A left- v. right-hand problem in PA’s push to be an “all-electric city” | An Alternative View | Diana Diamond | Palo Alto Online |

Local Blogs

An Alternative View

By Diana Diamond

E-mail Diana Diamond

About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

View all posts from Diana Diamond

A left- v. right-hand problem in PA’s push to be an “all-electric city”

Uploaded: Mar 2, 2022

Will Palo Alto and other local cities have adequate distribution systems to go all-electric by 2030? Some utility experts say absolutely not – we don’t have the capacity to do so. Yet the city council and staff are plunging ahead, setting an aggressive goal of eliminating natural gas in homes and instead requiring all-electric stoves, water heaters, house and space heating systems by 2030.

And, if that’s not enough the city council is considering requiring residents to replace all gas-fueled vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs) by 2035.

That makes me wonder if the left hand knows what the right hand is doing in this city.

As my fellow blogger, Sherry Listgarten, said in her Feb. 6 posting, “Are Palo Alto’s climate goals threatened by inadequate power grid?” She wrote, ”The City of Palo Alto’s emissions goals are in jeopardy because of its outdated electrical grid. During a February 2 Utilities Advisory Commission (UAC) meeting that Commissioner A. C. Johnston called “one of the most important discussions we’ve had on UAC for a long time,” Assistant Director of Utilities Tomm Marshall did not mince words. When asked if the city would be able to electrify all of its single-family homes by 2030, as the city has been exploring, he responded “Practically, it can’t be done.”

“Palo Alto’s electric grid was designed decades ago for homes that used relatively little electricity. Marshall explained that it’s “very typical” for a utility pole with a 37.5 kVA transformer to support around 15 households. What that means is those homes could consume an average of about 2400 watts. Think one toaster plus one hair dryer. You can imagine that as households add heat pumps and EV charging, which tend to run at several kilowatts (kW) for multiple hours, the utility would need to upgrade the transformers and the lines that feed them.”

So, I am concerned. If some of our UAC members say it can’t be done, and yet city council members say we are doing do it, then Houston, we have a problem. And it’s a much bigger problem than having a pink mylar balloon getting caught in an electric wire causing e a minor blackout

Mayor Pat Burt has said we have enough electricity, but the real issue is those old transformers and lines hat can’t handle an all-electric city.

So if we leap ahead and try to go all electric, it will come at a considerable cost to many residents and commercial building owners The problem I envision is that getting rid of gas stoves, gas water heaters and getting rid of our gas vehicles, we may find that we simply don‘t have enough available electricity in town each day, which could result in that dark word, “blackouts.”

And then what do we do?

I think the council’s goal to go all electric is virtuous, to say the least, but the 2030 timing is too early. The devastating effects of increased climate change is a big worldwide problem that must be addressed --but haste does make waste.

Also, as much as this council wants to lead the way in controlling emissions, the net effect will be minor. If we reduce our CO2 levels, it will be a miniscule speck on a global map. If all U.S. cities took similar steps, it certainly would help. After this country complies, all we have to do is convince a few countries like China, India and Russia to see it our way.

And now, a bit of cynicism about the city staff’s goals. We are charged on our monthly electric consumption – the more we use the higher our hourly rates are. So, the more we convert to electric, the more we will have to pay. Peak hours are 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., when rates are the highest. That happens to be the time most of us come home from work, turn the lights on, push up the thermostats or air conditioners, start cooking, turn on the stove and oven and TVs. After dinner, the kids may need a hot water bath, and many of us use the dishwasher.

The Utilities Department sends out our bills, and I guess they are pleased with the money flowing in. However, but each year Utilities turns over about $20 million of our utility bills to the city’s general fund. So the city makes more money off our utility bills. In other words, the rates we are charged for electricity go, in part, to the city’s general fund to spend on whatever city officials want.

More money in the city coffers was probably not the motivation for the go-electric crusade in town, but I do think it will be a nice $$$ benefit for the city.

And this electricity transmission problem is not Palo Alto’s alone.

As Dan Walters, a CalMatters columnist, wrote this week: “California’s officialdom is bent on making the state carbon-free by converting power generation to wind and solar, by replacing gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles with electric cars and trucks, and by phasing out natural gas in homes and business.”

Walters goes on to say, ”This massive conversion would impose huge new demands on an electrical grid that already comes up short on some hot summer days when air conditioning systems run at full tilt – days that climate change will make more frequent, by the way.”

Spot on!

But while the goal is good, I go back to my original question. Will we have sufficient equipment—transformers and power lines – to handle an all-electric city by 2030? I fear not. And if we go all-electric, and the electricity isn’t available, then I again ask, what do we do?

Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Eeyore (formerly StarSpring), a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Mar 2, 2022 at 4:57 pm

Eeyore (formerly StarSpring) is a registered user.

Does CPA have any legal standing to ban use of gas fueled vehicles by City residents? I would like to see chapter and verse on how they expect to enforce that.

Global warming is NOT something that can be addressed on a city-by-city basis.

Besides, We may soon need all the greenhouse gasses we can vent into the atmosphere to counter the coming nuclear winter. Only slightly tongue-in-cheek tovarich. :(

Posted by Michael, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Mar 2, 2022 at 8:02 pm

Michael is a registered user.

We absolutely cannot continue to allow the use of natural gas to the home. Gas furnaces already use nearly the same amount of electricity as a modern heat pump system. Here is a great video explaining why gas to the house is so terrible. Web Link

Posted by Eeyore (formerly StarSpring), a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Mar 2, 2022 at 9:50 pm

Eeyore (formerly StarSpring) is a registered user.

@Michael, if you mean the US (and the world), I agree with you. The PACC isn't the correct agency to address that. Their job is to serve the residents of Palo Alto. This is just more “nuclear free zone posturing a la Berkeley. I don't pay them to address issues above their pay scale. I want them to address the damage that Shikada is doing to our community without public input. Mountain View is being poisoned by suckling at the Google teat and look what it has done to them.

If PACC says we are going to spend money anticipating a federal shift to green electricity, and we vote on it, that is cool. Anything else is meaningless, distracting bullshit.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 2, 2022 at 10:16 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Palo Alto electricity is so unreliable. Mylar balloons, geese, seagulls, squirrels, tree limbs even when it is not windy or raining, are frequently responsible for power outages.

Yet, the utilities are doing nothing to protect their powerlines. More correctly, they are doing nothing to protect our power supply.

Posted by staying home, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Mar 3, 2022 at 10:08 am

staying home is a registered user.

This is a forcing function to modernize our grid. Do any of us think Palo Alto Utilities, PGE, SDGE, etc will invest in their respective grids if legislation wasn't forcing it?

Posted by Miriam Palm, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Mar 3, 2022 at 10:16 am

Miriam Palm is a registered user.

Keep your hands off my gas appliances. Freedom of choice.

Posted by BobH, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Mar 3, 2022 at 10:59 am

BobH is a registered user.

Good article!

One suggestion, if the City is serious about meeting these goals, the $20 million of our utility bills to the city's general fund, should be redirected toward rebuilding the electrical power distribution grid in the city, promoting local solar and battery storage, and installing EV chargers in all public parking lots.

Things like this will have meaningful reduction in emissions and will make it possible to move away from gas later. Focusing on a better local electrical grid and promoting more EV is something that can be done in the short term. Convincing people to move away from gas heat and cooking (with large upfront costs and resulting increased monthly electric bills) isn't going to happen any time soon.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Mar 3, 2022 at 11:38 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Thanks, Donna. Still wondering where our settlement payments from PAU illegally overcharging us are.

Posted by Carol Scott, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Mar 3, 2022 at 11:51 am

Carol Scott is a registered user.

Electricity is not green unless it is generated from green sources. Can PA utilities promise that for an all electric city? Why not eliminate the middle person and subsidize home solar installations? Palo Alto wants to have a diverse population and is promoting affordable homes. Will it also provide subsidies to low income people who simply cannot afford an electric vehicle or an upgrade electrical system for their homes? I am very supportive of going green, but we have to be realistic and plan well.

Posted by DonaldO, a resident of Community Center,
on Mar 3, 2022 at 1:13 pm

DonaldO is a registered user.

The grid is only a portion of the problem. Where will all this electricity come from? The largest source for electricity in the US is natural gas (33%) - US EIA website for 2020. Worse yet, only 35% of all energy to produce electricity makes it to you. 65% is "system losses" (mostly generation, but includes grid efficiency). 84% of energy consumed in US releases carbon . Nuclear 9%, 7% is hydro, wind, solar, geoT. Solar is great if you can afford it but consider the scale. To satisfy just the transportation sector you need panel area to be 4-5 times the size of CA. CA is the biggest importer or energy so we can't ignore data on a national level.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Mar 4, 2022 at 7:03 am

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

It's outrageous that the city council thinks it can dictate what cars or appliances residents can buy. What gives them this kind of authority or expertise?

Posted by Local Resident, a resident of Community Center,
on Mar 4, 2022 at 12:29 pm

Local Resident is a registered user.

Roof top solar with battery to use the electricity at night will significantly reduce electricity on the grid for that house and allow more houses to electrify. The city should subsidize batteries like the Tesla Powerwall. The state already provides some subsidy for electrical storage stsrems for solar

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Mar 5, 2022 at 3:18 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

I just returned from Honolulu. During that stay the electricity went out in the city. Schools were closed. Police had to manage traffic in the downtown area. Total chaos. Honolulu is the main Pacific Rim city which is the central finance, shipping, and transit hub - Honolulu is a major HUB airport for the Pacific region. Of course a lot was kept going with generators - run by gas. And at present a lot of businesses are closed.

If nothing else a wake-up call that if you have no fall-back solution then quit barking up this tree. The White House has no back-up position, Palo Alto has no back up position. We have a bunch pf people who are playing to the press but they cannot actually point to a successful solution that is available now. And if you keep adding more business and people to this state then you're creating more over-draft on the existing systems. Who ever is pushing this needs to look at what is happening in energy world that has results now. Just talking about this is not really a solution. Who ever needs to produce the solution before any changes are made.

Posted by Red Baker, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Mar 8, 2022 at 9:14 am

Red Baker is a registered user.

The key is to eliminate both electricity and fossil fuels as predominant energy sources by switching to nuclear-powered residencies and vehicles.

This futuristic measure will take some time to initiate (along with certain precautionary/safety measures to curtail any possible radioactive leakages) but it can be done.

If submarines can operate solely on nuclear power, so can Palo Alto and the rest of the modern world.

Practical everyday uses of atomic fusion will carry us into the future and provide a much cleaner environment for ensuing generations.

Promoting global nuclear disarmament could also provide much of the required processed plutonium.

Posted by Anneke, a resident of Professorville,
on Mar 9, 2022 at 11:13 am

Anneke is a registered user.

Solar energy from the sun, geothermal energy from heat inside the earth, wind energy, biomass from plants, and hydropower from flowing water can live in harmony with petroleum and gas, and may be even coal.

Palo Alto is by far not ready to go to electricity alone, as shown by significant outages over the past few years.

It takes time and effort by cities and its citizens to make electricity reliable.

I personally do not care for nuclear power, based on nuclear mishaps, and the "intended usage" for weapons of mass destruction.

A couple of years ago, we experienced increased wind, and low and very loose hanging electric wires hit each other and caused a fire. The police came, the firemen came, and finally, the utility folks arrived. We were without heat for ten days during one of the year's coldest spells and we lost about $3,500 in goods: an electric bed from McCroskey, a new kitchen stand mixer from Kitchen Aid, and repair costs on the heating system. The crew that was on our block for at least a couple of weeks, told me in private that it was the Utility Department's fault, as they should have tightened up the wires and cut away the tree branches. Of course, the head folks of the Utility Department denied responsibility for anything.

The City is not ready, the Utility department is not ready.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Mar 10, 2022 at 5:19 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

The big issue right now is the fire at the nuclear plant in Ukraine. Then we have a problem with the fish in Japan that went into the nuclear power plant water and are toxic. Nuclear has proven to be a PROBLEM wherever it has been used.

To say that we should switch to nuclear is Aspirational - we have no way to safely get there. Meanwhile we have an abundant supply of clean gas and oil underground. We are sitting on our ability to keep the lights on. You are not going to fly all of the planes with nuclear. You are not going to fuel the ships with nuclear.

We are a Pacific Rim state that is dependent on transportation of people and goods via air and ocean. Oil is the way that is done. You can't make up any other reasonable way to do that. The economy is dependent on the Supply Chain via air and ocean. Try and argue that.

Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.



Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

Burning just one "old style" light bulb can cost $150 or more per year
By Sherry Listgarten | 12 comments | 2,996 views

Banning the public from PA City Hall
By Diana Diamond | 26 comments | 2,155 views

Pacifica’s first brewery closes its doors
By The Peninsula Foodist | 0 comments | 1,882 views

Premiere! “I Do I Don’t: How to build a better marriage” – Here, a page/weekday
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,423 views

Holiday Fun in San Francisco- Take the Walking Tour for An Evening of Sparkle!
By Laura Stec | 7 comments | 1,411 views


Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund

For the last 30 years, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund has given away almost $10 million to local nonprofits serving children and families. 100% of the funds go directly to local programs. It’s a great way to ensure your charitable donations are working at home.