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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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How will Palo Alto plan for, and pay for, massive emissions reductions?

Uploaded: May 2, 2021
It is not easy for a city to quickly eliminate most of its greenhouse gas emissions, as Palo Alto is learning. Despite paying attention to its emissions for more than two decades, switching to carbon neutral electricity in 2013, and pushing ahead in 2016 with an aggressive emissions reduction goal, Palo Alto is now faced with the challenge of reducing its emissions by 68% in the next nine years to hit its target.

Palo Alto doubled down on its ambitions in the last year, committing considerable staff time, meeting time, and budget to analyzing how it can achieve its goal. Vice Mayor Pat Burt spoke for much of Palo Alto City Council recently when he reflected that climate change is not just an existential threat, but a serious present-day threat to public safety and health, and an alarming economic risk. “We really don’t have a choice.” Burt said about taking forceful action to reduce emissions. “It is foolish to not do what's necessary, to act while we still can. The consequences far exceed the investments that are necessary.”

The latest analysis shows that Palo Alto, and specifically people driving in or owning homes in Palo Alto, will need to take significant steps over the next 9 years to reduce and eliminate their use of gasoline and natural gas within the city. Will the community support this? What will it cost? And how should we equitably manage the impact?

A Brief Recap

Palo Alto set a goal five years ago to reduce emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2030. This so-called “80x30 goal” was based on science indicating that this level of reduction is necessary to keep the global temperature increase to 1.5C. That guidance has not changed, and City Council reaffirmed its commitment to addressing climate change just a few months ago, listing it as one of the top priorities for the city. Councilmember Greer Stone shared his belief that “There is no greater thing we can be doing than working on the issue of climate change.”

Today city emissions are 38% below 1990 levels despite a 24% increase in population. Much of that is because Palo Alto switched to carbon-neutral electricity, but impressively natural gas use dropped by 21% (e.g., from stricter building codes), and road transportation emissions dropped by 11% (e.g., from stricter fuel-efficiency standards).

Emissions dropped 38% from 1990 to 2019 despite a 24% increase in population. Source: Palo Alto Staff Report (April 2021)

Time is running short, however, as we face even steeper reductions. It took us thirty years to reduce emissions by 38%, but we now have just nine years remaining to make a 68% reduction.

Palo Alto aims to reduce emissions by 68% in the next nine years.

With committed city staff, residents, and local businesses, plus help from state and federal governments, we can get a lot closer than we are now. One resident expressed a concern that “The low-hanging fruit are gone.” I disagree. We have some terrific transportation options in both new and used EVs and e-bikes. On the buildings side, heat pumps for hot water and mini-splits for air conditioning (and heating!) are gaining a lot of traction. In my opinion, we have new kinds of low-hanging fruit. But Councilmember Alison Cormack adds that “If we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit, we need ladders.” The task at hand for the city is to motivate the picking and to design and build ladders to make it easier.

If We Do Nothing, aka “Business As Usual”

Current city and state policies, and even some aspects of the pandemic, provide something of a tailwind. Cars will get more efficient, more people will adopt EVs (1), many people will telecommute a few days a week (2), and our all-electric building code for new residences will apply to more homes. The city report on our 80x30 planning estimates that we would see a 23% reduction in emissions from 2019 levels by 2030 just from existing policies. That’s a nice one-third of what we need.

“Business as Usual” policies, shown in gray, get us one-third of the way to our goal by reducing emissions by 109,000 MT CO2e. Source: Adjusted “Business As Usual” analysis from Palo Alto Staff Report (April 2021)

The question the city is working to answer is, how do we go well beyond this “business as usual” forecast, quickly, and how do we pay for it?

We Must “Do Everything”

Palo Alto’s 2019 emissions look like this. Not surprisingly, it’s mostly transportation and buildings. (3)

Palo Alto’s 2019 emissions. Source: Palo Alto Staff Report (April 2021)

The analysts working on the 80x30 plan initially believed they would have a range of reduction options to run by City Council. They found, however, that the simple picture above hides complexity and constraints that limit what we can do. Brad Eggleston, Director of Public Works for the City of Palo Alto, said that one of the surprise findings to come out of the analysis was that “We need to do pretty much everything we can” to hit this goal, and even then the analysts are coming up short. To date the best plan we have yields a 72% reduction by 2030 (which does yield an 80% reduction by 2037).

Why is it so hard? One complication is that many of the transportation emissions are not from residents. Palo Alto is a destination for many workers and visitors. The city’s total population (workers, children, and retirees) is around 70,000, but there are about 100,000 employees from out-of-town, as well as many visitors. If all residents stayed out of gas cars entirely, it would address just a small fraction of the emission reductions we seek. Palo Alto needs to find ways to encourage in-bound commuters and visitors to adopt EVs, e-bikes, and alternative modes of transportation, or to telecommute. This is not easy, so the plan sets a very high bar for EV adoption among residents, namely 85% of all new vehicles purchased by Palo Alto residents are EVs by the end of the decade, up from an already top-in-the-nation 30% today. (4)

Another complication is that over half of our building emissions come from non-residential sources, many of which are particularly difficult and expensive to electrify. Moreover, among residential buildings, over 40% of Palo Alto’s housing stock is in multi-family buildings, which are also costly to electrify. While there are some exceptions (packaged rooftop HVAC systems have a low-cost replacement), analysts concluded that the city has to focus on single-family homes for building emissions reductions. Specifically, the impact analysis assumes that 100% of single-family homes in Palo Alto will be retrofitted to all-electric by the end of the decade. That means retrofitting thousands of such homes every year.

These retrofits generally do not pencil out in our city because of high construction costs coupled with a temperate climate. Construction is very expensive here, so retrofit costs are high. Those costs are especially difficult to recoup with lower home energy bills because our temperate climate means the bills are not that big to begin with. Most residents have no air conditioning, and we need only modest amounts of heating. The effect is that full electrification retrofits are generally money losers in this area.

Finally, there are legal concerns around some of the measures the city might roll out. For example, Palo Alto could make electrification more appealing by raising its gas prices and lowering its electricity prices, but exchanging funds across utilities is legally problematic. Palo Alto might aim to attract more contractors by setting an end date for natural gas use, but that could result in a potentially time-consuming and expensive lawsuit, as happened to Berkeley when restaurants sued over gas hookups. Charging a toll to gas cars driving into Palo Alto? Raising the price of registration for a gas car? Increasing the parcel tax to fund electrification? All could be subject to legal challenge. The report notes: “For example, while a parcel tax is one legal option, applying the revenue raised from that tax to fund improvements on private property is unprecedented.” Palo Alto City Attorney Molly Stump is careful to say that we don’t aim to back away from all legal concerns, but we should understand the risk exposure of various options. Help from the state could be very valuable here.

What Does “Everything” Look Like?

The analysis that Palo Alto undertook tried to identify feasible changes (doable and effective in the next nine years) that would provide the most reductions for the dollar. You can see the results in the third column below:

This chart shows a strawman plan to achieve much of the 80% reduction by 2030. Source: Attachment D of the Palo Alto Staff Report (April 2021)

The plan derived by the analysis consists of the following elements. Keep in mind that the relative contributions listed below are all beyond the 109,000 MT CO2e in “Business As Usual” reductions that are anticipated from existing policies, which include considerable EV adoption as well as telecommuting.


- Residents adopt even more EVs (16,712 MT CO2e). The strawman plan has 85% of new vehicle purchases being EVs, up from 30% today and 50% projected as “business as usual”. Because our car fleet takes a while to turn over, even this high level of adoption by 2030 would leave more than half the vehicles as gas-powered. By the end of the decade, 44% of all vehicles in the city are EVs, with one-half of all vehicles owned by single-family residents being electric, and one-third of all vehicles owned by multi-family residents. City assistance purchasing used EVs, a special EV charging rate, and charger rebates can help with this.

- Visitors and in-bound commuters adopt EVs (47,294 MT CO2e). The analysis has 40% of commute trips into Palo Alto and 30% of visitor trips into Palo Alto being made by EVs, up from 3% today. The reductions in emissions projected in this category are among the largest modeled, with all of this adoption exceeding “business as usual”. I asked city staff why they believe this is feasible, and the response was that Transportation Demand Management programs at local businesses and other organizations will contribute. Municipal parking policies can also have an impact. The level of reductions here suggest that it will be very inconvenient and/or expensive to drive a gas car into Palo Alto. Is the thinking that lane management policies on 101 will make it increasingly inhospitable for gas cars? I would like to see more of the city’s thinking around this very large reduction in gas cars coming into the city.

- People stop using cars (25,030 MT CO2e). Vehicle miles traveled by residents, commuters, and visitors is reduced by 8% to 11% in the plan. Car-free streets, safer bike lanes, and transit accelerators like preferential signaling and rapid bus lanes can help here. The projected savings here are very significant, especially given that bike trips are generally short. Can we make transit work more efficiently into and out of Palo Alto? I would like to better understand the thinking behind this, and how many trips we expect to convert from car to bike or to transit.


- Single-family homeowners electrify (42,946 MT CO2e). The analysis assumes that 100% of single-family homes are electrified, with few exceptions. On-bill financing can be a big help here, as can volume discounts, contractor buy-in, simplified permitting, and some amount of community-wide funding.

- Rooftop HVAC units are converted (13,730 MT CO2e). 100% of commercial rooftop HVAC units are electrifie, with few exceptions. This is essentially a cost-neutral switch.

- TBD (65,000 MT CO2e). It remains to be determined what further reductions can be made to close the gap to a full 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030. The gap is large. City staff is looking closely at options for multi-family and commercial buildings. Some direction around new construction or specific appliances might apply. Staff will also be looking at the impact of different land use policies.

Relative contributions of different components of the plan are shown here. Source: Attachment D of the Palo Alto Staff Report (April 2021)

How Might We Pay for This?

Palo Alto estimates the full cost of achieving these emissions reductions to be about $750 million. (5) If we assume that financing is available, this nets out to about $53 million/year. (6) To put that number in perspective, the city collects about $175 million/year in utility bills. If everyone’s utility bill were to go up by one-third, the city could pay for 100% of this work.

There is some appeal to having the city cover costs. Homeowners might otherwise adopt an EV (because it saves money) but choose not to electrify their homes (because it costs money). With the city covering the costs, many more homeowners would take the additional step of switching to a heat pump. The city has good access to financing, may be able to negotiate bulk discounts, can develop a contractor base, and so on. But how can it fairly collect the needed revenue?

Raising utility bills by 33% across the board is not a great plan. Some community members cannot afford such an increase, while others might see little value to justify the additional expense. The city is instead looking at a more careful allocation of expenses, perhaps using a parcel tax or a carbon tax. (7) It’s worth watching this video to understand how the planners are thinking about dealing with the costs of reducing emissions.

In one exploration they describe, all low-income households, non-profits, and small local businesses would be exempt from paying for city-sponsored emissions reductions. Others would be assessed via parcel tax in the following ways:

- $300/year for single-family homes ($25/month)
- $120/year for multi-family homes ($10/month)
- $1.35/square foot for commercial buildings (8)

This is just one of many options and it is important to understand, as Assistant Director for Utilities Resource Management Jonathan Abendschein cautions, that “there are a lot of assumptions in this model, and it is an order of magnitude estimate rather than a precise estimate”. Furthermore, no change like this can be made without substantial engagement with stakeholders and ultimately voter approval.

This particular exploration has residents saving money overall, if you include the savings they gain from switching to an EV. (9) But commercial businesses see primarily an added expense, albeit a smaller one than they would incur if they were to electrify their own buildings. The parcel tax mechanism functions in a sense as a high-quality local carbon offset for these commercial businesses, though a relatively expensive one (I would guess around $100/ton).

In one exploration of a parcel tax increase by the city, residents can save money by switching to EVs and electrifying their homes, while commercial businesses would incur a cost. Source: Palo Alto Staff Report (April 2021)

A Carbon Neutral Delay

Along those same lines, one option the city will be looking at in the coming months is the possibility of delaying some of the higher-cost reductions we face and instead achieving carbon neutrality by funding reductions elsewhere that are more cost effective. This approach gets mixed reviews from environmental economists, with most preferring local reductions that can be verified. An extreme example of these emissions offsets is if someone were to fund planting some trees in a distant country rather than electrify their home. Will the trees be planted? Would that area have stayed tree-less without the funds? Is there sufficient water for trees to grow? Will they live sufficiently long? And is it appropriate for the wealthy to pay for their high-emission lifestyles by outsourcing their emissions reductions, even if it’s at lower cost?

The offsets the city considers will likely be much more local and verifiable than in that example. For example, what if it costs half as much to reduce emissions in the East Bay or in the Central Valley? Would we be better off paying to electrify another area instead of investing larger amounts for lower impact in Palo Alto? An analysis using such a regional lens will be interesting.

What Next?

Mayor Tom Dubois believes the report may be too conservative in laying out near-term actions that can have good impact despite being lower cost and voluntary. He urged city staff to move more quickly where they can. “There is no time to waste. These are really steep targets.” Vice Mayor Burt suggested moving quickly to understand the degree to which residents will not only opt to make changes for themselves, with some city programs in place, but also contribute to a fund that will help others do the same. Burt observed that the city’s success with Palo Alto Green, an opt-in green electricity premium, indicates that a well-run program to take donations for electrification might have good traction. The utility has also accumulated $9 million to use in this effort (10).

Palo Alto can immediately use funds to expand its rebate program to electric space heating, EV chargers, electric panels, and more, with a focus on lower-income families. It can design a special electricity rate for all-electric homes and/or homes with EVs. The city can design a program to help buyers sell and purchase used EVs. Alternative transportation can be encouraged with better signage and parking for cyclists, as well as safer lane markings. On the building side of things, the city can provide on-bill financing, negotiate bulk discounts with contractors and suppliers, and simplify permitting. It can continue to work on reducing the installation of gas appliances in new multi-family and commercial buildings and in significant remodels of single-family homes. It can work to improve grid reliability and reporting.

I would like to see these concrete actions happen sooner rather than later. I worry about the lack of specificity around policies for some of the largest reduction targets, and I am skeptical that some can be achieved without regional action, which takes time. So I hope we will move early with those plans and policies that are straight-forward, and reward and celebrate the many in our community who will step forward to do their part and even more.

To learn more about the analysis that Palo Alto is doing to identify the best way to quickly effect a precipitous drop in its emissions, you can check out the staff report, a series of short videos, and a video of a City Council discussion. There will also be ample opportunities for community engagement.

Notes and References
0. The city is also working on adapting to climate change impacts such as sea level rise, but that is not covered in this post, which focuses specifically on emissions reductions.

1. This is aided by California’s initiative to sell no more gas-powered cars or light trucks by 2035.

2. Palo Alto estimates that about 50% of workers will telecommute two days per week. However, there is some debate about the consequent emissions reductions. According to the staff report, “The overall impact of remote work on GHG emissions is inconclusive. Some studies that account for factors such as increased non-work travel and home energy use have found remote work to have a neutral or negative impact on overall energy use.” The report goes on to say that some people might move further away from their workplaces, effectively adding to their emissions when they do need to go into work.

3. Palo Alto is reflecting only those emissions that are produced in the city itself in its calculations, which is common for city emission inventories. This means that Palo Alto emissions do not reflect indirect or consumption-oriented emissions, such as might accrue from things the city or its residents and businesses purchase or consume. The city is not campaigning for residents to eat less beef, fly less, or consume fewer goods. Those emissions are theoretically counted elsewhere (e.g., where the farm or factory or airport is), though domestic air travel is only aggregated at the country level and international air travel is its own category.

4. Palo Alto’s adoption rate for new EVs today (30%) compares with 8% in the state of California more generally, and 2.3% in the United States overall.

5. The cost does not include changes to the utility itself, for example to expand capacity or improve reliability.

6. Regarding the schedule of these payments, Assistant Director for Utilities Resource Management Jonathan Abendschein says: “In our analysis we assumed financing over the life of each charger installation or building improvement, with financing commencing at the time of capital investment, which could take place any time between 2021 and 2030. The last financing payments would be made before 2060 for certain, but the payments for financing for different types of improvements would end in different years depending on the life of the improvement and the year in which the improvement was made.”

7. The city seems to prefer a parcel tax assessment to a carbon tax because parcel tax income remains fairly stable, while that from a carbon tax would erode as people moved away from gas. Stable revenue is important when long-term financing is used.

8. The charge of $1.35/square foot represents about one-third of the utility bill for these customers, or about 2-3% of their overall rent (at $40-$80/sf).

9. The EV savings that are modeled are discounted by the higher price of EVs relative to gas-powered cars for the next few years. However, when price parity is achieved, the savings modeled grow commensurately and are used to offset building electrification costs. If a resident car buyer is also using those same savings to justify buying a fancier car than they otherwise would, those savings would be double-counted by the city and the resident. In other words, their electrification expenses will be higher than estimated by the city.

10. The utility has amassed about $6.6 million from the sale of Low Carbon Fuel Standard credits, which it receives for charging the many EVs in the city. These are to be used for promoting EV adoption. It also has accumulated about $2.5 million from selling cap-and-trade allowances that it receives for operating its own utility. These are to be used for general decarbonization efforts. The utility expects to receive on the order of $1-$2 million/year going forward.

Current Climate Data (March 2021)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

I love looking at all the low-water plantings around the area at this time of year. This is one of my favorites, at a nearby house.

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Posted by Free truth , a resident of College Terrace,
on May 2, 2021 at 7:47 am

Free truth is a registered user.

We can barely afford our home in PA. Basically the city is aiming at further gentrification by only keeping millionaires and billionaires that can pay for retrofits that will cost multiple tens of thousands of dollars. Add to that the very uncertain state of the power grid, where electricity prices are expected to rise considerably and you have a mess in your hands. We know of people who electrified their homes and spent over 100k in upgrades. It is a joke to expect all of us to own electric cars when any reasonable one costs upwards of 40k and that is excluding the expensive insurance....

Affordability in Palo Alto seems to be only lip service. Of course if you are very poor there are some policies that sugarcoat the problem. If you are middle class, you are expected to move out.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on May 2, 2021 at 9:17 am

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

These enormous, expensive efforts are unfortunately pointless without an international agreement to reduce fossil fuel use. If Palo Alto reduces carbons from fuel, that marginally cheapens fossil fuels by reducing demand. The total amount of fuel consumed worldwide will not change significantly, because other, poorer countries will be happy to burn Palo Alto's fuel.

The net result will be an explosion of expense and complexity for Palo Alto residents, some feel-good pats on the back for climate activists, and no noticeable effect on the climate. Typical for California, I'm afraid.

Posted by CP, a resident of Community Center,
on May 2, 2021 at 9:35 am

CP is a registered user.

Electrifying Palo Alto is not going to change the world unless the entire global universe follows suit.

And what are the chances of that?

At home we recycle our aluminum cans and plastic bottles but guess what?

America is still a litterbug country and the ocean is full of plastic debris.

If one wants to drive a Prius and cook on a Jenn-Air stove so be it but don't expect others to follow suit willingly unless Viking stoves and Corvettes are outlawed.

In other words, if it makes you feel good about yourself go for it.

Posted by StarSpring, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on May 2, 2021 at 10:20 am

StarSpring is a registered user.

I agree with the previous comments. Climate change, rising sea levels, release of CO2 from burning carbon, methane hydrates boiling out of the permafrost all require action at a global/national level. "Think globally, act locally" is a fine philosophy and one that I ascribe to. (I'm not actually the curmudgeon I may sound like :) House is double insulated, earthquake retrofitted, We religiously recycle, I put in an EV charging station even though I do not have an EV. etc. etc. I even put in a gas fireplace so that I no longer burn actual wood. (Yeah, I know... It was the right thing to do at the time)

That said, the above blog asks "How will Palo Alto plan for, and pay for, massive emissions reductions?" and, of course "Palo Alto" won't. As the blog goes on to note, that money will come out of OUR pockets. Many people in this City cannot afford to pay for it. Many people won't care to spit into the wind. Did anyone do a survey to determine the willingness of citizens to adopt these rather draconian measures?

I am heartened to see that most people in Palo Alto are solidly behind masking to protect themselves and their neighbors from COVID. However, there is a clear and present personal and social benefit to that activity. Buying, or being forced to buy, an EV is not something I would willingly do while vastly larger global climate issues go unaddressed. Happy to be a team player, but not going to "take one for the team" while the rest of the world slacks off.

Oh, and electricity is a secondary source of power and, if I am not mistaken, 50% of it in the US is still generated by burning fossil fuels. Carbon offsets just shift the burden around.

Posted by CyberVoter, a resident of Atherton: other,
on May 2, 2021 at 10:48 am

CyberVoter is a registered user.

Sorry to intrude into Palo Alto "politics", but I agree with what I believe is the overwhelming sentiment of the readers/residents:

1) Please educate me on the options & issues, BUT treat me as an adult & NOT a child!
- I will make up my own mind as to what personal action to take!
- Do not "dictate" what I have to do based on your views
2) Please be mindful of the economic impact of your views & dictates on the common/middle class resident:
- The Uber Rich will not feel any impact & the Uber Poor will be subsidized!
- Those of us in the middle will pay 100% of the costs!
- If you have a relatively fixed income, you will eventually be priced out of the Bay Ares
- Have you noticed that the middle class is leaving CA is droves?

Please stop legislating, but keep educating!

Posted by David Coale, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 2, 2021 at 10:54 am

David Coale is a registered user.

Electrifying one's home does not have to be all that expensive and impossible. I bought a used EV for $17k and a friend of mine just got one for $11k. Lease options on new EVs can be an even better deal if you are not ready to own an EV now.
For $100 I got a single induction burner and two compatible pans that now covers over 90% of my cooking along with the microwave and toaster oven and I love the induction cook top; easy to clean, no extra heat in the kitchen and the timer function now means less boil overs and burnt rice.
I installed my own heat pump water heater and the solar PV system I purchased in early 2000 is now paid off and reducing the cost of my EVs and electric appliances even further. While not everyone is able to install HPWH, or some of the other things that I have done, there are some simple things you can do to get started.
And for those that say Palo Alto's reductions won't make any difference, this excuse to do nothing has been used the world over, from small towns to some of the largest GHG emitting countries, to shirk their responsibility to take care of the one planet we have.

Posted by Tom, a resident of Menlo Park,
on May 2, 2021 at 11:01 am

Tom is a registered user.

None of us want to face the costs of climate change or even the lower costs of preventing it. But as adults we have to, and our kids will thank us for "adulting up".
I'm proud to live in the Bay Area where folks like the Palo Alto team are grappling with the tough issues!

I think the path of no regrets starts with a locally developed world-leading pivot away from methane and gasoline. That buys time that helps the sea walls last long enough to harvest economic value from the land they can otherwise only temporarily protect. If we are widely successful at leading the decarbonization, perhaps sea level rise is held at levy levels. At least it buys time to come to terms with the pivot needed to preserve a viable climate for our children. We now know all new fossil devices are stranded devices, so we rationally should deploy no more new gasoline cars and no new gas water heaters or new gas furnaces. Stopping the cutting is the first step in stopping the bleeding.
Some practical guidelines could be offered by all Bay Area building Departments to help clients and trades-people start the pivot toward climate preservation. Just getting the word out that some things are now obsolete will help.
There's no need to install things that need to be removed soon.

No new one way air conditioners. Spend the extra 5% to have it be a two way heat pump that heats and cools and displaces your need for an expensive obsolete furnace.
No new multi-thousand dollar gas pipe expansions for gas tankless water heaters. Get a larger volume electric heat pump water heater that delivers hot water faster (it's already hot in the tank) There several good 240 Volt models on the market now and there will be 4 new 120 Volt models in 4 sizes by late 2021.
No more gas furnaces installed now that need to be removed within 9 years. Future-proof your home with a 2 way heat pump.
We can try messaging for a few months before we need to lift the cookie jar out of reach.

Posted by KOhlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 2, 2021 at 11:49 am

KOhlson is a registered user.

Sherry - I applaud your comprehensive thinking and reporting on this. Hopefully, the city has a plan, which does not include a requirement of "100%" in order to reach the goal. I just can't see that happening. For starters, to electrify all the residences in Palo Alto would require us (roughly speaking) to start now with 3 per day, for the next 9 years. This is not to downplay the goal, but to recognize that 100% achievement of anything that involves the population probably won't happen. And, the scale even for a medium-sized town like ours, is very large.
But I think the city could help incentivize action, using both carrots and sticks.
Keep up the good work!

Posted by Local Resident, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on May 2, 2021 at 1:56 pm

Local Resident is a registered user.

Another great article. One suggestion. Offer a big discount for parking permits to anyone who owns an electric car. That will reduce folks driving gas cars to Palo Alto for work.

Posted by d page, a resident of Midtown,
on May 2, 2021 at 5:17 pm

d page is a registered user.

Thanks again Sherry.

A couple of quick items before I get to my main point: a parcel tax - good!
offsets - bad!

"Will the community support this?...The task...for the city is to motivate". The 2006 Palo Alto Green Ribbon Task Force already spelled this out!

To me, the City has put too much of a focus on emission numbers and not enough on convincing residents about the nature of the problem! Let's BEGIN with a mass education campaign.

I conducted a poll of 100 people in Palo Alto last year. In answer to, what are the biggest parts of your carbon footprint, there were 2 answers given above all else: litter/plastics and cars. (not so much about beef or airplanes)

Look at the first 5 comments above, as well as the comments to Diana Diamond's posting on this same topic. Not only are people often uninformed about where pollution comes from, many know little about the moral imperative to save lives and prevent misery from the consequences of such!

Even Brad Eggleston is "surprised" about this issue. I recommend he read your well-written blog posts.

Our utility already does a fantastic job with their outreach campaigns - which item goes in which colored disposal bin, the efficiency genie, etc. - why not use the same approach to lay out what's at the site?

To enhance such a PR campaign, each council member (plus staff volunteers) could publicize their own household efforts to zero out how much pollution they create. Greg Tanaka made a start in this direction with his ad about his bicycle.

In addition, I believe if many more residents are informed of the URGENCY of the crisis, there'll be much less resistance to as-large-as-necessary pollution reduction measures.

Posted by BobH, a resident of Palo Verde,
on May 3, 2021 at 10:45 am

BobH is a registered user.

I think it's clear that the goal the city set is not realistic. That said, there are things that can be done to make Palo Alto greener. Some examples:

Make it easier to install solar on residential and commercial buildings. Palo Alto's inspection process is very onerous, the city makes it much harder than it needs to be. It's much harder than other cities.

Increase the amount of money the City pays people and business for power they put into the grid. A few years ago the city reduced the rate, this was wrong headed as we should be encouraging more solar in the city.

More reserved parking for EVs in city lots and garages, as well as a lot more charging spots. Perhaps free parking for EVs, paid parking for ICE vehicles.

Subsidize EV charging installations in multi-family buildings. Make it much easier for people to have EVs.

Also, on a somewhat related note, Castilleja wants to build a garage. This will bring more cars into Palo Alto. Will they all be EVs? This needs to be part of the evaluation.

Posted by sequoiadean, a resident of Los Altos,
on May 3, 2021 at 12:51 pm

sequoiadean is a registered user.

I'm excited to be getting my new electric heat pump water heater in a few weeks, which will reduce my natural gas use quite a bit. My utility company in Los Altos (Silicon Valley Clean Energy) will give me a rebate for most of the cost. Palo Alto also offers generous rebates for heat pump water heater installations. The solar panels I installed make my electric bill close to zero for the entire year - and will completely pay for themselves in about 6 or 7 years total. Yes, we need the whole world to participate (I'm all for carbon taxes), but we can do things locally too.

I'd like to endorse "Ministry for the Future" by Kim Stanley Robinson for a very interesting and entertaining novel about how humanity might fight climate change (and how the climate fights back).

Posted by PA mom, a resident of Crescent Park,
on May 3, 2021 at 3:03 pm

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Enforcing Palo Alto's ban on gas-powered leaf blowers will substantially reduce our city's carbon emissions. I didn't see any mention of that in this article, which surprises me because it is a no-brainer.

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on May 3, 2021 at 5:50 pm

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I second @sequoiadean's recommendation for "Ministry for the Future", with some caveats. It opens with an account of a deadly near-future heat wave which some readers may find disturbing (though it motivates important parts of the rest of the book). It also assigns a key role to climate engineering efforts, and I suspect that's the way things will play out in reality.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 3, 2021 at 9:05 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Thank you for your comments on this important topic. They come in a couple of clumps.

Some of you have taken action, and have done so without spending much money, taking advantage of city incentives, used EVs, etc. One thing the city must do is to make this easier for people, so more people truly understand and believe that they can save money and reduce emissions at the same time. Contractors need to promote cleaner options first. These actions need to be mainstream.

I love the way that Silicon Valley Clean Energy publishes every heat pump hot water system that has been rebated -- who installed it, what it cost, etc. I think that makes it easier for people to believe and follow up to do the same. I would like to see that type of transparency about contractors and prices from Palo Alto.

In that same vein, @Free worries about being asked to buy a $40K car and do a $100K retrofit. Yet the utility model cited here says people will save money. I think it would make a lot of sense for the city to take some specific instantiations from the model to show how people of different income levels, including middle class, would save money.

A number of you have sensible suggestions for encouraging EV adoption. Parking pricing comes up twice. I am pretty sure that parking in the city will be cheaper and easier for EVs than for gas cars (and will be much easier for bikes) in the next few years. I think we will also see EVs prioritized on 101 this decade. @BobH’s suggestions of installing chargers at multi-family and developing EV-forward transportation demand management programs are also going to happen. On the other hand, I’ve heard crickets about leaf blowers. I’m not as convinced as @PAMom that these are a big ghg emissions problem.

@BobH says Palo Alto should pay more for solar returned to the grid. I disagree. Palo Alto switched to reimbursing at “avoided cost” rate a few years ago, which is fair. Much of the rest of the state reimburses based on retail rates, which effectively taxes non-solar (esp low income) households for the solar that wealthier people are putting up, to the tune of $100-$200 every year (!!). I will do a blog on this at some point. The state is under a lot of pressure to fix solar pricing, and will do so soon I believe.

@StarSpring worries that “carbon offsets just shift the burden around”. The point of offsets is to get the same reduction at lower cost, not to move the problem around. A well-designed offset is not a burden.

A few people as always say that this will make no difference, why bother, it’s virtue signaling, the rest of the world needs to act. I’m not sure what more to say on this. Much of the rest of the world is either acting or waiting for us to act because we have more resources to spend on this and are responsible historically for more emissions than any other single country. As some of you point out, we nevertheless get to vote on whether we act. Many other inhabitants of the planet, whether people in developing countries or animals around the world, who are suffering the effects of our emissions, do not have that same vote. Will we consider them when we vote?

I agree with @KOhlson that the rate of retrofits seems high. I’ve also heard that the Robinson book is terrific.

This is an important topic, so I appreciate all of the comments. Many of us are concerned about climate change but not sure which actions to take. The city must make it very easy for us to take meaningful emissions-reducing actions, and to help one another to do so. That is how we will make change.

Posted by StarSpring, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on May 3, 2021 at 9:11 pm

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@PA mom, That is because there is no enforcement. Like the anti-idling ordinance it is all for show.

I'd love for this to work. I've owned two hybrid vehicles and was an early Prius owner, but I have no interest in a pure EV.

I'm a huge supporter of masking and vaccinations for SARS-CoV-2 but this latest push from a handful of Palo Alto politicians to make Palo Alto a shining global example of ecological correctness has made me sympathetic to the anti-maskers and I will push back.

Posted by StarSpring, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on May 3, 2021 at 9:42 pm

StarSpring is a registered user.

@Sherry Listgarten, I truly believe this is a problem, like COVID, that requires an urgent top down approach on a global scale. I AM interested in what is happening WRT global warming, sea level rise, methane hydrate release, greenhouse gasses, microplastics, species extinction and all the rest. Looking at nighttime images of artificial light virtually covering the entire planet reminds me of mold on an orange.

I am frustrated that this proposed solution is for rich people in Palo Alto to spend yet more money to maintain their level of consumption. That is not sustainable.

I just fear that we are in a Gary Larson cartoon where the ants are congratulating themselves for collecting a pile of seeds for the winter while out-of-frame a huge foot is about to smoosh the entire nest :)

Happy to be convinced otherwise.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on May 4, 2021 at 9:22 am

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@Sherry Listgarten, I believe human caused climate change is a problem as well, but that doesn't mean that what Palo Alto is proposing here is a good idea. I think it's actually a bad one. It's very expensive, inefficient, and it will likely cause a political backlash against climate goals.

The problem of transferred fossil fuel use by other (especially poorer) nations cannot be wished away. I think a wealthy nation like the United States should invest much more in energy technologies, because cheap and reliable electricity generation and battery technologies (cheaper than fossil fuels) are the best way out of this.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 4, 2021 at 1:43 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

These are great follow-ups, and with different perspectives. A couple of thoughts.

@StarSpring says: “I am frustrated that this proposed solution is for rich people in Palo Alto to spend yet more money to maintain their level of consumption. That is not sustainable.”

There is so much in that thought. For now, I’d just suggest that there are two main ways to reduce household emissions. One is to get people to change behavior, and the other is to use technology so that the same behavior results in reduced emissions. Most leaders give up on the first after a while and go all-in on the second, even though the first has a number of co-benefits (reduced expenses, healthier living, faster impact, etc). Maybe you are more optimistic about getting people to change behavior than you are about getting them to adopt new transport/building tech? Or maybe you are not optimistic about either? You are also pretty cynical about the motivations of city and utility staff and leaders for pushing this forward, suggesting that it is primarily for recognition and awards. So, put all that aside. If you were in charge of the city, what would you do to address the severity and urgency of the climate change problem we face?


@Joseph: You mention a couple of things.

1. You say what Palo Alto is proposing is expensive and inefficient. I agree with that *in part*, as does the city. I think that is why they are considering reducing the cost of some of the more expensive components by adopting a more regional approach. But other elements provide good value imo, and I hope we will lean hard and fast into those.

2. You would like for the US to invest more in energy tech. Fine. You would like for development in developing nations to be clean. Absolutely. I heard an environmental foreign policy expert recently say that if the US and China were to agree on only one thing wrt climate, it should be just that -- ensuring low-emission development in developing nations. But I have a much more modest question, namely what should we do locally, where our per-capita emissions are among the highest in the world?

I think you would say we should do nothing other than vote for a carbon tax and let prices guide our change in behavior. The sad reality is that carbon taxes around the world have been ineffective, too cheap, and riddled with holes, not to mention slow to kick in. Sector-specific standards (fuel efficiency, building codes, etc) are what provably work. If you are all-in on a carbon tax, there are important questions: at what level (federal?), what price, ratcheted up with what frequency, what border adjustments, and with what safeguards to ensure emissions are going down fast enough? And if/when that doesn’t get passed in a timely fashion, what is your backstop?

Again, these are important perspectives and I appreciate your clarifying them. Thank you!

Posted by StarSpring, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on May 4, 2021 at 5:37 pm

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@Sherry Listgarten, First of all I would like to thank you for all the time and effort you put into this subject. The information is detailed, current, germane, and frightening.

And yeah, I should not have added that comment about the suppose motivations of PACC and staff. That was uncalled for and I apologize. They are clearly concerned about the situation and trying to do their best.

I am also cynical. Good call. :)

You ask: If I were in charge of the city, what would you do to address the severity and urgency of the climate change problem we face? My answer would be "nothing", or "mostly nothing". I think the magnitude of the problem we face far exceeds the capacity of any single municipality to address. It has to be addressed at the Federal and global level.

It is a multi-faceted issue with many moving parts. The San Francisco government, for example, is right to expend public funds to reinforce their seawall against rising sea levels. Do they have the right, or is it right, for them to restrict gas cars within city limits when that is done to achieve the same end, albeit over a much longer timeframe? I would say "no".

I keep coming back, in my mind, to the recycling problem. Palo Alto does a great job at it, but by remediating at the consumer level, is Palo Alto taking pressure off the manufactures responsibility to produce packaging that is reusable or, at the very least, does not pollute? That's the real solution, right? Stop the problem at the source. To make that happen State and Federal governments need to step in.

All that said, I also do those things that you suggest need to be done. I've owned two Hybrid vehicles, Every light is LED, Solar doesn't pencil out and I have brand new water heater that I'm not going to pay for again to put in a heat pump. When this one dies, a heat pump will be high on the list. ...and I don't have kids. I did not not have them to save the climate, so I won't ask for credit there. :)

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on May 4, 2021 at 11:10 pm

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Sherry, you write "Much of the rest of the world is either acting or waiting for us to act because we have more resources to spend on this and are responsible historically for more emissions than any other single country."

I think this is starting to approach the real issue - what is the (morally) "right" share of allowable levels of emissions for each country? I would think that emissions history, current population and geographical characteristics would all be important factors, but it will be difficult to persuade many countries to make significant reductions, especially if they feel that big countries are getting away with lesser reductions.

Of course, the key country in this is China, which is currently the largest emitter by more than a factor of 2 and by the end of the decade will have also become the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases. China has said that it won't even start reducing its emissions until 2030 -- this seems to me to be an enormous obstacle to building public support for reductions here. Nobody wants to feel like they're being played for a sucker.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 5, 2021 at 9:28 am

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I tried to ballpark my 2019, non-food carbon footprint for a hypothetical all-electric conversion; I would appreciate any feedback on my calculations. I picked 2019 because it was before the Covid-work-from-home, and non-food because I don't track my food consumption by type, amount, etc. I used my online CPAU utility bills to get electric and natural gas usage, then mined my credit card bills for gasoline spending. I used an estimate of the average 2019 gasoline price to get the gallons used.

After summing up the different tiers of gas and electric usage, I converted everything to pounds of CO2 produced using factors suggested by Google for each fuel. Next, I applied efficiency improvement factors (COP) to the natural gas and gasoline use to represent conversion to new electric devices. I chose a COP of 3 for both the natural gas and gasoline devices, as that seemed reasonable based on my research. Finally I summed up the post-conversion energy use and calculated what the new all-electric load, cost, and carbon generation would be.

I got some interesting results, but will need to post them separately because of space limitations.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 5, 2021 at 9:30 am

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Carbon Footprint (continued)

First, the gasoline-to-electric conversion would result in the biggest cost savings and carbon reduction by a wide margin. The takeaway here is that EVs are a big, big win both financially and environmentally and I should get one. Some Googling showed that the carbon saving is true even after including the life cycle energy use of battery production, so there is really no excuse if you are ready for a new car and you can live with EV's current range limitations.

Second, unless I am missing something, converting my natural gas appliance to electric would have no effect on my carbon footprint whatsoever. This is because according to CPAU, our gas is 100% carbon-neutral thanks to the carbon offsets they buy. If our gas really is carbon-neutral, I would think we could burn as much of it as we want without any carbon impact. It seems wrong, but I can't think why unless there are other savings elsewhere in the system that my simplistic model doesn't account for.

Next, my model showed that converting to efficient electric appliances would actually have made my utility bill go up in 2019. This is because even though the electric appliances consume one third of the energy as the gas appliances, the electricity they consume is more than three times as expensive (per Joule) as gas. And this doesn't factor tiered electricity pricing, which will make the cost increase worse. But I would need to estimate future energy prices to see if this increase would remain true over the life of the appliances.

The model also showed that my electric use would almost triple (280% increase). This makes me think I might need to upgrade my service drop amperage or better yet, install solar panels. I would think that CPAU will also have to bolster their grid. Once residential-scale (or community-scale) battery storage becomes really feasible, though, that would no longer be a problem.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 5, 2021 at 9:32 am

Larry is a registered user.

Carbon Footprint (Continued)

The final surprise came when I looked into the carbon impact of my air travel. Although I didn't fly in 2019, I did take a business trip to Sydney in 2018. That one trip produced TWICE the amount carbon as my entire 2019 annual usage! Google tells me that air travel only accounts for about 12% of carbon emissions worldwide, but this is because 80% of the people in the world never fly. But here on Palo Alto, I'd bet 80% of the residents do indeed fly. It would be interesting to look at the aviation fuel consumption in the region to find Palo Alto's share of aviation carbon. Knowing my neighbors' travel habits, I bet the results would be staggering.

Posted by StarSpring, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on May 5, 2021 at 10:12 am

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Nice analysis Larry. Thanks!

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 5, 2021 at 11:30 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Here’s my 2c, fwiw.

@Mondoman mentions China. China? China is the reason Palo Alto shouldn’t more aggressively push ahead with money-saving EVs, cost-effective heat pump water heaters, and more space for bikes and transit?

@StarSpring mentions unintended consequences. But can you imagine Palo Altans indignantly refusing to wear masks because it might slow down vaccine research?

I struggle to believe those are the real reasons why some people aren't interested in taking action. I suspect it's that climate change just doesn't seem that important. Theoretically, sure, existential threat yada yada. But in practice? No.

@Larry: Thanks for looking at your carbon footprint! (FWIW, I think it’s easier to use this site -- you can just use pieces of it if you want -- but rolling your own can work too!) Yes, transportation is big, and air flights especially so in this area. Driving a 2018 Toyota Prius for 12,000 miles creates about 1.9 tons of emissions. A single round-trip to London from SFO (economy) trumps that.

I'm glad you found good quality info on EVs.

When you are comparing gas and electric heat, don’t forget to account for the efficiency of your gas furnace, not just of the electric heat pump. My 6-year-old tank water heater, for example, is about 63% efficient. There should be a label on yours. You might also be interested in this blog, or at least footnote 4.

Yes, solar makes more sense when you go all-electric. That is why I think Palo Alto will offer a discounted rate for all-electric. Or maybe they want everyone on solar? (Their pricing is correct enough to allow for that, unlike almost everywhere else in California, but I’m not sure when their solar contracts expire.)

Re the city’s grid, I think the city is *much* more concerned about supporting the gas distribution system as people move away from it than they are about supporting the electricity distribution system as people move to it.

BTW, to something that @StarSpring said, I don’t think in any way that a city’s efforts would dissuade state or federal efforts. In fact, I expect that a city can get more aid from the state by being an early mover and showing real effort on something the state cares about. The state likes to see local initiative rather than just a "What are you going to do for me today?" approach.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on May 5, 2021 at 12:02 pm

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There was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle the other day saying it will cost San Francisco $6 BILLION to convert 240,000 homes and that, surprise, cost might be a factor.

Palo ALto claims it can't fund keeping libraries open and they want to embark on this???

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 5, 2021 at 1:11 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

The article @Online is referring to is here. Thank you for bringing that up. Just to clarify, the article says it could cost as much as $5.9 billion or as little as $642 million (if done on replacement). It suggests a number of approaches, including retrofitting on resale or offering various rebates.

FWIW, the utility funds and the city funds you are referring to are not fungible afaik. But tradeoffs of course will be made, and one of the difficulties of climate change is it has a longer horizon than many are used to considering, though it's increasingly impacting us today (wildfires, drought, hotter temps). There is a big element of "If it's not happening to me, I don't worry about it", which we've seen has impacted covid precautions as well.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 5, 2021 at 1:21 pm

Larry is a registered user.

Thanks for the reply, Sherry!

When comparing gas to electric heat specifically for their impacts on global warming, neither the efficiency of the new electric appliance nor the efficiency of the old gas appliance matter if both energy sources are carbon-neutral. Conversion just substitutes one carbon-neutral energy source for another; the carbon footprint difference is then zero by definition regardless of efficiencies. This means the City is asking residents to make huge financial commitment to an appliance conversion program that will actually have zero* climate impact.

* The climate impact might actually be negative if you factor in the life cycle carbon footprint of manufacturing and installing all the new appliances and disposing of the old ones.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 5, 2021 at 2:10 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Larry, sorry, I wasn't meaning to duck you on the "carbon neutral" thing you keep bringing up, I just forgot and then I was lazy.

Palo Alto buys offsets to "neutralize" the emissions from the natural gas we are burning in homes and offices. That may have been well-intended, but it is not how carbon offsets are supposed to be used. Offsets don't work especially well, so they are a Hail Mary when you have done everything you could otherwise do to reduce your emissions. For example, if we had a big steel or concrete factory in Palo Alto, we might have to buy offsets for much of those emissions since there aren't great solutions yet.

But transportation? Home heating? Not exactly offset-worthy.

There are gazillions of articles on the problems with offsets, though some offsets (and articles) are better than others. The offsets Palo Alto uses are listed and described here. For example, Palo Alto is pleased to have protected some forested land in North Carolina. "Without this protection, the forests would be converted to grow wheat or corn."

Now read this recent writeup from ProPublica. If it's too long or you just don't feel like reading, skip to the "illustrated interlude" in the middle, starring "Connor Carbon".

Or, here's another one from The Guardian yesterday on offsets that airlines are using.

The point is, there is no substitute for cutting our own emissions, and Palo Alto has clearly gotten that feedback. The city no longer reflects these offsets as reducing our emissions from natural gas in the charts they publish (including the comprehensive Earth Day report cited here).

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 5, 2021 at 4:12 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

BTW, Larry, wrt air travel emissions, you might find these interesting. About 8 years ago, some researchers at Berkeley tried to estimate emissions per zip code. Their model was pretty rudimentary (a bunch of estimates were just based on income), and the data is probably ten years old (Palo Alto's population has doubled since they did this), but they did understand that Palo Alto has carbon-neutral electricity and that we like to recycle, among other things.

You can see here how Palo Alto's emissions compare with the US overall. (Again, lots of caveats about the model used. More here.) Note that the y-axes below are different in the two charts. Also, note that these are consumption emissions. These are emissions measured by where the consumer lives, as opposed to the more traditional measurement, where the producer lives. China, for example, has more production emissions than consumption emissions. The US is the opposite.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 5, 2021 at 5:56 pm

Larry is a registered user.

Thanks for the explanation, Sherry. Very interesting, albeit disheartening, to learn that carbon offsets aren't actually the legitimate carbon mediating mechanism as advertised. Do you know if the City's carbon goals rely on offsets elsewhere, like electrical generation, or to cover carbon from visiting drivers, etc.? Would the proposed parcel tax go to buying them? I ask because it would be fishy if they counted offsets for other carbon sources but didn't count them for natural gas.

I will have a look at the resources you suggest and see if I can wrap my head around this whole offset thing. Thank you for your good work!

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 5, 2021 at 6:24 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Larry, I'm pretty confident that the city is not relying on natural gas offsets for any of this. (There is a concept called a REC = Renewable Energy Credit in electricity, and Palo Alto has always used those to some degree to keep costs down, but the issues with those are more technical.)

But see the discussion on Carbon Neutral at the end of the post. It's a sort of offset, either businesses paying to electrify homes instead of their own businesses, or Palo Altans paying to electrify homes elsewhere instead of their own homes, both saving money but at some loss of purity (not reducing your own emissions). I think this type of offset is local enough and verifiable enough to be fine, with proven and needed cost savings, but ymmv. It would be important to stop using the offset approach when making those reductions in our own homes and businesses became viable.

I did write a post a while ago on offsets here if you are interested.

I also wrote a post about Palo Alto's carbon-neutral electricity here, though I didn't cover the Renewable Energy Credits there.

I'm glad this has been helpful, you are definitely doing your homework! Thanks for the great questions.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 5, 2021 at 7:39 pm

Larry is a registered user.

Thank you, Sherry. Please let me know if you want me to drop the issue or keep going.

I read the ProPublica article as well as the underlying CarbonPlan study. Yep, calculating offsets it the real world is complex and error-prone. I was surprised that the offset over-credit error was only 29%. But the problem is easily fixed, IMO: buy twice the offsets we actually need to cover the errors. Either way, it would probably cheaper and greener to use these offset-driven "virtual" appliance conversions instead of real ones because we wouldn't be wasting the value of the remaining lifespan of the existing gas appliances. Not to mention the additional costs associated with retrofitting something into a structure that was never designed for it. Besides, virtual conversions can scale WAY faster than their real counterparts. If the City is so hot to scale conversion in a hurry, virtual conversions seem like the quickest (and most cost/energy efficient) path to get there.

BTW, when you start talking about "purity," you are going to draw (legitimate) fire from the critics of Palo Alto's "liberal elites." Unhelpful at best.

I am definitely going check your earlier posts. You have a new fan ;)

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 5, 2021 at 9:28 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

"buy twice the offsets" -- Yes, that's called a buffer pool. They do that.

Top quality offsets -- local, in-kind, verifiable -- have their place imo. That is what Palo Alto is looking at, I think, when they are talking about carbon neutrality. But I really do think that these should be used very judiciously, and they should be dropped as soon as possible. There should also be a cap on how much of these you can use to neutralize your emissions. 10%? 20%?

I worry about double-counting. Suppose Palo Alto decided to fund electrification of all the single-family homes in Manteca because it makes a lot more economic sense there (much higher heating/cooling bills, cheaper construction, etc). Palo Alto would then claim Palo Alto is 50% carbon neutral, or whatever. Meanwhile, what is Manteca going to say? Presumably they can't claim anything until, what, they give the money back? Or more likely what it would cost at that later time to electrify. So they're going to pay for ... nothing? A "carbon neutral" claim? It must buy them something... I'm sure this can be worked out, but the point is that it gets a little weird and pretty unintuitive to the people on the ground that we would like to buy into all this. Sometimes money-saving schemes like this are viewed as a racket rather than a legitimate mechanism.

That is one reason why I think you want to do the straight-forward emissions reductions as much as possible. I'd like Palo Alto to go full throttle on the *many* things we can do that are cost-effective, and to find ways to encourage those residents who want to go beyond, and to stretch funding as far as possible to maximize *local* (in-city) reductions before resorting to papering over the rest with (high-quality, local, verifiable) offsets.

P.S. The above offset example might not work because electrification retrofits in Manteca might actually pencil out, and so would (should) happen anyway. Discounts on used EVs? But they also pencil out. It's tricky.

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on May 5, 2021 at 9:51 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

Hi, Sherry. I agree that "no regrets" conversions that save money shouldn't be affected by what other countries do. However, in practice many changes that in theory should save money don't do so in the real world. For example, our new gas water heater will never be more expensive than a heat pump, given that it's already paid for. Our 14-year old car will likely last another 10 years at least, and since it's also already paid for, replacing it with an EV won't be cheaper. In such situations, people are being asked to spend substantial extra money for limited emissions reductions soon, knowing that the same money could reduce emissions perhaps 3x or more if spent in a different part of the world. That's a hard sell IMO.
PS - Love all the data you post. I wonder though that your US Average box shows 63% have graduate degrees, while in Palo Alto only 46% do. Perhaps I'm not correctly understanding the data source?

Posted by LKA, a resident of Crescent Park,
on May 5, 2021 at 10:00 pm

LKA is a registered user.

Very informative post. Thanks for writing it. We definitely need to make changes to reduce our carbon footprint, and the funding for the changes needs to be done equitably. I'm wondering whether the state legislature is planning to fund any of these changes. The state has its own goal of reducing its carbon footprint. This shouldn't be something that Palo Alto needs to shoulder itself.

I also wonder if one way to help pay for incentives is to place a surcharge on natural gas beyond a certain amount used per month. Hopefully this would fall on larger houses owned by wealthier people.

The city's targets appear to be city-wide rather than per household. They will then be harder to meet if the city does manage to add a significant amount of housing between now and then.

If the best scenario has more than half the cars still being gas powered, the way to reduce their impact is make the alternatives to driving more attractive. The city may have little control over what the VTA or Caltrain do, but it can
improve its bicycling infrastructure.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 6, 2021 at 10:50 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Mondoman, those are great points. So, for example, the city might require electrification on replacement of a gas appliance, on house sale, and/or large remodel, and allow offsets for the rest. That's still not easy, but it helps.

AFAICT, there is no getting around that electric retrofits in our city are just not going to be as financially viable as those in places where the climate is less temperate (where efficient hvac is a bigger money-saver) or where construction is cheaper. The question is then how do you tradeoff cost-effectiveness of changes vs local responsibility, and do you limit how much can be traded?

Whoa, that is weird about grad degrees, and I agree it looks wrong. The paper is here, and in Appendix A it explains where the Bay Area degree data comes from, but there's no indication about US.

@LKA: Thanks for sharing your ideas! Re a surcharge on natural gas, one thing that I understand is that there are many constraints on what a utility can charge for natural gas and what it can do with the revenue. Your suggestion seems very sensible, but I expect it would require some significant legal work and a city-wide vote to make happen.

Posted by Carol Scott, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on May 6, 2021 at 11:09 am

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I guess the City staff who are proposing to DECREASE the cost of parking permits for employees in the Downtown and California Ave areas missed the memo about reining in greenhouse gas emissions. These permits are already less than $5 a day for the primarily high tech office workers who use them. in general, we have an aversion to asking businesses to pay anything, and prefer to ask residents to shoulder all of the burden.

TMDs have never been enforced in Palo Alto. They have been a joke. Ask the City to produce copies of the TMDs that have been filed by developers and you will see that they cannot even be found. Just a formality filed by developers.

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on May 6, 2021 at 12:57 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

As Sherry and others have pointed out here, because of our climate, we don't do that much heating and cooling, and so the efficiency of building heat pumps doesn't make as big a difference as elsewhere. However, we still need to heat water, often lots of it. The heat pump water heaters seem like one good option for that, but at least some of us have older houses where such a unit won't fit in place of the current water heater for one reason or another.

What ever happened to solar thermal? I've heard that those systems can be added on to existing hot water system (essentially pre-heating the water) without necessarily replacing the current heater. Lacking compressors, they use less energy than heat pumps, although of course are unlikely to be able to supply a house's entire water heating needs. I would think such systems might be an effective bridge for many homes.

As someone on the buying side rather than the mandating side of the conversion process, I'd like to see comprehensive shopping resources so I could make at least initial comparisons among a wide range of real-world options for everything (EVs, water heating, space conditioning, etc). What are the hidden implementation costs for each? What are real-world installation lifespans? Is a given technology stable or in the midst of rapid development? Any regulatory changes on the horizon?

It seems like anyone these days needs to be prepared to spend dozens of hours of research just to get a ballpark idea of what's possible (and that's even after the many dozens of hours of your research that you present here, Sherry!).

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 6, 2021 at 2:27 pm

Larry is a registered user.

I did some more homework studying the sources Sherry provided, and I believe I have found the source of the cognitive dissonance between my logic and the City's concerning our natural gas consumption.

My understanding was that the underlying motivation for the City's climate goals is to contain temperature rise by reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses (GHG) we produce. I assumed that any strategy that accountably accomplishes this, like using less gas or buying carbon offsets, was valid. So when we achieved net-zero carbon natural gas by buying offsets, we were done. GHG production was zero, my personal carbon footprint spreadsheet showed that my gasoline consumption was the only (non-food) offender, and I started shopping for a new electric car.

The City, however, now regards offsets as only a “first step" and that we could “do more" by mandating a reduction in natural gas use. And therein lies the problem: the City changed the underlying motivation from eliminating CHC production to eliminating natural gas consumption. Although they are certainly related, they are not the same thing. So it is no wonder the City now ignores natural gas offsets in its goal analysis, even though we are still paying for them.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 6, 2021 at 2:28 pm

Larry is a registered user.


Okay, fine. I get it. Offsets are dodgy and we shouldn't rely on them to meet our goals. However, I would argue that the City shouldn't be allowed to cherry pick where they get to apply offsets against the targets and where they do not. That would be cooking the books. Offsets should either count or they should not, regardless of the GHG source they are mitigating.

Where I see the biggest harm from the City's crusade to eliminate natural gas is the collateral damage it will cause. Besides the “taking" of our remaining gas appliances' economic value, the City will be forcing residents to shoulder a tremendous amount of conversion cost just because they can. In the case of HVAC for my beautiful and historic 1915 Craftsman bungalow, I am probably looking at a new service drop, new meter main panel and breaker panel, new ducting with possible structural implications, asbestos removal fees, and who knows what else that will come up during the conversion. And my neighbor will have to live with my heat pump noise as I will have to live with hers. I seriously question whether the carbon footprint of all this work wouldn't make the whole project carbon positive when viewed on a lifecycle basis. Particularly while I am still paying for those pesky offsets that were advertised to make my gas carbon-neutral.

Bottom lines:

EV? I'm in. Yep, it may need a new electric system but it will pay for itself quickly and then some. Besides the carbon savings are massive and I am trying to be a good citizen.

Electric water heat? Probably a drop-in, particularly if the electric service is upgraded for the EV. I'm in eventually, even though my $1000 gas “high efficiency" water heater is only a month old.

Electric HVAC? Difficult and expensive for my situation, even if the electric upgrade gets done for the car and water heater. With no compelling upside for any actual GHG reduction, I would decline.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 6, 2021 at 6:22 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Carol: Those are good points!

@Mondoman: I agree, it has to be very easy to get these installed, much easier than it is now.

Re solar hot water, I’m just guessing, but solar panels probably provide better value and may not be more expensive. Panels would offer more bang for buck (and roof space).

@Larry: Yes, an EV and heat pump water heater often make more financial sense than a full retrofit of space heating in our area. People with A/C do typically gain by switching to heat pumps, but not many have A/C. The only thing I'd mention is that in a surprising number of cases these conversions can work with existing panels, even as low as 100-amp.

One approach people take is to go part way with space heating. They aim to reduce their gas use in winter and also get some A/C in the summer by getting one mini split in a common room. It’s not too expensive ($5000-ish) and provides good bang-for-buck. I visited a few houses that did this that ended up using very little (or even no) gas in winter while enjoying the benefit of A/C in summer (especially nice during hot smoky periods when you can’t open windows at nights).

BTW, the outdoor units for heat pumps don't strike me as noisy at all. Hopefully you'll find someone who has one and can take a listen and see what you think.

Re offsets, yes, you have to assume that at least the city will stop buying them as we use less natural gas.

Thanks for the really thoughtful comments.

Posted by Robert Neff, a resident of Midtown,
on May 6, 2021 at 10:50 pm

Robert Neff is a registered user.

Thanks for the article. For computing the natural gas content of my electricity, I think using the California average is more honest than the Palo Alto average. We pay a little more, and can link Palo Alto's use to some specific renewable generators, but in reality that just means someone else might get a better deal on a natural gas source. Statewide, Calfornia is still pretty good, but there is still plenty of natural gas. (And I think carbon offsets are part of a rationalization/belief system, but I should read Sherry's article.)
I've been trying to look at my carbon footprint, and the one unknown is the consumption of stuff - the kinds of food I buy, the used electronics I throw out after 4 years, the co2 content of the products that are so cheap and easy to acquire, and the other is my workplace: the amount of energy used on HVAC and computers at my office... It will take a new way of thinking.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 7, 2021 at 1:11 pm

Larry is a registered user.

$5000-ish? That money would be better spent fighting this nonsense in court.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 7, 2021 at 2:30 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Sorry, I should have clarified. You can do these installs for less, but the half-dozen homes I visited nearly all opted for the most efficient heat pumps which cost a little more. These families are pretty dang happy with their efficient cooling and fossil-free (or at least less-fossil) heating.

You are right that expensive and time-sucking lawsuits will happen if the city isn't thoughtful and respectful in its approach. I think we all strongly hope that we can find our way to making retrofits easy and worthwhile for those who want them and to avoid mandating expensive, low-value retrofits for those who don't. And we can all speak up as the city begins to clarify its approach and solicits feedback. Thank you again for doing your research and speaking up.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 7, 2021 at 5:35 pm

Larry is a registered user.

Hi Sherry:

I updated my carbon footprint spreadsheet. I calculated my natural gas consumption split between space heating (I don't have air conditioning) and hot water + cooking gas by looking at my summer vs. winter consumption. This assumes I use about the same amount of hot water and cooking gas year round, and I do indeed shut off the gas furnace in the summer. The calculations show I used about 54% for heating and 46% for hot water and cooking.

I then ran a "partial conversion" scenario where I would convert everything to electric except my difficult-to-convert furnace. The spreadsheet did not include any natural gas offsets per the City's new bookkeeping method, which of course I still believe is BS.

The result is that I would reduce my GHG production by 86%, beating the City's "80x30" goals by a comfortable margin.

So maybe a workable compromise would be to allow homeowners to choose the most appropriate conversions for their situations as long as they can demonstrate that they meet or exceed the 80x30 target. Given the amount of money my conversion would cost, I would be more than happy to pay a certified consultant to do the calculations.

In terms of the low-hanging fruit and ladder analogy, this compromise is more like using a taller ladder to get most of the fruit rather than renting a helicopter to get that very last piece at the tippy top.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 8, 2021 at 10:52 am

Larry is a registered user.

One more question: Do you know if the City consultant AECOM's emission inventory reports are publicly available? If so, I'm hoping they will indicate where we are as far as meeting the State's 80x50 goal. I also hope they explain the rationale for not normalizing carbon emissions against population size. As far as I can tell, the City just looks at emissions inside its geographic boundary regardless of how many people that boundary contains. That makes no sense to me. By that logic, wouldn't Los Altos and Los Angeles both have to have the same emissions?

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 9, 2021 at 8:18 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Robert, I agree, it’s hard to understand consumption emissions and figure out how well or not well you are doing. But I guess awareness is a first step?

@Larry, I really like the idea of giving homeowners a choice, sort of like the points system that is used with the building code. You can meet the goal however you want. I think these things are hard to design well. For example, what if we don’t know your 1990 emissions? What if your family has grown since then or the house was expanded? Or the opposite?

FWIW, I agree 100% that the “last piece at the tippy top” should be left on the tree, and that’s what offsets are for. IMO if everyone converted to an EV or even better e-bike and everyone converted their hot water, as you suggest for yourself, then for the rest we relied on big remodels, somewhat higher gas prices, an all-electric special electricity rate, etc, we’d be in good shape. I think at that point, the city would have to raise gas prices to cover maintaining its gas infrastructure with lower costs, and that would also keep things moving.

What I’ve seen of the emissions inventory is Attachment B of the staff report (pages 17-42). I don’t know if more information is public. Keep in mind the state also has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2045. Re per capita emissions, Los Altos and Los Angeles weren’t the same size in 1990, so they wouldn’t have the same goals. But if one grew much faster than the other, it could be harder for one than the other. Related, population matters less to some cities because they have enormous factories or farms. I think you can’t get too precise about this kind of thing. You just need to take really big bites out, over and over and over, and know generally where and how to take those bites. My 2c.

Thanks again to all for the really good discussion on this topic. We need to keep thinking about what policies can best help to motivate and facilitate our emissions reductions.

Posted by Local Resident, a resident of another community,
on May 10, 2021 at 10:28 am

Local Resident is a registered user.

- "...the key country in this is China, which is currently the largest emitter by more than a factor of 2 and by the end of the decade will have also become the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases. China has said that it won't even start reducing its emissions until 2030 -- this seems to me to be an enormous obstacle to building public support for reductions here. Nobody wants to feel like they're being played for a sucker."

China needs to step up as well. If Palo Alto does its share and best to reduce greenhouse emissions while China continues to churn them out, how far have we really come?

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