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Opinion: What most people don't know will hurt us

Original post made on Aug 23, 2021

Earlier this year, the City Council agreed to work toward this scenario in a decade: Almost every new car in Palo Alto is electric and no home uses gas for heating, hot water or cooking. It's time to start making changes at home.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, August 23, 2021, 8:41 AM

Comments (26)

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2021 at 9:28 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I would take task with a statement that most of us in Palo Alto do not use gas to heat our homes, heat water and cook. That statement may be true for new homes, but anything older than say 15 - 20 years is inaccurate and there are many homes that are a lot older than that and have not been modernized.

Most restaurants are still using gas for cooking. Any chef will tell you why they prefer gas.

Our electricity supply is problematic. We have outages frequently for powerlines being hit by tree branches even in calm weather. We have birds flying into powerlines causing outages and I won't mention mylar balloons.

Our tv screens show commercials telling us to cut down on power use between 4 and 9 pm. These are the hours most of us get home and want to use power, not only for charging devices including cars, but also for doing homework, doing chores including laundry and cooking dinner. As yet, there is no cheap hours incentives for running dishwashers overnight. Perhaps we should have a two tier system where power is cheaper between midnight and 6 am when we get these new smart meters.

I have nothing against encouraging electricity over gas, but as yet we have no overwhelming ease of doing so. Until such time as our electricity supply is more reliable, for most of the idea of banning gas is premature.

Posted by StarSpring
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 23, 2021 at 1:55 pm

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I think there is more than a bit of White Privilege in this article. Palo Alto pays a premium to have "carbon neutral" electricity or our privileged share of Hetch Hetchy hydropower. Palo Alto residents can afford to pay a premium for Heat Pumps and induction cooktops. Don't get me wrong, Heat Pumps are a cool technology and, after watching an induction cooktop in action, I'm ready to get one. After my gas range dies.

However, If I trade my reliable 2012 Outback for a Tesla, what happens? Another family that cannot afford a Tesla will buy the Outback and keep it, and its ICE engine, running for another 20 years. We are facing a global issue requiring global action on a global scale.

The flaw in almost all of these blogs, big hearted as they are, is that there is an assumption that consumers/individuals can solve issues that are profit driven by Big Industry. We can't solve plastic pollution through recycling. Big Plastic (nee Big Oil) has to be forced to address that issue.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 23, 2021 at 2:01 pm

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I'm disappointed that AC didn't put a bit more research and thought into this opinion piece.

First, it's worth getting scientific numbers from a reputable source like the EPA - methane's global warming potential vs CO2 is about 35, not "84".

Second, of course we will not fully stop using fossil fuels in PA by 2030, unless the City pays for non-fossil-fueled replacement cars, furnaces, etc. Even banning the purchase of (say) gas-fired water heaters will just lead to folks buying them in Mountain View and doing self- or under-the-table installations, with the associated public safety risks.

Third, AC's comments on converting rental/multifamily housing make me suspect she has never been a renter or multiunit dweller. Based on my experiences in electricity-friendly Seattle, when faced with requirements or demands to use electric heat and hot water, owners will not purchase highly efficient, but expensive, heat pumps. Rather, they will install extremely cheap (and often cheaply made) baseboard and in-wall resistive heating, and modestly-insulated cheap electric water heaters. This will result in a large increase in electrical demand, likely requiring frequent activation of fossil-fueled "peaking" power plants.

I am glad AC has nice neighbors who graciously welcome her informational walks.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 23, 2021 at 10:24 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@MondoMan: As I think you know, methane is a relatively short-lived greenhouse gas. We worry about it much more over a span of 10-20 years than over 100 years. That is why it makes more sense to use the 20-year horizon for the global warming potential of methane (86x more powerful than CO2) than the 100-year horizon (34x more powerful).

@Bystander: "Any chef will tell you why they prefer gas." That's a pretty blanket statement, no? Lots of chefs love induction cooking. The cookware heats up super fast, yet the kitchen stays much cooler since so little heat energy is leaked. There's also the improved safety and ease of cleaning. And, yes, +1 for smart meters making it possible to price power properly.

@StarSpring: Hang onto your trusty Outback, but consider getting a used Chevy Bolt. They are a great deal, have terrific range, and are soon getting new battery upgrades for free. If/when you do sadly turn over your Outback, hopefully a family will upgrade to it from a more polluting vehicle. And so the world gets cleaner... I'm not sure that Big Oil can be expected to solve this, though we can try to extract $$. But the auto makers are all doing their part. (Well, mostly. Ahem, Toyota.) Government policies (incentives, etc) can help a lot. Let's see what can get through Congress. Meanwhile, as consumers, we can do our part to help motivate the car industry, the food industry, the hvac industry, etc, when we are able, to produce the clean appliances that we need to avert the worst of global warming. That's my 2c anyway.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 24, 2021 at 4:55 am

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On a bit of a side note, thanks for your extensive post a while back on the split mini systems - that raised a lot of awareness (at least on my part) and we are now considering such a system looking ahead a year or two.

Regarding the methane/CO2 relative warming ratio, since CO2 remains in the atmosphere for 100s of years, while methane is gone after about 10, limiting our outlook to only 20 years in the future imho unscientifically minimizes the relative warming potential of CO2 when making emissions decisions. I suspect that's why the EPA uses a 100 year window to get its methane/CO2 ratio of about 35.

Posted by funky
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2021 at 10:50 am

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I went through the same process of being angry about no gas in any new structures. I found this out when permitting for a new ADU. I then learned about energy efficient technologies such as, mini-split system, heat pump dryers and heat pump hot water heaters. I was a die hard gas nut when it came to cooking, but bought an induction cooktop when I remodeled the kitchen a few years ago. (I can't stress enough that induction is so much better than gas!) I quickly become a convert.

The thing that the writer did not mention was the use of solar power. Every new home permitted as of 2020 has to be net zero. My ADU will have solar panels and a battery to generate enough electricity to offset its use. Sure, it costs more money now, but it will pay back over time. I wish I had learned about these technologies sooner.

Posted by Old and in the way
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 24, 2021 at 11:06 am

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My 72 year old Wedgewood stove is made very sad by this news. I remodeled my kitchen around it 15 years ago, and will have to remodel again to replace it as it is not a standard size. It is very reliable, rarely needs services (3 times in 45 years) and cooks beautifully, besides being a cozy presence. Hopefully it and I will be ready to retire in 10 years, it to some horrid fate and me to senior living. Otherwise, there could be trouble. . .

Posted by PA mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 24, 2021 at 11:48 am

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I haven't found any mention of the cost of using a heat pump in the article or comments. Our gas furnace died and we are considering installing a heat pump and were told that it would almost double our winter energy bill, unless we get solar installed. I think that is where the white privilege thing comes in. With permits, plus installation of both, including an unsightly power box (can't remember what it's called), about one yard square being stalled in our back yard beside our house, we're looking at a long project costing tens of thousands of dollars.

If we want to cut back on gas, I say the city of Palo Alto needs to bring back enforcement of the gas powered lear-blower ban. Not to do so seems hypocritical, and it would cut back on crazy-making noise pollution as well.

Posted by Barron Park Denizen
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 24, 2021 at 12:21 pm

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Our modest 70-year-old house in Barron Park has gas space heating, water heating, stove, and dryer. (One nice part: the heat works when the electric power is out.) Our electrical service is a measly 70 amps. We are senior citizens who, at some future point, will need to sell our house, but have no such intention at present. I can see making it an ordinance that all new houses be all-electric, but don't punish us with huge expenses for a new service and appliances that will be wasted when our little house is scraped.

There is also the reality of the neighborhood electrical and transformer capacity. We are at a dead end of the power grid--multiple electric cars on top of a all-electric world could overtax the grid, on this street and elsewhere. A Level 2 car charger is around 6 or even 7 kW, I believe, or 30 amps at 240 volts. The local pole transformer is 25 kVa, equivalent to roughly 25 kW. I wonder who will get to pay for upgrading the City's power distribution system.............take a guess.

The saddest part is, Palo Alto's carbon-reducing contribution would be massively overwhelmed by one Chinese coal power plant. Or forest fire. Lots of money + negligible effect = bad idea.

Posted by valorie25
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2021 at 12:59 pm

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In 10 years?? This city is crazy!! What do the council members smoke before their meetings.......

Posted by What Will They Do Next
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2021 at 1:27 pm

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@ StarSpring .... why don't you be specific about your "white privilege" reference? The term is really getting worn out and people are tired of it.

Posted by d page
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 24, 2021 at 1:35 pm

d page is a registered user.

Thank you to Alison and Sherry. I'd like to comment on the "privilege" issue. Yes, those of us in the middle class of a 1st world country have it pretty good compared to most of our human cousins. Therefore, don't we have a responsibility to do as much as we can to prevent the weather from getting worse? The negative impact of global warming falls mostly on the poor.

Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2021 at 2:37 pm

Me 2 is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Posted by Sherry Listgarten
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 24, 2021 at 4:35 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@PA Mom: Your question about energy bills is an important one. I'm curious who told you that they would double, as it's not what I have heard or see from the numbers.

You can find gas rates for Palo Alto here: Web Link I will use Tier 2 prices, but you can switch to Tier 1 if you use very little gas.

Gas cost about $1.80 per therm this past winter (Tier 2).

You can find electric rates here: Web Link

Tier 2 is a safe bet unless Palo Alto decides, as PG&E has done, to greatly expand its Tier 1 (cheaper) pricing for people with electric heat, which would make electric heat about 20% cheaper.

So Tier 2 electricity costs about $0.19 per kWh.

If on a cold day you use 3 therms of gas heat, and your remarkable furnace is 100% efficient, then that translates to 88 kWh of electric heat. With a heat pump, much of that energy is extracted from the air. Let's say that you pay for 30 kWh and then get 2x that, or 60 kWh, from the air. (That ratio is conservative for a good quality heat pump on a moderately cool day around here.)

The 3 therms of gas would cost you $5.40
The 30 kWh of electricity would cost you $5.70

I'm not saying this is exact, but it's ballpark. I just don't see heating prices doubling. Moreover, if I had to bet on future energy prices, gas will only get relatively more expensive compared to electricity. (And don't forget that you get air conditioning as well, and these heat pumps are much cheaper for cooling than standard air conditioners.)

There's more information here on installation cost, etc: Web Link YMMV, but this is what I found after talking with a number of people around here. I worry more about install than energy cost.

Posted by Green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 24, 2021 at 5:13 pm

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I have a monthly income of a little more than $2,000. If you want to change the gas water heater and the gas furnace, YOU can pay for it.

Posted by PA mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 24, 2021 at 5:16 pm

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Sherry Listgarten, It was two HVAC co. we got estimates for a heat pump from that told us our monthly energy bill would double without solor.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 25, 2021 at 10:15 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@PA Mom: Weird. Maybe they meant to say that your electric bill will double in winter months (certainly possible depending on use), but forgot to say that your gas bill would decrease by the same amount? That's my best guess.

I hope the City will make it easier for you to find and talk with people who have installed these in homes similar to yours. That would be the most effective way for you to learn about them. You will realize they aren't that exotic. It gets pretty boring when you look at enough of them.

Posted by Kristin Pierce
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 25, 2021 at 10:44 am

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[Post removed.]

Posted by Larry
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 25, 2021 at 11:19 am

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According to the CPAU web site, Palo Alto's natural gas is carbon-neutral and has been since 2017.

Web Link

CPAU charges us for carbon offsets to make this happen. But carbon offsets have now fallen out of fashion, and the City no longer recognizes them as legitimate. This is bait-and-switch fraud in my opinion. If the City wants to force us all to abandon our gas appliances, then I want a refund for the "defective" carbon offsets I was forced to buy. Hopefully that will "offset" the expense of my compulsory appliance conversion.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 25, 2021 at 11:27 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Speaking of refunds, I'm still waiting for my refunds from the 2 class action lawsuits against the city and PA Utilities for its historic practice of over-charging us about $20,000,000 each and every year to funnel those "surcharges" from us into the General Fund.

Anyone have an update on where the refunds are, especially since the CPAU has proposed a 3.5% rate hike this year and 5% hikes for the next 2 years after that?

Interestingly to protest these rate hikes, 11,000 of us must complete a multi-step process.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 25, 2021 at 11:41 am

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I would be interested to know which high end restaurants have switched from gas to induction cooking.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 25, 2021 at 1:20 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Bystander, maybe this is helpful? Web Link

FWIW I also get the sense that some restaurants have a mix -- induction because they're faster/cooler/cleaner/etc, but still a small gas because a few dishes/techniques need it.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 25, 2021 at 9:12 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@PA Mom: I apologize, I realize that I got the web link wrong where I said "There's more information here". I meant this link: Web Link

Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on Aug 26, 2021 at 12:37 am

Chris is a registered user.

I did not see a mention of carbon tax in this discussion. That is the most effective way of internalizing the environmental costs. The legislation of overly prescriptive rules on a microlocal basis is equivalent to trying to boil the ocean.

These rules would only make real sense if they were adopted on a Bay Area wide basis. Palo Alto by itself account ps for less than 1% of the regional population.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 26, 2021 at 8:17 am

Bystander is a registered user.

@Sherry. Thanks for that link. I found it very interesting. Of course those are not around here, but it is still interesting nonetheless.

Posted by Robert Neff
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 26, 2021 at 11:15 pm

Robert Neff is a registered user.

Thanks for the article. Yes, just replaced the gas water heater in an expensive "emergency" last year, so need to plan ahead with a 240V outlet for next time, plus enough space. When I have done the calculation on solar panels costs, I have consistently found that it does not make sense for us, because we tend more towards conservation with fans and insulation, instead of using a lot of electricty to run the air conditioning. Our city and state need to simplify this - If you generate electricity you should be paid, independent of your use, and if you use gas, or gas to make electricity (or just use gasoline) you should pay a carbon tax.

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