The nine founding members of Menlo Spark -- a small group with a big goal -- are setting out on a mission to guide Menlo Park to "climate neutrality." By when? By 2025.
Menlo Spark advisory board chair Chris DeCardy acknowledged that the goal sounds "unbelievably ambitious," but said it comes down to this: "Do we want to be catalytic, to be a leader in this? Or do we wait and have it done to us. If we wait, we're going to get unfunded mandates from the government."
He comes by his zeal for climate neutrality naturally, thanks to years spent as a professional hammering out environmental policy issues in Washington, D.C.
"Climate neutral" might sound like a buzzword. In this case, Menlo Spark has translated the phrase into concrete targets, with the assistance of Redstone Strategy Group:
■ Increase sources of clean energy, drawn from renewable resources such as solar power.
■ Improve energy efficiency for homes, businesses and infrastructure.
■ Make navigating the city by foot, bike and car easier and safer.
■ Support zero- and low-carbon vehicles.
■ Increase support for sustainable living.
The seeds of Menlo Spark took root in 2013. At the time, Mr. DeCardy and Mitch Slomiak were both serving on the city's Environmental Quality Commission.
The actual staff is tiny: It consists only of Executive Director Diane Bailey, who brings with her 14 years of experience on the Natural Resources Defense Council, working on clean air issues and other policy matters at a local, state and national level.
"There are so many opportunities; we aren't here to reinvent the wheel," she said. "Menlo Park can piece it together into one clean energy community." But first things first -- working hard to build credibility is a good starting point, according to the executive director.
Menlo Spark has no physical home beyond Ms. Bailey's briefcase and whatever community hotspot, such as Kepler's or Cafe Zoe, is hosting a gathering.
It has no political affiliation. Menlo Spark will pass on the free-for-all of city politics by declining to endorse candidates or ballot measures.
What Menlo Spark does have, besides a three-year grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (amount undisclosed) is a long list of ideas and the commitment to push forward into action.
The key may be simplicity. Mr. DeCardy suggested that it's not a lack of rebates or technology that makes reaching climate neutrality hard -- it's the information labyrinth people have to struggle through to learn about the options. The nonprofit wants to make it as easy as possible by serving as "a conduit and translator for the community," he said, and believes that once people realize how much money they can save, they'll have all the motivation needed to follow through on implementing their choices.
Kepler's Books and Magazines serves as a case study, according to Mr. Slomiak. A number of years ago, then-owner Clark Kepler learned that he could allow PG&E to change out about 300 "really old light fixtures" if he invested $5,000, with the utility company contributing the rest -- about $15,000. Once the fixtures were changed, the store saved at least $1,000 a month, Mr. Slomiak said.
"I've never seen a return on an investment like that," he said, with some perspective from his career as a chief financial officer. "The business community of Menlo Park is leaving millions of dollars on the table."
Menlo Park has never been a city short on ideas. Rather, sometimes it's a city with too many ideas that gets bogged down in endless studies of each and every one (Exhibit A - Parking garages: "Menlo Park prepares to take on downtown parking garage issue" -- Almanac headline from 2015; "Four-level parking garage downtown?" -- 2005; "Parking garages near top of city priority list" -- 2004; "Menlo Park takes new look at parking garages" -- 2003; and countless discussions during the five-year creation of the specific plan. It still has no parking garages.)
The new nonprofit believes it can speed up the process of informed change by doing the research and presenting the data to guide decision-makers, whether that be a resident, a business owner or the City Council.
Mayor Catherine Carlton loved the sound of that. "It's great for Menlo Park, and not only for Menlo Park, but if we get this right, we are going to be a model not only for other cities in California but cities across the country on how to efficiently work together to make a difference."
She recalled looking at different solar panels for her home, with myriad options for what to buy and how to finance it. She suggested that it would have been nice to have someone other than a salesperson to talk to about the choices.
At a launch event for Menlo Spark held at Kepler's on May 13, everyone from bike experts to composting experts to technology geeks joined in brainstorming what they want to see happen, according to the mayor, and she expects that the nonprofit will tap that ecosystem.
"You can volunteer with Menlo Spark. Everybody has their little area of expertise. When we talk about greenhouse gases, that's everything from composting all the way to working with developers on better lighting, to learning what to plant in a drought-tolerant garden," she said. "It's such a wide variety that everybody can bring something to the table and take something away from the table."
Go to menlospark.org to learn more about the new group.
■ Diane Bailey, Executive Director
■Chris DeCardy, Chair
■ Mitch Slomiak, Vice Chair
■ Susan Bell, Financial Advisor
■ David D. Bohannon II
■ Michael Closson
■ Katie Ferrick:
■ Brent Harris: Principal, Redstone Strategy Group
■ Matt James