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Guest Opinion: Palo Alto Utilities' dilemma — it's really ours, too

Palo Alto Utilities workers assess the damage to a gas pipeline after an accident on Dec. 28, 2017. Photo by Veronica Weber.

On Sept. 11, the 26th consecutive day of the local Spare the Air alerts, I emailed photos of that week's orange sky to my sister in New Jersey. She wrote back, wryly, "Breathe only when you have to." Gov. Gavin Newsom made the news that day, standing in a burnt-out forest saying, "This is a climate emergency. ... The data is self-evident. ... we're going to have to step up our game."

Isn't it time we started paying more attention to what's going on — and making some serious changes? Why are we seemingly so incapable of shifting direction when it's so clear we must stop burning fossil fuels? The story of the City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) and an industry trade association presents a telling example that illustrates this challenge.

Earth Justice, the environmental law group, recently asked CPAU to quit its membership in the American Public Gas Association (APGA). It seems the APGA staff has been speaking at cities and states throughout the country, arguing against plans for electrification.

Those of us concerned about climate change have come to see that electrification — switching to the clean, renewable electricity that CPAU now provides us — is one of the best strategies for reducing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. "Natural" gas, which is how methane was branded decades ago by the fossil fuel industry in an attempt to sell us a "cleaner" product than heating oil or coal, traps up to 80 times more of the sun's heat within the atmosphere than does carbon dioxide. But with the boom in fracking, fossil gas now contributes one-third of California's total greenhouse gas emissions. So it's a major threat to climate stability.

In addition, fossil gas creates two other problems: pollution and a threat to safety.

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While burning gas doesn't make visible smoke or a telltale odor, chemists know it's a dirty fuel. Harmful by-products like formaldehyde, nitric oxide, acetaldehyde and carbon monoxide are among the indoor air pollutants caused by burning gas. People with asthma are especially vulnerable to the emissions from cooking with gas. A 2013 study found that children raised in a home with a gas stove are 42% more likely to develop asthma than those who don't.

Debbie Mytels is a Midtown resident who retired last year from a long career at Acterra. Courtesy Debbie Mytels.

Sept. 9 — the infamous day of orange skies — was precisely the 10-year anniversary of the San Bruno gas explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. San Bruno was not an accident — it was an accident waiting to happen. Aging gas lines run under all the neighborhoods in California — and in Palo Alto, many of these pipes are more than 70 years ago. We also live in earthquake country, and the mini-quakes that happen regularly can shake loose those leaky old pipes. Within the past month, gas lines have leaked and caused a fire in both Los Altos and Campbell. CPAU spends an estimated $18 million on keeping Palo Alto's gas system safe — but shouldn't we stop wasting money on this disintegrating infrastructure and put the resources into improving our electrical grid instead?

Recognizing these problems, the Palo Alto City Council voted last year to ban gas appliances in new home construction, a so-called "Reach Code" that reaches beyond the minimum state energy requirements. Some 32 jurisdictions in California have now passed such Reach Codes. But here's the problem with the APGA trade association: Since Palo Alto has adopted cleaner alternatives through electrification, why is our city utility still paying $20,000 each year to belong to an organization that is actively fighting against our goals?

Our CPAU staff say they benefit from APGA's industry-level reports on safety and best practices — the typical information a trade association creates. That makes sense, but why won't CPAU push APGA to stop lobbying against electrification? Well, APGA as an organization was created to support the use of "natural" gas — so of course they are going to fight against banning it. Why would they want to put themselves out of business?

But let's return to those images of the orange sky. Isn't it time that we all — even an agency created to support the use of fossil gas — think about the big picture? Isn't the goal of CPAU — and APGA — to provide for the health and safety (and economic well-being) of the communities they purport to serve?

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What we have here is a deeper problem. It's a local microcosm of the existential challenge we are facing. CPAU is dealing with a schizophrenic set of goals. On one hand, there's the goal of reducing greenhouse gasses via electrification — and on the other hand is the goal of providing an essential energy service — and that also means jobs. It's hard to tell the gas association — and some of the employees who work for CPAU — that their work is destroying the Earth's climate. They don't want to hear that —and our leaders are uncomfortable saying it.

What we need to do instead is reframe the situation. We need to be clear in our priorities. CPAU can continue to provide energy services — and employment to our gas workers — but we are going to have to shift over to all electric. And Palo Alto's utilities should tell APGA: "You work for us, and we work for the public. The health of our communities requires shutting off the gas lines. Just as some of our CPAU workers will have to re-train, so APGA will have to change. You can start by helping public gas agencies make plans for electrification, rather than fighting it."

Perhaps there is also a lesson in this for all of us who are financially comfortable homeowners. When do we start making plans to shift away from fossil gas? This fire season — or the next?

Debbie Mytels is a Midtown resident who retired last year from a long career at Acterra, but she's still volunteering with environmental groups to protect Earth's climate. She can be reached at [email protected].

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Guest Opinion: Palo Alto Utilities' dilemma — it's really ours, too

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Fri, Sep 18, 2020, 6:57 am

On Sept. 11, the 26th consecutive day of the local Spare the Air alerts, I emailed photos of that week's orange sky to my sister in New Jersey. She wrote back, wryly, "Breathe only when you have to." Gov. Gavin Newsom made the news that day, standing in a burnt-out forest saying, "This is a climate emergency. ... The data is self-evident. ... we're going to have to step up our game."

Isn't it time we started paying more attention to what's going on — and making some serious changes? Why are we seemingly so incapable of shifting direction when it's so clear we must stop burning fossil fuels? The story of the City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) and an industry trade association presents a telling example that illustrates this challenge.

Earth Justice, the environmental law group, recently asked CPAU to quit its membership in the American Public Gas Association (APGA). It seems the APGA staff has been speaking at cities and states throughout the country, arguing against plans for electrification.

Those of us concerned about climate change have come to see that electrification — switching to the clean, renewable electricity that CPAU now provides us — is one of the best strategies for reducing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. "Natural" gas, which is how methane was branded decades ago by the fossil fuel industry in an attempt to sell us a "cleaner" product than heating oil or coal, traps up to 80 times more of the sun's heat within the atmosphere than does carbon dioxide. But with the boom in fracking, fossil gas now contributes one-third of California's total greenhouse gas emissions. So it's a major threat to climate stability.

In addition, fossil gas creates two other problems: pollution and a threat to safety.

While burning gas doesn't make visible smoke or a telltale odor, chemists know it's a dirty fuel. Harmful by-products like formaldehyde, nitric oxide, acetaldehyde and carbon monoxide are among the indoor air pollutants caused by burning gas. People with asthma are especially vulnerable to the emissions from cooking with gas. A 2013 study found that children raised in a home with a gas stove are 42% more likely to develop asthma than those who don't.

Sept. 9 — the infamous day of orange skies — was precisely the 10-year anniversary of the San Bruno gas explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. San Bruno was not an accident — it was an accident waiting to happen. Aging gas lines run under all the neighborhoods in California — and in Palo Alto, many of these pipes are more than 70 years ago. We also live in earthquake country, and the mini-quakes that happen regularly can shake loose those leaky old pipes. Within the past month, gas lines have leaked and caused a fire in both Los Altos and Campbell. CPAU spends an estimated $18 million on keeping Palo Alto's gas system safe — but shouldn't we stop wasting money on this disintegrating infrastructure and put the resources into improving our electrical grid instead?

Recognizing these problems, the Palo Alto City Council voted last year to ban gas appliances in new home construction, a so-called "Reach Code" that reaches beyond the minimum state energy requirements. Some 32 jurisdictions in California have now passed such Reach Codes. But here's the problem with the APGA trade association: Since Palo Alto has adopted cleaner alternatives through electrification, why is our city utility still paying $20,000 each year to belong to an organization that is actively fighting against our goals?

Our CPAU staff say they benefit from APGA's industry-level reports on safety and best practices — the typical information a trade association creates. That makes sense, but why won't CPAU push APGA to stop lobbying against electrification? Well, APGA as an organization was created to support the use of "natural" gas — so of course they are going to fight against banning it. Why would they want to put themselves out of business?

But let's return to those images of the orange sky. Isn't it time that we all — even an agency created to support the use of fossil gas — think about the big picture? Isn't the goal of CPAU — and APGA — to provide for the health and safety (and economic well-being) of the communities they purport to serve?

What we have here is a deeper problem. It's a local microcosm of the existential challenge we are facing. CPAU is dealing with a schizophrenic set of goals. On one hand, there's the goal of reducing greenhouse gasses via electrification — and on the other hand is the goal of providing an essential energy service — and that also means jobs. It's hard to tell the gas association — and some of the employees who work for CPAU — that their work is destroying the Earth's climate. They don't want to hear that —and our leaders are uncomfortable saying it.

What we need to do instead is reframe the situation. We need to be clear in our priorities. CPAU can continue to provide energy services — and employment to our gas workers — but we are going to have to shift over to all electric. And Palo Alto's utilities should tell APGA: "You work for us, and we work for the public. The health of our communities requires shutting off the gas lines. Just as some of our CPAU workers will have to re-train, so APGA will have to change. You can start by helping public gas agencies make plans for electrification, rather than fighting it."

Perhaps there is also a lesson in this for all of us who are financially comfortable homeowners. When do we start making plans to shift away from fossil gas? This fire season — or the next?

Debbie Mytels is a Midtown resident who retired last year from a long career at Acterra, but she's still volunteering with environmental groups to protect Earth's climate. She can be reached at [email protected].

Comments

Lindsay Joye
Registered user
Ventura
on Sep 18, 2020 at 10:06 am
Lindsay Joye, Ventura
Registered user
on Sep 18, 2020 at 10:06 am
13 people like this

Thank you Debbie for making the case to switch to electricity from natural gas.

The recent fires definitely have brought greater attention to air quality, especially while we are sheltering in place these days. Sales of indoor air purifiers have skyrocketed. Air quality studies show cooking with natural gas and propane releases formaldehyde and carbon monoxide inside. Source: Web Link

Six years ago we remodeled our home to be all electric and don't miss having natural gas. We enjoy cooking on our easy to clean induction cooktop with a much quieter fume hood. We have a heat pump water heater and radiant space heat. Our PV system generates most of our annual electricity and helps keep our utility bills low. While we don't have battery backup, our hot water tank has enough storage to ride out the few outages we've had.

I encourage Palo Alto divest from natural gas.


David Page
Registered user
Midtown
on Sep 18, 2020 at 11:18 am
David Page, Midtown
Registered user
on Sep 18, 2020 at 11:18 am
6 people like this

Ms. Mytels says, “it's so clear we must stop burning fossil fuels”, and adds that the reason for this is to, “reduce the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.” Yet many people do not have clarity about the consequences of global warming, nor how to connect the dots to its causes - the burning of methane (“natural” gas), oil, coal, gasoline, jet fuel, etc.

For a quick read about the magnitude of the consequences, here are links to two recent articles: www.cbsnews.com/news/endangered-species-animal-population-decline-world-wildlife-fund-new-report/, and
www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/08/20/climate-emergency-130-degrees/.

Later, Ms. Mytels brings up an issue which is rarely mentioned, “It's hard to tell...employees {or businesses} that their work is destroying the Earth's climate. They don't want to hear that —and our leaders are uncomfortable saying it.” Truth spoken there; thank you so much!

While it’s a difficult topic to address, some have been making the attempt. Two Bay Area authors have produced works about Green Jobs/Just Transition/Green New Deal. Here are the links: www.documentcloud.org/documents/7197687-UC-Berkeley-report.html, and www.thegreatpivot.org/

Thanks again to Ms. Mytels, and also to Sherry Listgarten - who writes a relevant up-to-date blog for Palo Alto Online.


Joel
Registered user
Barron Park
on Sep 18, 2020 at 11:49 am
Joel, Barron Park
Registered user
on Sep 18, 2020 at 11:49 am
8 people like this

Excellent article. Let's keep an eye on the City Council candidates as to their thoughts and ideas concerning CPAU and APGA. Thank you Debbie.


Claude Ezran
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 18, 2020 at 12:05 pm
Claude Ezran, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on Sep 18, 2020 at 12:05 pm
4 people like this

Thank you Debbie for a very informative and compelling article.


pestocat
Registered user
University South
on Sep 18, 2020 at 2:42 pm
pestocat, University South
Registered user
on Sep 18, 2020 at 2:42 pm
5 people like this

There is a mistaken view that just because Palo Alto buys a lot of solar generated electricity that that means Palo Alto only uses that clean energy. This view is totally wrong. In California ½ of our electricity comes from natural gas fueled power plants. This means that during day and night ½ of the electricity we use comes from natural gas. The clean electricity we in Palo Alto pay for is not marked, “for Palo Alto only.” It’s not like internet messages, where a message from a sender goes to the recipient and not to other people (most times). Think of it this way, our Palo Alto paid solar generated electricity goes into a huge tank and we users in California pull out our electricity from this tank. Some of the solar generated electricity that we paid for goes to Southern California, The Valley, etc. Also going into the tank is power generated from hydro-electric and most from natural gas. The level of electricity in the tank is carefully controlled by CAISO see Web Link . There you can see charts showing the instantaneous amounts of renewables (solar and wind) and the balance supplied by natural gas generated electricity. These charts are updated minute by minute, just refresh your browser.

The problem in going all electric is that power plants using natural gas are only about 40% efficient. This means that some of the appliances we use will actually cause more CO2 to be generated than if we had use natural gas directly. The heat pumps on water heaters supply only a small portion of the total water heater energy capacity. When there are high hot water usage needs, heating coils will turn on thereby upping the electricity needs. This means that more CO2 will be generated compared to a simple gas water heater. An all-electric clothes dryer would be would be an even larger generator of CO2 compared to a gas clothes dryer. In our household we have an induction cooktop and have solar water collectors on the roof. In the summer solar provides all of our hot water needs. See Web Link for more information.

Also, there is the issue of fireplaces. In our house we have a gas stove (for heating) when it gets cold in the winter. There is nothing more special than coming down the stairs on a cold morning and seeing flickering flame from the stove and the cats sitting in front keeping warm. You can’t do that in an all-electric home.

The solution that I see is that we need large energy storage power plants that store electricity during the day (think batteries) and then use that energy at night to power the grid. Once we can get the natural gas portion down to 5% from 50%, then we can talk about going all-electric.


Really.....
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2020 at 2:51 pm
Really....., Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Sep 18, 2020 at 2:51 pm
2 people like this

Web Link. Also didn't the city council just fund a huge marketing budget for the Palo Alto Utility company? If someone can find a link to the story please share was I believe I read about it here.


Oh well.....
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2020 at 1:45 am
Oh well....., Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Sep 19, 2020 at 1:45 am
6 people like this

It seems everybody and anybody with a computer can now call themselves a knowledgeable expert. Palo Alto Utilities does not produce power and therefore has to buy it from PG&E. If you enjoy living in darkness for days on end due to rolling blackouts, more power (less) to you. Some us enjoy living in the 21st century so don’t complain when you hear our whole house generator running during the night because PG&E chose to shut down entire power grids to save money.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 19, 2020 at 11:46 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Sep 19, 2020 at 11:46 am
10 people like this

An important thing we should be doing is making sure that we have access to power. Systems shutting down due to overload for what ever reason is not acceptable. If we need natural gas to power our systems than so be it. That we know now. There is not enough "other power" to keep the whole Silicon Valley up and going.

As a fan of Clive Cussler books bad guys are always twerking the power of the tides and electrical energy generated by natural Earth resources - cycle of the moon, tides, etc. I saw the power of the environment last December flying to Hawaii - the pineapple express was running below like a river - heading to CA and SF. And the tides in HA were enormous. Huge rain storm on the way back.

So if SU and UC are running their cyclotrons at the same time along with other huge electrical generators - all at once - can they bring down the systems? The electrical storms we saw are not normal - they were star wars type. A lot going on out there and an all electrical system is not going to be dependable. We have a lot of medical centers here and they all have to be up and running.


Sherry Listgarten
Registered user
Greenmeadow
on Sep 19, 2020 at 5:50 pm
Sherry Listgarten, Greenmeadow
Registered user
on Sep 19, 2020 at 5:50 pm
2 people like this

Debbie, nice writeup! The way I read it, you are wondering why it's taking us so long to do the right thing, whether it's quitting APGA or electrifying our buildings. We have wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and orange skies. Time is clearly running short, and yet. You point out that there are always reasons not to do something. The city has a reason not to quit APGA, and we all have reasons why we are not yet on heat pumps and EVs. Do we wait until all the reasons not to act go away?

My aunt said something insightful on this the other day, namely that it's easier to change when everyone else is doing it too. I think one of the difficult things about heat pumps is that the changes are invisible. For all you know, you are the first house in the neighborhood to try one. I think it's vital that tradespeople start to default to these cleaner solutions and talk about other installations they have done.

Policy plays a big role too. While people may find it hard to switch to an EV or to switch to a heat pump, it is almost never too hard to vote. If we vote for candidates who care, who will craft and pass pro-electrification policies, then we will all be "in it together" and it becomes easier for all of us to make the switch.

You've been working in this area and making such an impact for decades. I hope you will write a "how to fix it" post next :)


N
Registered user
Ventura
on Sep 20, 2020 at 9:29 am
N, Ventura
Registered user
on Sep 20, 2020 at 9:29 am
3 people like this

Huge proponent of fighting climate change, but we must do so with *science* and *math* and not emotion. Yes, the recent wildfires have been *terrible*. However, let's tease apart emotional quotes "Breathe only when you have to" and citing two recent (residential) fires with no injuries in other cities, from the main issue: climate change and the cause: greenhouse gases.

Looking at our recent bill (large family of 5 with all of us working & learning from home):
2300 Kwh electricity (during a month of a record heatwave so running AC)
at 7.07 × 10-4 metric tons CO2/kWh
= 1.63 tons CO2.

4.2 Therms Gas
at 0.0053 metric tons CO2/therm
= 0.02 tons CO2.

So at least for our household, electricity generates 81.5x more CO2 than natural gas!

Can we please work harder as a city to enable solar, and to invest in renewables + storage? Whis will avoid rolling blackouts while better time-shifting our base load to when the sun is shining. It's a no brainer! Where's the proposal for large scale battery storage in Palo Alto? Where's the proposal to vastly improve our residential solar & EV charger permitting processes?

* Source: EPA.gov - Web Link


pestocat
Registered user
University South
on Sep 20, 2020 at 12:59 pm
pestocat, University South
Registered user
on Sep 20, 2020 at 12:59 pm
6 people like this

Thank you, “N”, for showing us the CO2 outputs for both gas and electric uses. You can halve your electric CO2 output because as I mentioned above ½ of our electricity comes from natural gas and ½ from renewables.

Let me add some numbers of my own. A good way to compare the costs of both gas and electric is to use a common energy term. One Therm is equivalent to 29.1 KWH on an energy basis. I went back to my January bill when both gas and electric usage was high. I used 90.25 Therms or 2635.3 KWH (energy) of natural gas and 980 KWH of electricity. It turns out that the gas cost was $0.045/KWH and for electric the cost was $0.173/KWH. So, you can see that the gas cost is about ¼ that of electric.

Debbie, you mentioned that you have a baseboard heating system in your home. You may want to think about a heat-pump system for heating and cooling. That would cut down on the CO2 expelled to the environment to keep you warm at night. My next door neighbor did that when they moved in this past year.

Eliminating natural gas in Palo Alto would be very difficult for the restaurants in town. Have you ever watched a TV cooking program showing restaurant cooks preparing meals? They need high heat to quickly sauté the dish. Moving the pan(s) up and down to modulate the heat. You can’t do that on an induction cooktop. Chinese and Indian restaurants have what looks like a blast furnace gas element for cooking things quickly. And of course, many home cooks prefer a gas cooktop.

One more thing, remember a few weeks ago on that very hot night, 4,000 homes in Palo Alto lost their electricity for a couple hours because there was not enough electricity to keep the grid up and running. Now is not the time to convert to electricity for heating purposes. Let’s use electricity for lights, machinery and chargers for EVs.


pestocat
Registered user
University South
on Sep 20, 2020 at 5:07 pm
pestocat, University South
Registered user
on Sep 20, 2020 at 5:07 pm
Like this comment

Energy Storage
I found this online about energy storage. It discusses many different storage means that I not heard of see Web Link


David Coale
Registered user
Barron Park
on Sep 26, 2020 at 11:13 am
David Coale, Barron Park
Registered user
on Sep 26, 2020 at 11:13 am
2 people like this

As was noted above, understanding the science behind the situation is key to understanding where we are and where we should be going. The reported greenhouse gas emission from the use of natural gas are about half of the true emissions, see below. So often only the CO2 from the burning of natural gas is included in any calculations/comparisons of natural gas to other forms of energy. Natural gas its self is a greenhouse gas and in the 20-year time frame is 80 times stronger then CO2. Most natural gas accounting does not take into account the leakage and other emissions from production (fracking) and distribution. Our own utility says there is only a 1% leakage rate in Palo Alto and does not include the above mentioned other leakage sources, most of which are outside of Palo Alto. When calculating electricity losses, they do include transmission losses outside of Palo Alto. We need true accounting if we are to understand the true impacts of natural gas and other energy usage.

The Natural Resource Defense Council has a great study on the real impacts of natural gas: Web Link and it shows that the true GHG impacts of natural gas use should be double if we are to have true accounting.

We also have to be truthful about the end use as well. Heat-pump water heaters are more than 3 times as efficient then a regular gas or electric water heater and in our area, will run in heat pump mode most of the time. And they are getting more efficient and cheaper every day. The new HPWH today are more efficient and cheaper than the one I bought just a few years ago. The same is true for space heating as well.

Induction cooking is also getting better and cheaper all the time and is far safer than cooking with gas. Even restaurants are using induction cooking to reduce the heat in the kitchen and for safety reasons. In my informal poll of people that now have induction cooking and were using gas before, 100% say they would never go back to gas. I have a signal “burner” induction unit in my kitchen and use it for must of my cooking and love it.

The sooner we understand the problems and impacts of natural gas and move away from its use the better. Natural gas will never get any cleaner while our electrical grid, with the increased use of renewables will get cleaner and cleaner. Thanks Debbie for starting the conversation about the true impacts of natural gas.


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