Spreading the Menlo Spark

New nonprofit wants to make Menlo Park the first climate-neutral city in the US

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 to learn more about the new group.

Menlo Spark

■ 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

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4 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on May 26, 2015 at 1:06 pm

I hope the group will be advocating for bringing a nuclear power plant to Menlo Park, because that's what it will take to make a meaningful difference.

2 people like this
Posted by Enough Already
a resident of another community
on May 26, 2015 at 1:46 pm

Actually, Joe, they should build a nuclear power plant on your property.

If you want nuclear power in the area, then YOU should bear the responsibility for it.

3 people like this
Posted by Hillary Lewinski
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 26, 2015 at 2:35 pm

[This post and a subsequent comment pertaining to it have been removed; state your opinion, but keep the discussion constructive.]

3 people like this
Posted by Glen
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on May 26, 2015 at 3:23 pm

This is all about control! Does Ms Carlson not think for a minute that this group would not recommend any company that contributed to their group either financially or otherwise that they would not recommend that company. Menlo Park hired a radical environmentalist to manage the city now he and his friends seek to circumvent the people of the city.

2 people like this
Posted by Benjamin
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on May 26, 2015 at 3:26 pm

I'm sure these people mean well.

3 people like this
Posted by Erika
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on May 26, 2015 at 3:33 pm

I think the following comment from Nicholas Nassim Taleb (author of "The Black Swan" and "Fooled by Randomness") is applicable here:

"The worst damage has been caused by competent people trying to do good; the best improvements have been brought by incompetent ones not trying to do good."

4 people like this
Posted by nukes downtown
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 26, 2015 at 5:41 pm

"bringing a nuclear power plant to Menlo Park"

Run by whom?

PG&E? You gotta be kidding, right? The "can't run a gas pipeline without explosions" peeps, running a nuke on Middlefield!

Completely against the free market, and can never be profitable. A nuke in MP could never be insured in the free market.

Nuclear is far too expensive.

A dollar towards a solar panel pays for itself faster than a dollar put into nukes. Add wind, steam, hydro, and gas, and we're good.

Build clean, green infrastructure and it will pay for itself, without radioactive waste dumps.

2 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of another community
on May 27, 2015 at 9:04 am

I think they are onto something by working at educating the public without having financial coercion to create a profit generating message. The good choices will become clear. Thank you for your efforts Mr. DeCardy and Mitch Slomiak and Diane Bailey.

Like this comment
Posted by curious
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 27, 2015 at 1:27 pm

How do they expect to literally reduce the greenhouse gas levels in our town when Menlo Park officials keep approving major projects that have Environmental Impact Reports that conclude there will be worse environmental impacts? Nearly 2 million square feet of offices are in the approved pipeline.

2 people like this
Posted by Mike Keenly
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 27, 2015 at 8:27 pm

This organization feels very corporate, top-down, and astroturfy.

I'm not clear that they're doing anything other local non-profit organizations aren't doing already.

2 people like this
Posted by Jan
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 16, 2015 at 9:04 pm

I think the idea is to create a proof of concept that other cities can learn from. This is an outstanding, leading-edge, worthy endeavor. If any city can achieve this, it's Menlo Park (well, ok, or maybe Palo Alto). This nonprofit is legit, with a noble purpose. Read the report! Then get on board and let's make this happen.

2 people like this
Posted by Congrats
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 21, 2015 at 7:59 pm

Way to go. Don't let the naysayers slow this group down. It's exciting to see such a cutting edge approach in our community.

4 people like this
Posted by Go ask Alice
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jun 22, 2015 at 10:31 pm

Yes let's all change the world from our safe comfortable vantage point here in menlo park Not too much arrogance or hypocrisy on display. Good for you Jan in Sharon heights! You go girl! Why of course we in Menlo Park have the solutions that other less enlightened cities in the world can learn from. Except of course Palo Alto. Let's all be carbon neutral!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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