of Palo Alto goes green with this latest scam as opposed to continuing as we were? Negligible. We will pour millions of dollars into the subsidized pockets of boutique power generators for no real benefit.

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Oct 14, 2012 at 9:14 am

Web Link

Please, dither on...stop wasting time and money on a non-issue. Global "warming" hasn't happened for 16 years. We are in a pause.."coincidentally" the same kind of "pause" we are always in before we swing the other way (global cooling on the way, folks. Prepare for yet another cycle of pictures of Lady Liberty up to her keester in ice on Time covers)