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How would you go about reducing our residential building emissions?

Uploaded: Aug 20, 2023

Two weeks ago, members of the Palo Alto Student Climate Coalition and 350 Silicon Valley spoke to Palo Alto’s City Council about the harms being wrought by climate change, and a few asks that they have, primarily related to building emissions. (1) Some said they would like to see the city training and attracting more skilled tradespeople to help with electrification. Others said they would like to see more promotion of the Heat Pump Water Heater program. Several said they would like to see more investment (e.g., staffing) in the Sustainability focus area. And a number asked the city to declare a climate emergency and set a date by which it will discontinue gas service.

Since then, I’ve heard some grumblings about these asks, in particular about the suggestion that we announce a date for phasing out the use of gas. The petitioners say that will allow us to plan better, and yet it is hard for many city residents to contemplate that gas will one day not be available. I’ve heard: “I just got a new stove, they can’t take that away from me.” and “My house is a tear-down. It makes no sense to electrify it.” and “Who is going to pay for me to get all new heating?” and the more generic “Worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

I’m sympathetic with all of this. With the speakers, I agree that climate change poses a serious threat and that we aren’t doing enough to reduce our emissions quickly enough. I do believe that we will stop having residential gas service at some point in my lifetime, and that that is ultimately a good thing. Steps like declaring a climate emergency or setting a date for gas shut-off could give us more tools to accelerate the transition away from gas. So I applaud the speakers’ devoting time and energy to speak up. That said, I also agree with the grumblers. Home retrofits can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly. It’s hard enough to voluntarily decide to do one, let alone be forced into one at your expense. Some households don’t want to spend this money, and others don’t even have the money to spend.

So how is this inevitable (in my mind) change from gas to efficient electric heat going to happen? The progress of Palo Alto’s Heat Pump Water Heater program will be illuminating in this respect, since it aims to take all of the pain away from the transition. “Rebates, permits, contractors -- one call does it all.” The program makes the process of electrifying a gas tank water heater as easy as possible and cost neutral for many installations. If we see good uptake with this program as it starts operating at scale, can we translate that to electrifying HVAC equipment? And if we do not see good uptake, what do we learn from that?

While some of the grumblers are not keen to take any action -- perhaps climate change seems too vague or distant a threat, or Palo Alto too small to make a difference, or China’s progress too slow, or … -- I think that many of you do care but dread the idea of a forced, expensive, disruptive major home project, or alternatively of a rent hike or even lost rental to accommodate the work.

So I’m curious what other ideas you might have for reducing our residential emissions. Policy is difficult to get right (e.g., fair, equitable, funded, appropriate for homeowners, renters, landlords, etc). But if you put on your “common sense” hat, what comes to mind?

The one that I always gravitate to is to ramp up gas prices over time. That would encourage more people to switch, or even just to use their existing heat pump air conditioners for heating in the winter. The EPA proposed a few months ago that the “social cost of carbon,” which estimates the cost of the damage that burning fossil fuels is doing, should be $190/ton. That works out to about $1/therm, a 50% or so increase in the gas bill. That is a substantial amount, but if we phase it in gradually and apply the proceeds to help lower-income households convert to electric heat, it might be doable.

I understand that there are many constraints on how we price our utilities, so it is likely that doing something like this would require the city to declare a “climate emergency”. Several groups are asking President Biden to do the same, given the 15+ $1B or more weather related disasters that have occurred so far this year.

Alternatively, maybe we could raise funds in a more progressive manner, for example via property tax or similar, and then disburse them with a generous electrification program, similar to the HPWH program. What if it were opt-in? Or tax deductible?

What if we found a less monetary way to strongly encourage tradespeople to install electric rather than gas appliances? Maybe permits could be free and expedited? Or the city could partner with a supplier to offer significantly discounted appliances available in a central location?

Or even more alternatively, what if we were to say that the case for building electrification is difficult in Palo Alto, with its temperate climate (we don’t really need air conditioning or use much heat) and sky high building costs. So what if instead we were to fund the electrification of homes in another place in California where the conversion was (a) more desirable and (b) less expensive? That is off-shoring our problem in a sense, but it could buy us some time in a way that satisfies more people.

I don’t know much about writing policy, and I expect these are technically bad ideas, but I’d like to hear what kinds of “common sense” (in your mind) approaches could best help us to wean our way off of residential gas service.

Notes and References
0. Sorry this blog post is late. I was up late (early?) watching the World Cup final. Are you not blown away by the positioning and passing skill of the Spanish team?!

1. I’m not sure why the speakers were focused on building electrification. Many of our emissions come from transportation (both road and air), from food (both food waste generally and beef and dairy more specifically), and from general consumption (vs reduce/reuse/repair). But for this post I will also stay focused on building emissions.

Current Climate Data
Global impacts (July 2023), US impacts (July 2023), CO2 metric, Climate dashboard

Earth had its warmest July on record in 2023, and its fourth consecutive month of record-high global ocean surface temperatures.

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Posted by Paly Grad, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Aug 20, 2023 at 3:20 pm

Paly Grad is a registered user.

If someone has an air conditioner that needs to be replaced, they could replace it with a heat pump. Then they would no longer need a gas furnace. If that's correct, then a city wide promotion similar to the promotion of heat pump warer heaters would be worth pursuing. In a case like this an expensive electric service upgrade would be unnecessary because the existing AC would already have the necessary electric service in place.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on Aug 20, 2023 at 7:07 pm

Larry is a registered user.

Hi Sherry:

Please don't forget to mention to your readers that CPAU supplies carbon-neutral natural gas. So by definition, eliminating the gas service will have ZERO effect on emissions. Not sure why everyone continues to ignore this fact.

And depending on how one manipulates the numbers, one could claim that eliminating the use of carbon-neutral gas would INCREASE net emissions: the gas is 100% offset yet the California grid electricity that would replace it is not 100% carbon-free. Yes, CPAU uses its (our) vast wealth to buy up choice carbon-free electricity contracts, but that just makes carbon-free electricity unavailable to other communities because there is not enough of it to go around. Hardly the "energy leadership" Palo Alto claims to provide.

But then you know all of this already, better than almost anyone else.

Posted by David Coale, a resident of Barron Park,
on Aug 21, 2023 at 10:53 am

David Coale is a registered user.

@Larry: “CPAU supplies carbon-neutral natural gas". This is not true. CPAU does pay for off-sets for our gas, but their accounting does not take into account for leakage which doubles the GHG emissions for gas.

As for policy there is a lot that can be done. There should be a lowering of electric rates for all electric homes to support our electrification efforts. This can happen by changing the tires for electric rates. Since the city will be selling more electricity, there will not be a loss in revenue.

Since there will be no new gas appliances sold in the Bay Area by 2027 (BAAQMD ruling), having a gas cut-off date after that, say ten years later, would give people enough time to switch. Some would say this is too late, but with rate structure changes, this would naturally happen sooner.

Putting a price on carbon, as you mention, is another policy tool that could work, though there are no real examples of this since the fossil fuel companies keep this from happening by buying off our politicians. If it is framed correctly, as the polluter pays, instead of a carbon tax, then we might get somewhere. Politicians and voters alike don't like the tax word.

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on Aug 21, 2023 at 1:40 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

Re: "The progress of Palo Alto's Heat Pump Water Heater program will be illuminating in this respect, since it aims to take all of the pain away from the transition."

Yes, it will be very informative. I hope the City also does some research to figure out how many households decided not to even contact the City for this because they would require expensive electrical service upgrades first.

@David Coale
Are there actual measurements of CPAU gas distribution leakage? Of course methane has a much stronger greenhouse effect, but is gone from the atmosphere maybe 15x faster than CO2. In any case, would even doubling CPAU greenhouse offset costs change gas charges very much? That seems like a straightforward, easy-to-implement way to deal with the issue.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 21, 2023 at 2:29 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

I love all of these ideas/comments, thanks!

@PalyGrad: I like that idea, that we only sell A/C that comes with heating. Not sure (a) if we could do it or (b) whether it adds cost. We'd also want to be sure the rate structure encouraged use of the electric heat once you had it. But this is a "common sense" idea imo.

@Larry: I seem to recall hearing you make this point before :) I just looked it up, and the 2021 GHG inventory says Palo Alto consumes about 25 million therms of gas each year. The monthly gas service charges show that we are spending $.07/therm for the offsets (about $13 per metric ton of CO2, using the inventory's assessment of emissions per therm). So that is $1.75M that we could devote to an electrification program, in theory, though repurposing from one type of offset to another might need a vote. I think it would be reasonable to do that, though we would be spending way more per therm to electrify our homes. Say a typical home here uses 500 therms per year, costs $25K to electrify, and lasts 50 years after electrification. Assuming electricity has no emissions, that works out to $1/therm. That is why economists like offsets. (FWIW, I think our program imposes a limit of $0.10/therm on offsets.)

@David: The BAAQMD ruling is conditional on it being cost-neutral, which imo is very much up for grabs. I absolutely agree that we should have a bigger Tier 1 rate for homes with electric heating, and I have heard utility staff say that they are going to do that, though it will cost them money if it doesn't attract many new households that wouldn't otherwise have done it. Also, yes, "polluter pays" is a better way to think about a carbon fee.

@Mondoman: I have mentioned this before, but my parents electrified and solar-ified (word?) their home with a 125 amp panel and they weren't even careful (e.g., they put in a 30-amp HPWH). I wouldn't make assumptions about panel size. I have said this before, but I hope that you and others call the Genie so you can get on the record about why your house is problematic when it comes to electrification.

Thanks for the suggestions and discussion.

Posted by Bruce Hodge, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Aug 21, 2023 at 3:14 pm

Bruce Hodge is a registered user.

Although CPAU buys offsets for natural gas, they are essentially worthless and that doesn't make our gas consumption “carbon-neutral". Increasingly carbon offsets are being recognized as essentially a scam. See Web Link for a good reference on this.

As far as taxation goes, it's very problematic here in California because of Propositions 13, 26 and 218, which severely limit the taxation route because it requires a 2/3's majority vote to implement new taxes. Also many things previously considered as fees have been recast as taxes that require the 2/3 majority.

Changing rates for CPAU also runs into the buzz saw of Prop 218, which institutes limitations that are written into the California constitution.

Prop 13 and it's successors have had a hugely negative impact upon California, unfortunately!

Posted by People Need Water, a resident of Shoreline West,
on Aug 22, 2023 at 10:34 pm

People Need Water is a registered user.

The number one problem with buildings is making more of them. That's what's driving climate change the most.
Electrification should be occurring due to health concerns- natural gas is incredibly bad for you to breathe. It causes cancer, Alzheimer's, and cardiovascular disease.
There is no carbon neutral energy available, and there never will be, unless we can curb population growth.
I'm not saying that clean(er) energy isn't a worthwhile endeavor, I believe quite the contrary, but I would like to be accurate
I appreciate everyone caring about the environment.

Posted by Mike, a resident of Val Vista,
on Aug 23, 2023 at 12:05 pm

Mike is a registered user.

Cities and towns must provide a community ground source heat pump system to achieve higher efficiency for people as they replace their current heat/AC systems with heat pumps. Community ground source loops allow more effortless drilling of ground sources for heat pumps using the public right of way. Individual home owners and businesses would link into the public system and pay a small fee to cover the costs.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 23, 2023 at 3:00 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Mike, thanks for bringing up that concept, which is called "geothermal district heating". It is not a new idea -- the Department of Energy says we've had geothermal district heating in Boise since 1892. My brother told me about district heating (albeit not powered by geothermal) decades ago when he was living in Estonia, where hot water came from a central source to heat homes. It sounded nuts at the time, and it was not without its share of problems. But there are a few new trials of geothermal district heating around the US.

Maybe the most interesting of them is in Framingham, Mass. What is appealing is that the utility builds shared infrastructure and everyone plugs into it at low-ish cost. So it's pretty equitable and affordable, and it also uses skills that gas utilities already have. But will it work reliably? And what is the cost of providing and maintaining that infrastructure, or hooking into it?

It will be interesting to see the results of these trials. I'd love for it to be functional and economical. Hopefully we'll know more in a few years. I should also learn more about how well district heating works (or not) overseas where it's used. All I remember is my brother complaining about it because sometimes it just wouldn't work and there was nothing you could do about it.

Anyway, thanks for the great comment.

Posted by CyberVoter, a resident of Atherton: other,
on Aug 24, 2023 at 12:49 pm

CyberVoter is a registered user.

By far the fastest way to reduce the emissions from residential buildings is:
- Build Less new buildings & repurpose those underutilized for housing & other needs
- Limit the size of all new buildings
- Reduce & replace the use of concrete (a massive source of CO2)
- Choose building & construction materials & furnishings that are from the USA and NOT shipped here by polluting ships coming a very long distance

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on Aug 24, 2023 at 3:11 pm

Larry is a registered user.

Hi Sherry:

Yes, I have mentioned this before, and I mention it again because I still have not gotten a satisfactory answer to why, as is stated on Page 9 of the Inventory concerning natural gas offsets:

"However, offsets are not included in this GHG inventory."

And why not? Just because? I think the City should explain this before they force residents to pay thousands of dollars for electrification, all in the pursuit of eliminating our supposedly carbon-neutral gas supply.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 25, 2023 at 4:04 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Cyber: Those are some very strong and dubious-sounding claims you are making, with no evidence. I can't imagine that smaller buildings use less energy per person since exterior walls lose more energy. Smaller buildings also use more land. I think climate concerns would advocate for larger buildings with a small land footprint and many units inside, at least to a point where people still enjoy living there. I can't imagine that shipping emissions are material, though national grid composition matters. Finally, emissions from burning fossil fuels (e.g., 3 tons/year) will dominate construction emissions (e.g., 30 tons?) over time.

So while, yes, it is important to find ways to reduce construction emissions and ensure buildings are well utilized, I believe we also need to (a) stop creating new buildings that use gas; (b) improve the efficiency of existing buildings; and (c) convert existing buildings to electricity. That last is not easy, but I don't see a way around it. We can't bet on a magical inexpensive, highly scalable, and safe carbon disappearing wand for all of this.

@Larry: As I mentioned, I think it's fair to ask that we direct that money instead to our own electrification efforts, but I imagine doing so would require a vote. That said, I don't think this is as inconsistent as you do. I offset my flights. But I also try to minimize my flights because I know that offsetting is very imperfect. The city is offsetting its gas but also trying to reduce use. Reducing is much more effective, and each house that converts does so more or less forever, unlike offsets. Homes that do electrify no longer pay this charge.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Downtown North,
on Aug 29, 2023 at 12:30 pm

Larry is a registered user.

>> I think it's fair to ask that we direct that money instead to our own electrification efforts

Or "we" could give it back to the rate payers. After all, it is their money not "ours."

Posted by Eddie, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Sep 2, 2023 at 6:47 pm

Eddie is a registered user.

Someone came to my house yesterday, as part of Palo Alto's Heat Pump
Water Heater program, and it was very disappointing. I've previously
commented in this blog that we remodelled in 2018, installed a
gas-tankless water heater and that I didn't think we had room for a
hot water tank. We have a small storage area, and if we put a water
tank there, we would lose much of our only outdoor storage - not to
mention we might not be able to reach / service our whole house water
filter and HVAC heating/cooling system. Still, Palo Alto has been
aggressively promoting this program, so we thought we'd give it a
shot. When the person arrived, I mentioned that I had some questions
about where the water heater could fit, but he said he first had some
things to do. 45 minutes later, after taking lots of pictures and
recording lots of information, he said he was done. So I asked again
where the water tank would go, and he generically said "where all of
the other stuff is". I mentioned the issues above, and he brushed them
off with, "well the permit office might be able to help", "you might
find a way", ... I was (perhaps naively) hoping that the person they
sent out would be able to think creatively about a solution. Instead,
this will probably be a waste of our/my tax dollars - not to mention
the extra waste of money to issue my free permit. I really hope that
the city is using the correct metrics to measure the success of the
program - which is how many people have actually installed a more
efficient water heater. But I'm concerned that the company they
sub-contracted gets paid for quantity over quality. Don't get me
wrong, I'm glad that I live in a city that is willing to pay for
programs like this, but I'm wondering if there is enough oversight to
make this program really work. I hope my disappointment is

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