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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Grand pronouncements vs nuts and bolts

Uploaded: Nov 21, 2021
I was in a meeting recently where a staff member of a Bay Area city said they were looking to accelerate their carbon neutral goal from 2045 to 2030. It was all I could do not to roll my eyes. Until a city has a convincing and vetted plan to put a charger in every full-day parking space and a heat pump (or two) in every residence and business, these pronouncements are not worth the paper they are written on. How many chargers and heat pumps need to be installed to hit carbon neutral? How many is that per week? What is the plan to achieve that? Has the plan been rolled out enough to achieve 5% of that? 1%? Has any pilot been shown to be sufficiently effective?

I am frustrated because getting this done is not easy and I’d rather we focus on results than on grand pronouncements. Consider that the latest version of the California building code doesn’t even require a charger in each residential spot for new construction. To achieve big emissions reductions, we need to go beyond and address existing buildings, which are even more difficult. What is the plan to put a charger in every parking spot in multi-family buildings, in single-family homes (including those with remote owners), in hotels? What about all staff parking spots at schools, city buildings, and small and large businesses? I have no problem if this is mostly 120-volt chargers, but it’s got to be something, and soon if the target year is 2030. We can’t just hope that people will replace their gas cars with EVs if they have no convenient place to charge them. Hope is not a strategy.

Heat pump water heaters (HWPHs) have also got to roll out quickly to meet any kind of carbon neutral goal for 2030. But adoption in these early days can take some patience and persistence. More people are getting these, but I also hear from people who want one but are stymied because of the cost or difficulty or because they have concerns about noise. Wrote one reader recently: “I'm contemplating giving up, between the trial I've gone through of finally finding a half-decent priced installer, and now the fear of getting a noisy unit.” A contractor told me a few weeks ago that he is taking a break from installing Rheem HPWHs because the risk of one exceeding its decibel rating seems to have increased with the latest version.

One contractor who has done many HPWH installations detailed the challenges he faces to do these quickly at low cost in an email to BayREN. The points he made were:

1. Inventory. The products are not reliably in stock. If an installed gas-fired water heater starts leaking and the customer wants to replace it with a HPWH, he may need to pay a premium to the few warehouses that do have it or install a temporary resistance heater while he is waiting. That is extra labor and materials.

I can relate to this. I ordered an 80-gallon 15-amp model in August, and just maybe it will come in next week. This isn’t specific to HPWHs, of course -- supply-chain problems are rampant -- but it’s something we need to take into account and pre-order if possible, or be flexible enough to use one that is in stock. I ordered mine before I need it, so the delay is no problem, but it’s longer than I thought it would be.

2. Permit/Rebate process. The paperwork and processes for permits and rebates are extensive, unpredictable, and not standardized across jurisdictions. He has had to hire someone to do nothing but this.

One of my neighbors can relate. She had difficulty finding out which class of historic district we are in, a piece of information that was needed to fill out the permit for her HPWH. She said: “One arm of the City is really encouraging us to go electric, while the permitting arm is making the process quite laborious.”

My mom can also relate to this. She wrote to me: “My HPWH permit application has become more complicated for the installers. They need to fill out an updated application form and get a license for Foster City. Both the installer and the electrician have to get FC business licenses. Yes, they got an emergency permit to do the work. BUT now that it is a HPWH the rules are different. I suspect they are not happy. Now I am going to write the installer a note thanking him for completing the rebate application since I imagine they are fed up with this.”

3. Product quality. Product quality is not as reliable as it should be. The contractor says: “We have had to make return visits to a huge % of installs because the clients complain about noise. We have spent hours talking to sales reps. We now stock replacement fans and have had to send our plumbing team back on multiple occasions to replace the factory installed fan in an attempt to quiet the machine. The product we install is listed as the quietest available, yet some of them are louder than a running gas automobile.”

You can find relevant threads here and here, as well as in the comments on the Rheem product page. I have reached out to Rheem multiple times for comment but they have not responded. Fortunately, if you do order a Rheem and are unlucky enough to get a noisier one, you can use the time settings so it doesn’t run when the sound will bother you, at least until your contractor is able to fix or replace it.

4. Site variability. There is a wide variety of installations. The contractor said they typically need to visit a site to assess electrical requirements, placement, venting, and more just to provide an estimate. “Each installation is a new puzzle to be solved.”

This is what reality looks like -- it’s much messier than carbon-neutral-in-2030 fantasies. These earlier adoptions can require extra patience on the part of all involved, and we need to learn from them and improve. I suggest that cities with aggressive climate ambitions proactively step in to help mitigate these issues before announcing audacious goals and asking everyone to electrify. For example, a city or partner organization might:

1. Stockpile inexpensive chargers and heat pump water heaters (especially larger ones, so that fewer people make the mistake of installing one that’s too small). This will help with availability and cost, and provide contractors with a backstop in case of reliability issues. It may also give us some influence with the manufacturers.

2. Train and incentivize installers. Determine how many we need and plan the training accordingly. I would suggest that rebates go to installers rather than customers. To the extent rebates are difficult to attain, it’s better for the installer to have their own motivation to pursue them. My mom shouldn’t feel like she needs to write an apology letter for wanting a permit and rebate.

3. Build out neighborhood expertise, so neighbors can help each other to evaluate charger or heat pump placement, electrical needs, and more. This can save contractors time. Consider developing a form with photos that customers can fill out to help installers more easily evaluate difficulty. Perhaps we can standardize prices for certain types/levels of installations, as guided by the forms. SunWork, for example, has an inexpensive price for a specific type of simple HPWH installation.

4. Right-size the permitting process, especially for EV chargers and tank-for-tank water heater substitutions. Try to standardize processes across the peninsula.

5. Consider stockpiling and educating installers about circuit splitters, which can make it easier to install a new 240-volt appliance. A heat pump could share a circuit with a nearby clothes dryer, or an induction stove and an EV charger could share a circuit, as the loads tend to be complimentary.

6. Follow-up on early installations. Ensure they are successful by understanding the customer experience after one month and again after six months. Share feedback with installers and adjust processes to help. Understand if people are using their space heat pumps for heating or only for cooling. Develop incentives to encourage the former if needed.

If a city is serious about reducing emissions, then it cannot just delegate the enormous number of installations needed to a cottage industry of small contractors. Cities and the utilities and other organizations they partner with need to more proactively recruit, support, and incentivize our contractor partners for the effort that lies ahead.

Current Climate Data (October 2021)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

Stat of the week: EVs were 7.2 percent of global sales in the first half of 2021, up from 4.3 percent in 2020 and just 2.6 percent in 2019. (The US lags behind at just 3 percent, though that represents solid growth for our country.)

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Posted by KOhlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 21, 2021 at 2:30 pm

KOhlson is a registered user.

I agree completely with the points and overall premise of this. We are a prime household for everything you've been writing about: 10-yo water heater, 20-yo furnace, large south-facing roof. But other than PowerPoint bullets, I see nothing from CPA by way of encouragement. And in the case of residential solar, non- or anti-encouragement. With 20,000+ homes in Palo Alto, if 2030 is the goal you should be able to see 3-4 installations of some sort just by walking around the block. Every block. For the next 9 years.If 2030 is the goal, in my observation, the city is just paying lip service.
Thanks for highlighting this.

Posted by David+Coale, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 22, 2021 at 10:58 am

David+Coale is a registered user.

To KOhlson and everyone:

The City of Palo Alto does have programs for HPWH and solar and they were just in the last utility bill insert. Here are the links you should look at. For Electrification and efficiency see: Web Link For discounts on solar PV see their SunShares program. The deadline is Nov. 30th so don't delay: Web Link

A lot of people miss out on these because they don't see the utility bill inserts. The City does need to do a better job of outreach for sure. Instead of utility bill inserts which many don't see, they should do fliers or door hangers with the same info as well as Next Door postings. For the fliers or door hangers, perhaps this could be done by the meter readers to save time and money and still ensure every household gets the info at least once.


Posted by KOhlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 22, 2021 at 4:36 pm

KOhlson is a registered user.

Hi David,
I am familiar with SunShares, having attended the most recent webinar. I was somewhat disappointed by any lack of reference to NEM-3, which I understand is coming shortly in the new year. Details are undetermined, but the tone of the materials I've been able to find suggest that this won't be an improvement (for the consumer) than NEM-2.I am also scheduled for an energy audit as recommended within the webinar.
If SunShares is a cornerstone in CPA's efforts to electrifying the city, I am unimpressed. From the webinar, since 2016, 85 homes in PA have used this program to install solar in the last 5 years. Hardly a pace to get an electrified city by 2030.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Nov 22, 2021 at 7:17 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Okay, I have a funny story about SunShares. There were three vendors selected for this year. I inquired on two of their websites. One said that since I have a foam roof I'd have to hire a roofer separately. That's fair, but I didn't want to deal with that. (It seems smarter to just get Durafoam to do the whole thing.)

But the other reply is the funny one. Here it is, verbatim from my voicemail: "Hi Sherry, this is XXX calling with Solar Technologies. I believe you had reached out to us on our website requesting some more information. Unfortunately we do not currently work on solar projects in Palo Alto, especially homes with flat roofs automatically get disqualified for us. They have a very difficult jurisdiction when it comes to permitting and we’ve found that our projects there have taken much longer than expected. It really kind of drags out our lead time which is currently over six months for installation as it is, so one way we are working to manage our lead time is not working in the Palo Alto jurisdiction. We absolutely do not install storage there and so the only projects that we’re working on right now through the SunShares project are composition shingle roofs. Again, we do not install storage/batteries in Palo Alto. So if you have any questions, please give me a call."

So the low uptake is not that surprising, right? BTW, I'm generally very unenthusiastic about rooftop solar, so I don't harp on this. But we absolutely do need to replace gas heaters with heat pumps, and our local city efforts pale in comparison to our ambitions.

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