What’s special about Palo Alto?

This is a unique opportunity. The City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) is owned by the City of Palo Alto, which means that ultimately Palo Alto residents get to call the shots! Most utility customers don’t have this option, since they’re customers of large private utility companies like PG&E.
City of Palo Alto Utilities Website

What’s happening in other cities?

The City of Seattle has announced its intentions to become the first carbon neutral city.
How Does Seattle Plan to Become North America’s First Climate Neutral City?

In San Francisco, the mayor recently made news by announcing his intention to do the same. San Francisco mayor calls for city to go 100% renewable by 2020.

It’s time for Palo Alto to step up to the plate – but we can do it by 2015!

Why electricity?

About 19% of Palo Alto’s carbon footprint is due to emissions from electricity generation. Compared to the realistic alternatives, changing to carbon-free electricity has the greatest potential for large reductions at the least cost. It also can be implemented quickly compared to the other options.

Additionally, a carbon-free electricity infrastructure lays the foundation for a switch from natural gas to electricity to heat water and buildings, thus opening up the possibility of further reductions to Palo Alto’s carbon footprint.

Note: The 19% figure is from page 20 of the Palo Alto Climate Protection Plan –around 135,027 metric tons of CO2 per year in 2007

Won’t it cost a lot more?

Short answer – no. The electricity supply of the City of Palo Alto is already about 70% carbon-free. Plus, the City has already committed to a policy that will increase the carbon-free portion to about 80% (by satisfying the California RPS requirement). Removing the remaining 20% of carbon is likely to cost around 0.2 to 0.4 cents per kWh. For the average household, this is about $2 to $4/month more.

For reference the average revenue for Palo Alto is about 11.5 cents per kWh. This slight additional cost means that Palo Alto customers will pay perhaps 12 cents per kWh – substantially less than the 15.7 cents per kWh (on average) that PG&E customers pay for a mostly carbon-based (brown) power supply.

Note: Palo Alto’s commitment to implementing a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) of 33% by 2015 at 0.5 cents is discussed on page 12 of the City of Palo Alto’s Long-Term Electric Acquisition Plan Objectives & Guidelines 2011. The estimate of 0.2-0.3 cents additional is extrapolated from current renewable energy costs. The average revenue for Palo Alto and PG&E is from Electric Utility Rate Comparison.

How would this impact commercial users of electricity?

This will have a minor financial impact upon businesses that do nothing. However, most businesses can reduce their electricity usage through efficiency improvements and conservation measures. Thus, if enough steps are taken, a business could very possibly reduce their net electricity costs even though they’re paying a slightly higher rate. Higher rates tend to spur efficiency and conservation measures.

How does this relate to electric cars?

More than half of Palo Alto’s carbon footprint is due to transportation. If Palo Alto replaces gasoline and diesel powered vehicles with electric powered vehicles charged using carbon free electricity, Palo Altans will be able to make a huge reduction in their transportation carbon footprint. An extensive, state-of-the-art recharging network in Palo Alto would make it easy to use clean electric-powered vehicles and could prove to be a model for other communities. Additionally, wind power is a great fit for charging cars, since wind tends to blow more at night – just when everyone will be recharging their car batteries.

See The 21st Century Electric Utility.

Does this make sense in the long term?

Yes. Continued reliance on brown energy is likely to become increasingly expensive as this power supply is expected to experience larger price volatility compared to green energy.

Note: Future brown energy prices are likely to be impacted by several factors, including tightening fuel supplies, increased demand, political instability, carbon taxes, and increased calls for climate mitigation. Also see The 21st Century Electric Utility.

Will becoming carbon free make Palo Alto an environmental leader?

Absolutely. Palo Alto’s adoption of carbon free electricity will make it an environmental leader in the effort to curb climate change. Palo Alto’s action will be noticed by other city-run utilities across the US as well as consumers who would like to see their own utilities become more aggressively green.

What if I’m not a Palo Alto resident?

Non-Palo Alto residents should not hesitate to lend their support as well, since the impact of Palo Alto moving to carbon-free electricity will influence customers of other publicly owned utilities.

How would carbon free electricity be implemented?

The City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) would determine the specific implementation – subject to City Council approval. Fortunately, CPAU is already pursuing the same activities that will be necessary for a carbon neutral electric supply. CPAU will need to continue to run demand reduction programs, find ways to supply power during low hydro generation periods (when runoff from the Sierra slackens and generates less electricity), and use more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. It should also pursue the deployment of local distributed power, which will likely occur through the new Palo Alto Clean program. See the Appendix of Decarbonizing the Palo Alto Electricity Supply – A Citizen’s Policy Brief (.pdf) for more information.

How does this relate to the Palo Alto Clean program?

The Palo Alto Clean program is an innovative feed-in-tariff program established by the Palo Alto Utilities that encourages the installation of larger (>100kW) solar PV projects. The goal is to achieve 4MW of new generation capacity in the first year of the program. See Palo Alto Clean for more details. Palo Alto Clean will certainly be helpful in achieving carbon neutrality.

What would this mean for the PaloAltoGreen program?

Under a carbon neutral regime, the PaloAltoGreen program would no longer be needed since all Palo Alto residents and businesses would automatically receive 100% carbon-free electricity. Rather than losing the revenue generated through the program, CFPA recommends that City of Palo Alto Utilities repurpose the program with different goals.

One possibility would be to offer a natural gas offset program that would allow customers to offset the GHG emissions from their natural gas usage. The challenge with this approach would be in identifying offset projects that result in real and certifiable reductions.

Another possibility would be to transition the program into a Community Solar program – which would allow individuals to become investors in a community solar project and share the clean energy generated from it. Colorado recently started a community solar program that sold out in 30 minutes. In California, bill SB 843 (pending as of Nov 2012), would allow the same.

What is the split between residential and commercial usage of electricity in Palo Alto?

Residential usage is 15% of the total power consumed in Palo Alto and commercial usage is 85%.

What is the difference between carbon-free electricity and renewable energy?

Carbon-free electricity (also known as carbon-neutral) is electricity generated without emitting carbon derived from fossil fuels. Sources of carbon-free electricity include wind power, solar power, hydro-electric dams, landfill gas, biofuels and nuclear power. Renewable energy is generated from sources that can be renewed indefinitely. Renewable energy sources include solar power, wind power, wave power and biofuels.

What is the current breakdown of Palo Alto renewable energy sources?

This Palo Alto Utility web-page explains the current situation and future plans:
Sustainable Electric Resources.

How can I learn even more?

Be sure to visit our resources page to learn more about the specifics of Palo Alto as well as the latest in climate science and policy.

Count me in as a supporter of carbon-free electricity for Palo Alto. Want to do more? Be sure to indicate your interest on the sign up form, and we’ll be in touch.

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