When Palo Alto cut carbon out of its electricity supply last year, City Council members and environmentalists lauded the move as a rare and proud achievement in city's battle against global warming.
Now, they are viewing the clean electric portfolio not as an end but as a stepping stone for other green accomplishments, most notably in the fields of transportation and natural-gas consumption. The new efforts include getting more drivers to switch to electric vehicles and weaning people off natural gas and toward clean electricity.
The initiatives targeting natural gas and transportation are expected to play a central role in the city's Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, a comprehensive update to the 2007 plan that the city adopted in 2007.
The new plan, which the City Council discussed on Dec. 8, will include information about the roughly 154 green initiatives that the city currently has in the works, set new goals for reducing emissions and explore the overarching question, "How far should the city go?"
Though the plan is still far from complete, a new report from Chief Sustainability Officer Gil Friend makes clear that transportation and natural gas will be at the forefront of future sustainability efforts. While the former accounts for an estimated 60 percent of the city's carbon emissions, the latter makes up about 30 percent.
"Emissions from transportation and from natural gas use (for commercial and residential space heating, water heating and cooking) represent more than 90 percent of our remaining emissions inventory," Friend's report states. "In order to achieve any significant level of further (greenhouse gas) reductions, it will be necessary to transform transportation, and to eliminate the use, or the impact of natural gas."
The report calls the challenge of taking carbon out of transportation "daunting," noting that it would require not only systems and technologies but also "deeply embedded behaviors." Palo Alto is already pursuing some steps in this arena, including simplifying the permitting process for electric-vehicle charging equipment, bike projects and new transportation-demand projects.
On natural gas, however, the report is more optimistic. It lists four possible ways to reduce natural-gas consumption: buying offsets for the greenhouse gas emissions relating to gas use; greater efficiency in technology and buildings; use of biogas instead of natural gas; and "fuel switching" from natural gas to carbon-neutral electricity. The report notes that fuel switching would "involve substantial migration from the City's embedded natural gas infrastructure."
No one expects the switch away from natural gas to be cheap or easy but on Dec. 16, the City Council emphatically endorsed exploring the proposal further. By a unanimous vote, the council supported a plan laid out in a memo by Councilmen Pat Burt, Marc Berman and Larry Klein. The memo directs staff to come back in February with a report that lays out a time frame for researching and developing a full report on the fuel-switching initiative.
In introducing the memo, Burt pointed to the city's carbon-neutral electrical portfolio and called it a "fantastic foundation" on which to build.
"It's a fantastic achievement and a great foundation to be able to over time have an energy form we can move toward that will have the rest of our carbon emissions be gradually reduced and eventually eliminated," Burt said.
He predicted that evaluating and pursuing the fuel-switching proposal will make Palo Alto officials "trendsetters, not outliers" and noted that many other communities are also tackling these issues. He acknowledged that the city's effort to wean itself off natural gas will have complications, but said it's important to start exploring this shift.
"It's an ambitious goal," Burt said. "It's not yet an ambitious set of actions because we are not yet taking actions other than to begin the evaluation."
His co-signatories both agreed, with Klein calling the fuel-switching proposal "an important first step in a very difficult area" and Berman calling it "an amazing opportunity."
"Our 100 percent carbon-neutral electricity portfolio provides an amazing opportunity to take advantage of this -- to be the leader, the guinea pig, call it what you will, in trying to implement this," Berman said. "It's an exciting opportunity for us. It's also an obligation we have to other communities to lead here."
The memo directs staff to work on a report that would outline "prospective programs and incentives that would result in the use of electrical devices to replace those using natural gas" and consider "possible building code changes to require, where feasible, the use of electrical appliances rather than natural gas appliances in the construction and renovation of residential and commercial buildings."
Staff will also consider utility-rate structures that would "not penalize" fuel switching; and consider "additional strategies to support electric vehicles."
Though it's still very early in the game, the proposal has already generated some excitement in the environmental community. Before the council voted to adopt the memo, it heard from three prominent environmentalists, all of whom praised the memo and urged the city to move forward with its recommendations.
Bruce Hodge, founder of the group Carbon Free Palo Alto, said "This colleagues memo combined with the work on Sustainability and Climate Action Plan is kick-starting a crucial next step in the decarbonization of our energy use in Palo Alto. If not Palo Alto, then who? Let's get going."
Environmentalist Walt Hays praised the city's vision for reducing carbon, but emphasized that "a vision without action is meaningless." Though the fuel switching could have ramifications for utility rates in the future, the cost of the increase "will be very small, will be minuscule, in relation to the cost of adapting to climate change," Hays said.
Craig Lewis, founder of the local nonprofit Clean Coalition, said converting buildings from natural gas to electricity is a tough challenge and one that he had to wrestle with as part of his group's effort to create 100 "net-zero" houses in downtown Palo Alto. Fuel switching, he said, is a component of this push. But because natural gas makes up 30 percent of emissions, the city should look for ways to address this source.
"There's no better place in the world than the innovation capital of the world, which is Palo Alto, top start to test solutions for fuel switching," Lewis said.