Palo Alto took its most dramatic action of the year on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions Monday night, when the City Council agreed to institute an "all-electric" requirement for new buildings starting in 2020.
By a unanimous vote, the council joined a growing wave of Bay Area cities that are banning natural gas in new developments and requiring all-electric designs. But while the objective is the same -- reducing emissions -- different cities have taken different paths toward electrification.
Berkeley led the way in July with an ordinance banning natural-gas infrastructure in new buildings (with exceptions for cases where natural gas is shown to serve the public interest). Menlo Park followed in September with an ordinance requiring non-residential and high-rise residential buildings to go all-electric, with exceptions for life-science buildings, emergency-operations centers and non-residential kitchens.
Menlo Park also now requires smaller residential buildings (three stories or less) to be electrically heated or all-electric. These buildings are, however, allowed to continue using gas for stoves, fireplaces and other appliances, provided they also include pre-wiring for electric appliances.
Mountain View passed a similar ban on natural gas in new homes on Oct. 22, though the council there opted not to include an exemption for stoves.
The Palo Alto ordinance for new homes, much like the one in Mountain View, would kick in next year and would not include exemptions. The question of whether larger developments, including commercial developments and apartment complexes will see some exemptions will remain open until next year, when the council considers an ordinance governing these structures.
Small residential developments (those less than three stories) would be subject to the requirement starting in April. Staff would then craft all-electric requirements for other types of developments, including large commercial buildings and hotels, by the end of 2020.
In adopting these measures, council members agreed to go well beyond the scheme proposed by city staff, which would have given builders an option of either going all-electric or choosing a "mixed-fuel" design that allows natural gas but requires the builder to significantly exceed the state’s energy-efficiency goals. Even though staff assured the council that those who choose the "mixed-fuel" route would need to adopt very high standards for energy efficiency, the council ultimately decided that the best way forward is simply to ban natural gas.
The stringent new requirements, which are part of Palo Alto’s revised "energy reach code," aim to bring Palo Alto closer to its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline year. The city's Sustainability/Climate Action Plan (S/CAP), a document that the council adopted in 2016 to guide its emission-reduction strategies, banks on electrification to achieve 38% of that reduction (22% from electrification in existing businesses; and 16% from electrification in existing homes).
"Electrification has been one of the key leverage points that we’ve been seeking to use in pursuing the S/CAP," Deputy City Manager Michelle Poche Flaherty told the council Monday.
The new mandates would not apply to existing homes and businesses. Rather, they target only newly constructed buildings. As such, the rules for all-electric new buildings are expected to reduce the city’s emissions by about 5%, according to city staff.
In proposing the "mixed-fuel" option and deferring a total ban on all-electric construction until 2022, city staff sought placate residents who may prefer gas-powered ranges and fireplaces to electric ones. A report from the Planning and Development Services framed the staff approach as one that balances the need to reduce emissions with "homeowner desires for gas ranges and fireplaces, which are common features in new home construction and, compared to other appliances, produce less greenhouse gas emissions."
But for most speakers at the hearing, the imperative of addressing climate change clearly outweighed the need to give builders flexibility. Many argued that all-electric equipment is already prevalent and cost-effective. By requiring it, the city will help shape the market and make electric appliances more popular and affordable. They pointed to existing examples, from laboratories at Stanford University to local homes where eco-conscious residents voluntarily eschew natural gas.
David Coale, a local environmentalist, said the technology for all-electric buildings already exists and the city should not delay in requiring builders to adopt it. Bruce Hodge, member of the group Carbon Free Palo Alto, similarly asked the council not to take "tepid steps" like the phased approach recommended by staff.
"This should be a no-brainer," Hodge said. "Let’s follow Berkeley’s lead on this and adopt an all-electric ordinance on new construction."
Former Mayor Pat Burt pointed to increasingly dire projections about climate change, a problem that now appears even more urgent than it did in 2016, when the council adopted its Sustainability/Climate Action Plan. Half-measures, he said, "will simply not do the job."
"When we look back in 20 years, we will not want to look at our kids or grandkids and tell them that we knew the severity of the problem but we chose not to do what we could while we still had time," Burt said.
The council agreed and opted to institute the ordinance for all-electric construction sooner rather than later.
In advancing the ban, city staff cited a statewide study that was conducted earlier this year with participation from PG&E and Southern California Edison. The study, completed this summer, concluded that in Palo Alto, contructing all-electric single family and low-rise multifamily buildings are already cost effective. So are medium office buildings (those that are three-stories and 54,000 square feet) and medium retail buildings (one-story and 25,000 square feet). By contrast, larger commercial developments, including hotels, would not be cost effective if built under the all-electric mode, according to the study.
Given the results, the council chose to begin with small residential developments in April and to give staff until the end of 2020 to develop rules for larger projects, including commercial ones.
"I think this is absolutely the right thing to do," said Vice Chair Adrian Fine, who made the motion to proceed on a faster timeline than staff had proposed.
Councilwoman Alison Cormack acknowledged that some people prefer gas appliances but argued that the city has reached a point where there are many perfectly fine alternatives.
"Preferences shouldn’t preclude us from making the right decisions," Cormack said.
Several council members alluded to the devastating wildfires that have rocked California in recent years, some of which were caused by PG&E’s electric equipment. Councilman Tom DuBois said the city needs to do more to promote resilience by encouraging microgrids, enhancing energy-storage capabilities and promoting local generation.
But for Councilman Greg Tanaka and the rest of the council, the fires and the increasingly hot weather also served as a reminder for why efforts like electrification, with its lower impact on emissions, are critical. Tanaka noted that the past summer has been one of the hottest on record.
"I think it’s good to be aggressive and good to take steps in this direction," Tanaka said.