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Opinion: What most environmentalists don't know can hurt us

Original post made on Sep 17, 2021

Global warming is a serious issue and environmentalists are trying their best to be helpful. But good intentions do not automatically translate into good policies.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, September 17, 2021, 6:52 AM

Comments (18)

Posted by Judith Schwartz
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2021 at 10:34 am

Judith Schwartz is a registered user.

Thank you Bill for both acknowledging the good intentions of environmentalists while stating the reality of what it will take to produce that extra electricity. The City brags about being 100% carbon neutral. This metric is calculated on an ANNUAL not hourly basis. Most city council members and residents misunderstand this to mean 100% renewables 24x7. That erroneous belief has led to this natural gas ban on new construction and extremely aggressive carbon reduction goals that would require 100% of existing housing stock that uses natural gas (22,000 homes) to be retrofitted to all electric operation by 2035. The considerable expense to landlords and homeowners is downplayed and the concerns expressed by renters on social media are ignored. It would be better to invest in low carbon fuels mixed into our natural supply as a way to equitably decarbonize and serve as a model for other communities.

Posted by Shirley 'Mac'
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2021 at 11:59 am

Shirley 'Mac' is a registered user.

I also thank you Bill. I've been questioning recommendations for going electric on gas stoves, gas water heaters, and gas furnaces to converting to electrical items, as you say, the source for demands for more electricity is counter productive.

Posted by Jim Hols.....
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 17, 2021 at 12:38 pm

Jim Hols..... is a registered user.

Great article Bill. Good info on tradeoffs between gas and electric. But an even bigger picture is that if every house in Palo Alto were switched from gas to electric and even if it did improve green house gas emissions, the amount would be a very minuscule amount compared to bigger targets. Just coal fires around the world would dwarf our annual savings in the city each minute of the day.

We need to support measures in the USA and the world that can have effects that are bigger and measurable. Local cities should have to hire an energy consultant that can show the actual savings in green house gas for a city's annual output as compared to the rest of the world. Is it worth spending $10,000 to possibly $50,000 to change heating/AC, waterheating, gas ranges, and fireplaces to electric for each house if the actual change of green house gas is negligible?

Why aren't these local cities ( I'm talking about Palo Alto and Menlo Park) coming up with a way to fund these forced changes?

Posted by MBH
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 17, 2021 at 1:50 pm

MBH is a registered user.

You dismiss the development of more nuclear power as an issue causing "much gnashing of teeth." Surprising that as a physicist you have obviously not done the math on the efficiency of Nuclear power over all other power sources, and fail to address the fact that nuclear plants do not pump CO2 into the atmosphere. Your off the cuff dismissal of nuclear also shows that you have failed to research or consider the fact that plants like Diablo Canyon have been completely overhauled and modernized, are safe and highly efficient with capacity factors in the 90+ percent range, far exceeding the efficiency of any other power source. Particularly that of wind and solar which also require backup by gas or coal when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. Not only that, modern nuclear plants based on Molten Salt technology, using Thorium as the nucleotide, can use our current nuclear waste for fuel. They also do not produce nucleotides that can be turned into atomic bombs.

And you fail to mention that wind turbines and solar panels have a finite lifetime of little more than 10 years are not recycled - but are buried in huge graves. Wind turbines and solar panels are also very expensive and production of enough units to produce the required power will bankrupt the country. Not to mention the installations taking needed farm land out of production.

Finally wind and solar do not produce the steady, unfluctuating flow of electricity that nuclear does and will require expensive installations to stabilize the energy flow so it can be used in the US power grid.

Posted by Tom
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 17, 2021 at 2:08 pm

Tom is a registered user.

Mr. Zaumen raises two interesting issues about electrification and electric procurement policies and grid operating that should not be conflated.
1) Procurement policies like the ones underlying the resulting power content labels Mr. Zaumen linked show that Palo Altans electrifying their heating creates a small added electric load that will be met by City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU's) contracting for more renewable energy from added renewable energy plants (e.g. wind farms and solar farms). Palo Alto directly contracts for the output from new facilities on the margin and those facilities use the power purchase contract as income statement proof needed to get financing to get built. Therefore, added electrification leads to added renewables on a 1:1 ratio of added annual electric energy sales to customers.
2) Hourly operations of the grid and of household appliances. There are hours of the year when CPAU's contracted output from carbon free resources exceeds its sales to customers and the excess production is sold to the market as unspecified energy. The utility buying that power then does not need to funnel more gas into their gas fired powerplant during those hours and CPAU's excess decreases hourly emissions at that time even beyond Palo Alto needs. On the flip side there are hours when people charge their EVs too early in the evening and the needs exceed the hourly output of the contracted carbon free resources. In those hours CPAU could lean on a little of the output of that other utility's gas fired generator, using the prior saved gas to generate the energy that is needed to meet the EV's charging during early evening grid net peak periods. On average there was no net increase in grid usage of natural gas to meet that hourly timing mismatch.
However, good "gridizens" can provide the added environmental and economic savings Mr. Zaumen has illustrated by moving EV charging etc. to the times of day that renewables can more easily coincidentally.

Posted by wmconlon
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2021 at 6:13 pm

wmconlon is a registered user.

The CPAU power content label that I received in today's bill is doubly misleading:
* On the supply side, the 44.6% of unspecified power is assumed to be at the average California carbon content, NOT the actual (much higher) carbon content when that energy is procured. That's because CPAU needs to buy market power when renewables are NOT available, so the grid is not operating at the average, but closer to its peak carbon consumption.
* On the demand side much of CPAU's renewable is sold because it exceeds the need of Palo Alto. Only the associate REC (Renewable Energy Certificate) is retained, to cover for still more market power that needs to be procured.

Palo Alto has been a leader in the climate crisis -- unfortunately it is a leader in climate change denial by deluding itself that its carbon neutrality is effective.

In fact, CPAU has led the charge in being a bad gridizen (thanks for the term, Tom). Here is why: When CPAU dumps its unneeded solar power into the market during the day, it doesn't displace inefficient gas-fired peaking plants, highly efficiency gas-fired combined cycle power plants. When the sun sets, the combined cycle has to restart, which takes several hours and wastes a lot of fuel in the process. Other Load Serving Entities have followed Palo Alto's lead, which is resulting in the retirement of efficient gas plants to be replaced by flexible, but inefficient peaking plants. So the net result of Palo Alto 'leadership' has been to increase the need for flexibility and increase carbon emissions. Indeed, Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), which unlike CPAU owns generation, is now planning to convert several of its efficient combined cycle plants into less efficient simple cycle plants in order to be more flexible.

Of course it just gets worse when Councilmembers then start pushing for still more electrification because they think carbon neutral electricity (which is only an accounting fiction) is the same as carbon-free power.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 17, 2021 at 8:03 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Well. I am glad to see people thinking about this, but I am somewhat discouraged to see misinformation communicated as fact. Here are a couple of points.

The piece asserts without evidence that heating water (etc) accounts for a “small fraction” of one’s yearly use of energy. Given the context, I’m going to assume the writer is referring to the gas specifically rather than energy. In that case, I would question if in fact it is a small fraction. Look at your gas bill. If it looks 90-ish during Nov-Mar and 15-ish the other months, then 38% is the non-space-heating portion of your gas bill. The City actually estimates a somewhat higher amount. See page 5 of this document: Web Link

This writer asserts, again without evidence, that load-shifting (such as reducing use between 4-9pm) will not work for heat. I guess I’d just ask, why not? Hot water in its tank will stay hot. A well-insulated home will stay warm for several hours. I’ll grant that it’s hard to avoid using the stove during that time (!), and I expect restaurants would need special consideration.

The author asserts various things about the efficiency of gas heat vs electric heat in residences. Fortunately, our state has studied this, and those studies have led to strong support for electric heat in the 2022 CA building code: Web Link Readers might also be interested in this comparison of gas-to-home emissions and electricity-to-home emissions: Web Link . It’s not perfect, but contrary to the author’s point, these numbers do include distribution losses, as do most numbers I’ve seen. (Ironically, they do not include methane leakage along the gas distribution network, which is the equivalent for gas.)

... at comment limit, more later.

Posted by Andy
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 18, 2021 at 12:44 pm

Andy is a registered user.

Contrary to the assertion of the title, most environmentalists are very aware that electrification must move hand in hand with transition to a clean grid as well as improvements in electricity storage. Luckily, this is well underway in California. We hit our target of 33% of the grid being generated from renewables two years early, and we have a goal of 100% renewables by 2045. Of course, supply and demand forces work here. As more cities commit to buying renewables (as PA has done), this monetarily incentivizes the development of more renewable energy sources. We are not in some kind of non-dynamic scenario where we have run out of renewable options and our only recourse is to go back to coal to generate additional electricity. Plus, the electrification process takes time. PA has a goal of about a decade, during which the grid will be greening rapidly (as per current trends and commitments).
Supply and demand works in other ways as well. Buying a new hot water heater running on 'natural' gas is an investment in a fossil fuel future. That demand will be met for the life of the appliance with continued fracking, and its associated emission of devastating heat-trapping gasses.
Also, there are no other good options. Scientists have told us loud and clear that there is no responsible way to continue burning fossil fuels, regardless of how efficiently we are burning them.
Finally, commenters are again arguing that changes here are too small to have an impact. This all depends on your definition of “here”. You could say Silicon Valley, which is a source of innovation and progressive policies that much of the world takes note of. Or California, which is after all the world’s 5th largest economy. Or you could consider yourself part of the US--the biggest emitters per capita. Luckily, Biden, along with EU leaders, also pledged this week to significantly cut methane. I would argue that we are too big NOT to take action.

Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 18, 2021 at 2:53 pm

Paly Grad is a registered user.

This is related because it’s about reducing pollutants:

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has a Vehicle Buy Back Program and they are now accepting eligible 1997 and older vehicles! Get paid $1,200 to turn in your working older car or small truck for scrapping. This program reduces air pollution in the Bay Area by taking older vehicles off the road.

Web Link

Posted by Sherry Listgarten
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 18, 2021 at 3:49 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Here is the rest of my comment...

The author also states without evidence that it will be difficult to add more renewable energy. Readers can review the state’s planning documents to see where the CEC thinks additional energy will come from and why: Web Link I’d question why all the research that has gone into this analysis is dismissed so blithely. I am sure there are criticisms to be made, but what are they? If the author is not aware of the work that subject-matter experts have done, then what are we to make of his “reasonable guess” that the energy will need to come from gas?

Look, of course reducing our emissions quickly is not easy. It is enormously difficult. We are fortunate to have in California many capable people working hard to figure out the best approach. So I would encourage people to please do their homework, or at least refrain from stating opinion as fact. Doing otherwise may be cathartic for the speaker but imo it makes a hard problem even harder for the rest of us.

@wmconlon: Ugh, on the power content label, if you are interested the background is here: Web Link Check out Item 4.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 19, 2021 at 10:52 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

BTW, @wmconlon's comment about peaker plants is a near replica of the arguments that climate-deniers made when Duke Energy added solar. "Solar causes pollution!" screamed the headlines. Here is Duke Energy's restrained rebuttal: Web Link

The point is an obvious one: running a less efficient plant infrequently is better than running a more efficient plant nearly constantly.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District is a leader in reducing emissions, and in fact plans to retire all of its gas plants by 2030: Web Link

Posted by Eeyore (formerly StarSpring)
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 19, 2021 at 11:00 am

Eeyore (formerly StarSpring) is a registered user.

I’m glad we are getting a more detailed analysis. Thanks Bill. I don’t know about anyone else’s house, but double-paned windows, foam roof here and on very warm or cold days my furnace/AC does not stay off for hours at a time, and water in a tank only stays warm until you add cold water.

Also, are not meal times in the US cultural?

Posted by wmconlon
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2021 at 2:10 pm

wmconlon is a registered user.

@Sherry Listgarten Your swipe at me (climate change denial) is unwarranted, unfair and unappreciated and is just a rhetorical trick that fails to actually address the facts.

Re: SMUD. Please read their plan. (I have and submitted extensive public comments). Their gas plants, in particular the Cosumnes Power Plant at the former Rancho Seco nuclear power plant site, will be retained. SMUD intends to replace natural with renewable gas, although they have not identified sources for all of the RNG.

My analysis [Web Link shows that the California Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) has been of only marginal benefit in reducing emissions from the power sector.

Your link to the CPAU UAC discussion helps illuminate may main point -- the charade of CPA carbon neutrality.

Posted by M Grossman
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2021 at 2:34 pm

M Grossman is a registered user.

I agree w/ Sherry Listgarten's critiques. The world can and must end fossil fuel production and use. We clearly have the ability, and just as clearly not the will to do so! A lot of grid stress can be eased by our ever-increasing portfolio of rooftop solar, which pays for itself in 5-10 years benefits the residents from then on. Also, contrary to one of the comments, solar panels can be recycled - for instance,

Posted by M Grossman
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2021 at 3:11 pm

M Grossman is a registered user.

Also, in case you think climate change doesn't impact our area right now: Portola Valley residents are struggling to get homeowners insurance: Web Link

And this report just posted from McKinsey - How Cities Can Adapt to Climate Change. Web Link

Posted by Phyllis Leaf
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 20, 2021 at 11:08 am

Phyllis Leaf is a registered user.

The so-called environmentalist experts can spout their theories until kingdom come but the ultimate reality = too many people living on Earth.

The solution = reduce global population by any means necessary.

We have always had CO2 emissions. The problem...too many people generating CO2 emissions from transportation necessities, consumerism, and preferred lifestyles.

During the 1950s and 60s, there were fewer adverse environmental impacts because there were fewer people on Earth burning up resources and polluting.

Class over & school is out.

Of note, the classic Malthusian theory notes that disease is also a population check and so in some ways, the coronavirus is Mother Nature's way of controlling unnecessary population growth in check.

Given the large number of recalcitrant anti-vaxers and minimally vaccinated 3rd world inhabitants, perhaps things will settle down a bit based on global mortalities.

As my Buddhist priest says, "out of the mud grows the lotus."

So we need to endure the 'mud' until things gradually improve.

Fewer people on Earth = a better world for all.

Posted by KOhlson
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 22, 2021 at 1:39 pm

KOhlson is a registered user.

A wonderfully rational argument, though entirely without citations - one of the many aspects I like about Sherry's blog posts.
I was interested to see the Brown exchanger, though not sure how well it would work in my (well-insulated) house. The attic is not that big, and only modestly warmer than outdoors on cold days. Perhaps the couple thousand dollars it would take to purchase and install would be better directed toward solar panels. At least Panasonic and LG offer performance guarantees and warranties much longer than 10 years.

Posted by Dave
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Oct 9, 2021 at 9:12 am

Dave is a registered user.

Thank you M Grossman for bringing up rooftop solar. I am in the process of signing up for rooftop solar and hoped that it is not a waste. I was hoping that I would offset my usage with my own generated power, and it would be a wash, or even a net benefit to the grid. Should I instead give money to Nature Conservancy which has 100 partners working on climate change on a global scale and skip rooftop? And, of course, the biggest contribution individuals can make is to highly insulate our houses and reduce our water temp and buy energy efficient appliances.

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