A push in Menlo Park to transition gas appliances to electric-powered ones citywide will be delayed after Menlo Park council members agreed Tuesday to do additional outreach before considering a mandate.
On Aug. 31, council members discussed a policy recommended 6-0 by the city's Environmental Quality Commission to permit building owners to install only electricity-powered water and space heating appliances going forward, ending its allowance of new gas-powered water and space heating appliances within the city.
The recommendations emerged from the ambitious goal the Menlo Park City Council set last year to become a carbon neutral city by 2030. About 41% of the city's greenhouse gas emissions came from buildings in 2019, according to Sustainability Manager Rebecca Lucky.
As a result, Menlo Park's objective to achieve carbon neutrality has been followed up with another ambitious goal: to convert 95% of the existing buildings citywide to being powered only by electricity by 2030.
Because the city of Menlo Park is part of Peninsula Clean Energy, a joint powers authority that provides 100% carbon-free electricity to residents, transitioning home appliances from running on gas to electric power is a big step toward curbing household carbon emissions.
By contrast, consuming natural gas emits about 12 pounds of carbon or greenhouse gas emissions per therm, a unit used to measure natural gas use. The average household served by PG&E was expected to use about 13 therms of natural gas in the month of August and up to 70 therms in December, according to its most recent residential rate forecast.
Out of a series of six next steps to realize the building electrification recommended by the Environmental Quality Commission, all but one received a majority of support to keep moving forward Tuesday, despite some misgivings by two council members.
The recommendations are to: Increase the city's Utility Users' Tax rate to the level that voters have approved to fund building electrification for low-income residents; find partners to fund and finance building electrification; create programs to streamline the building electrification process for building owners; start outlining an ordinance to ban installing gas-powered water and space heaters; start community outreach; and develop a long-term plan to achieve the city's building electrification goal.
Unlike space and water heaters, other commonly gas-powered appliances like stoves and clothes dryers don't require permits to install, so the proposed ordinance wouldn't affect them.
The only one of the commission's six recommendations that didn't gain at least three votes to move forward in a straw poll held among the council members was to start outlining an ordinance to ban installing gas-powered water and space heaters.
Both Mayor Drew Combs and Ray Mueller raised concerns with the process that led to the recommendations and about raising taxes and imposing a mandate without more community input.
"I think that there are fundamentals missing from what's being proposed here," Combs said. He argued that the policy proposals should come more directly from city staff rather than an advisory commission and that the proposals showed "a lack of real understanding of what the impact on residents would be." He added that he favored voluntary programs to encourage people to convert from gas- to electricity-powered appliances instead.
Mueller said he favored hiring a company to conduct polling in Menlo Park to gauge its popularity, but other council members didn't support the idea. He also suggested having an advisory vote go before the community to see if gets majority support before raising the city's Utility Users' Tax.
The proposal would take the new revenue from the tax increase and put it toward creating a new program to help very low-income households in the community – defined as those who receive utility assistance through PG&E – to convert their space and water heating systems to electric. Menlo Park voters have already approved a tax rate for utility users higher than what the city currently charges, so the City Council could authorize that rate hike without going before voters again.
Other Environmental Quality Commission recommendations that tentatively had unanimous support on the City Council were to identify partners to fund and finance programs to help people decarbonize their homes and to develop programs to reduce what Environmental Quality Commissioner Josie Gaillard called the "hassle factor" for building owners the obstacles a homeowner or contractor might face in quickly getting electric appliances permitted, installed and working.
Such programs could include efforts to educate contractors and homeowners about electric appliances, simplify the permit process for electrification projects, or provide concierge services to help individuals navigate the electrification process.
Gaillard described the Environmental Quality Commission's recommendations as a "middle of the road" approach, considering that Menlo Park is not currently on track to meet its adopted climate goals and the most recent Aug. 9 scientific report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres called "a code red for humanity."
Creating a voluntary program to encourage people to convert their gas appliances to electric ones has in other communities only resulted in about 1% of households making that change, Gaillard added.
Acting to only provide permits for electricity-powered water and space heaters would result in a gradual community shift away from natural gas without artificially shortening the natural life span of those gas-powered appliances while they still work, she said.
Of 169 written comments the City Council had received, City Clerk Judi Herren reported that 110 expressed favor for at least some part of the recommendations proposed by the Environmental Quality Commission.
James Tuleya, chairman of Carbon Free Silicon Valley, an environmental advocacy organization working in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, called the proposal a "smart path to upgrade Menlo Park's buildings" to make them "safer, more resilient and more cost-effective."
Complete Streets Commission member Adina Levin, speaking on her own behalf, argued that climate change has immediate impacts and pushed for city leadership on the issue – South Lake Tahoe was being evacuated that night due to the encroaching Caldor Fire, and Seattle saw temperatures over 100 degrees earlier this summer. The council's policymaking efforts last year to pass building codes requiring new buildings to be all-electric had an impact beyond city limits, setting an example for other cities and have since been supported by state action.
While a number of community members and environmental advocates supported the recommendations, others expressed deep opposition to the proposed ordinance. James Pistorino threatened litigation against the city should it move forward with the ordinance.
Some raised concerns about how the mandate could trigger additional costs for homeowners, especially of older homes, who would need to upgrade their electricity panels to be able to support the expanded power demands of electricity-powered space and water heaters, a step that can cost thousands of dollars, they said. Martin Rosenblum asked why commercial, industrial and institutional buildings weren't also being considered for the mandate.
Others raised concerns about how relying wholly on electricity could leave the community without power if PG&E continues to enact power shutoffs, as it has throughout wide swaths of California in recent years during hot, dry months as a preventive measure against its equipment sparking wildfires.
There were also concerns raised that the ordinance would put more pressure on the electricity grid than it could handle. That concern was allayed in an email from Peninsula Clean Energy CEO Jan Pepper.
She explained that switching all of the county's residential power used for water and space heating, as well as cooking needs, from gas to electricity would increase demand on the county's overall electric load by about 15%. Peninsula Clean Energy currently uses only about 1.4% of all of the electricity generated in the state, so a 15% increase in that 1.4% is something the state's electricity system can handle. "(T)his amount of increase is definitely not going to stress the electric grid," she wrote.
Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]