PaloAltoGreen, which allows Palo Alto's electric customers to voluntarily tack on a fee to their electricity bills to support renewable energy, was instituted in 2003 and by 2008 had a participation of about 20 percent — a rate that has remained steady. By paying extra, customers allow the city's Utilities Department to purchase what are known as "renewable energy certificates" from providers of renewable energy in other parts of the state and the nation, with wind projects getting the lion's share of support. By purchasing these certificates, Palo Alto customers thus pay for the equivalent of getting 100 percent of their energy from carbon-free sources.
But now the trailblazing program is in danger of becoming superfluous. As the city moves toward making its entire electric portfolio carbon-neutral (possibly as early as later this year) PaloAltoGreen's mission is becoming redundant, forcing the city to think long and hard about what to do with this major asset. On the one hand, the city doesn't want to ask ratepayers to pay extra for green energy when the entire portfolio is already green. On the other, the city doesn't want to simply flip off the switch on one of its most successful programs.
In recent months, the Utilities Advisory Commission and the council each wrestled with this quandary. Among the options each body considered were: focusing PaloAltoGreen on natural gas; using it to fund local solar projects; and declaring victory and shuttering the program.
While the council doesn't plan on reaching a decision about PaloAltoGreen at least until June, the lattermost option now appears unlikely. Both the council and the utilities commission agreed that while the mission of the program needs to be re-examined and redefined, the brand is too valuable to waste.
"It would be a major shame to end the nation's leading program," Utilities Advisory Commissioner Jonathan Foster said at the Feb. 11 meeting of the council.
The solar option proved the most popular at council discussion. If approved, the program would essentially allow customers to become owners of local solar systems, which would be installed at local schools and other public facilities. Joyce Kinnear, manager of marketing services at City of Palo Alto Utilities, noted that Palo Altans are "very proud of their schools, and to have a solar program in a school would be something the community can focus its interests around."
Others shared her enthusiasm for the solar program, though they stopped short of committing to any of the options on the table. Several council members, including Pat Burt and Marc Berman, said they support surveying the community about what they would like the program to focus on.
Burt pointed out that while the city has accomplished much on the electricity front, it still has plenty of work to do when it comes to emissions from natural gas and transportation. The city's drive toward a carbon-neutral portfolio and the massive success of PaloAltoGreen creates a great opportunity for the city to engage the public on further carbon-reduction efforts, whether focusing on green natural gas or reduction of transportation emissions, Burt said.
"It's in my mind very much worth exploring how we translate that voluntary initiative in our community — which is far and away the strongest in the country — to something that is the next evolution in addressing climate change through our own community actions," Burt said.
The green-gas option would allow natural-gas customers to voluntarily pay a premium for "renewable gas" on their monthly bills. The city would use these funds to purchase biogas from sources such as dairies and landfills, according to a Utilities Department report.
Mayor Greg Scharff said he was skeptical about the natural-gas option, questioning whether it really is an environmentally sound method of energy production. He was more excited about the potential for solar energy, noting that generating electricity locally would also help the city prepare for emergencies.
"I can see a lot of positive with solar if done right and if we had a plan that can engage the community and a program that can do so," Scharff said.
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd agreed and said she was "fascinated" by the prospect of customers being given a chance to invest in solar programs in their communities.
While the prospect of tangible, community-funded solar projects is sparking great interest on the council, Councilwoman Liz Kniss argued that the message of keeping the program in place is valuable in and of itself, a sign that the city remains committed to reducing its carbon footprint. Pulling the plug, she said, "would give the public a perception that we've already reached our goals. That bothers me."
She said she supports modifying and continuing the program because "to suddenly end a program that I think has served us well ... sends a message as well."