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By Diana Diamond

Palo Alto: an “all-electric city”? Such a quandary for me

Uploaded: Aug 19, 2022

Palo Alto City Council is pushing hard to have this city become “all-electric.” It is an attempt to slow down global climate change. It sounds great, but . . .

it is an expensive undertaking for taxpayers and property owners and will require major improvements to the city’s transmission and delivery systems. Can we afford it? And will it make much of a dent globally? Or should we even care about that?

I am, as a result, in a what-to-do quandary.

The projected costs to electrify the city are still very fluid, but early indications show hefty spending will be required. The projected cost, according to a recent Daily Post article and based, in part, on a report from the city’s Utility Commission, would require:

• Upgrading the grid to handle a larger load of electricity, costing between $30 to $75 million. Right now, the city’s transmission lines and transformers can’t handle an increase in use by residents and businesses. The city’s Utilities Advisory Commission announced these numbers in a November 2020 report.

• The city will have to remove 124 miles of decommissioned gas lines, at an estimated cost of $11 to $54 million during a 10-year period. I am not sure why these lines have to be removed, but that is what the Utilities Department is calling for.

• Utility workers would spend up to 801,166 hours in this electrical upgrade and gas line decommissioning project. I don’t know how those hours were determined or how much that comes to – it would depend on the prevailing wages at the time.

Also apart from being an all-electric community, the City Council is considering providing fiber to the home with approximately a $100 million cost, plus monthly charges to residents who participate. Fiber delivery to the premises has been under consideration for years, but now there is renewed enthusiasm from supporters to get the city to fund it. However, ATT is advertising that it provides fiber to Palo Alto homes right now, although I don’t know if the quality or residential charges would be the same as what the city is planning.

Can the city, and, ultimately, we residents, afford all these additional costs -- along with increasing utility usage rates each year? It’s easy to say let’s go all-electric, but we residents will have to pay for much of the project. Plus the cost of electricity is high, and the more we use, the higher the rate we will have to pay. Call it a Catch-22.

A new rule adopted recently by the City Council, effective Jan. 1, 2023, would require homeowners to replace a natural gas water heater with an electric heat pump if the gas heater is not working properly -- or buy only an electric one when remodeling. If you need a hook-up for your pool, spa or outdoor grill, it will have to be electric, not gas. And any granny unit must be all-electric. These are all pricey. The rule also states electric appliances will be required for all new offices, stores and restaurants.

It seems the city now has the cart before the horse. It is demanding all electric for many businesses and individuals, when its own Utilities Department is saying it can’t yet handle all the new demands. I was told city engineers are working hard on the provision problem and in two years we may have greater availability. So, logically to me, if the city wants to go all-electric, it must upgrade its system first. At the very least, the Utilities Department should have a say in the rate at which mandated electrical appliances must be introduced.

Why not just use more renewable energy, some ask? So far, energy from wind and solar represent only 10 to 15 percent of the actual electricity used in this country, according to an expert previously associated with SRI. At the very least, he states, we need to quickly double that amount -- along with building more nuclear plants because that can also be a virtually carbon-free electricity source. That won’t happen this year -- or next.

And now back to my quandary. We have a climate crisis in this country and on this earth. We have to stop our dependencies on fossil fuels in whatever way we can. We are facing a crisis, but unfortunately the public’s interest on climate has been waning recently. For example, the public’s top concern in the November election is inflation, polls show.

Despite the high heat and raging rivers and more violent storms the world is encountering, some people remain placid and are not yet alarmed. That needs to change.

Palo Alto is parading on in its quest to go all electric, a noble purpose, but we also need to be realistic about it