The Environmental Quality Commission has delivered a climate action proposal to Menlo Park, and the next steps will be crucial for success. For the council to approve an ordinance requiring a switch from gas appliances to electric appliances, there needs to be a robust educational program that prepares residents. We have been Menlo Park residents for over 50 years, who live in a 103-year-old house that has a 100 amp service and even some knob and tube wiring. We have questions as to how we get started.
Does our home have the electrical capacity? This ordinance isn’t about the easy choice of paper or plastic shopping bags. The primary question is whether a home has sufficient electric power to service new electric appliances. If not, the first step is to hire a licensed electrician to get a permit and work with PG&E to upgrade the home’s electrical service. Not all residences in Menlo Park have sufficient electrical power capacity to run electric water heaters, electric space heaters, induction cooktops and ovens. Many older homes run on 100 amp, not the basic 200 amp needed.
Does a water heater need a dedicated circuit? Do water heaters, space heaters and induction cooktops and ovens need dedicated circuits? Won’t an electric car charger require its own circuit? Even a home with 200 amp service will need dedicated circuits to be wired to new high-demand electric appliances. Now, this is getting complicated!
Do we have the basic facts? It’s Thanksgiving night, the gas water heater dies. Can we simply buy and plug in a new electric water heater? Not so fast! Our old electric panel doesn’t have the capacity to power a new electric model. Making the required panel upgrades could take weeks. Homeowners should not buy an electric water heater before knowing if the home has the power and a dedicated service to run one.
City-sponsored tutorials are needed with experienced electricians and utility engineers to explain how to get started. A free home visit by an electrician provided by the city to evaluate the home’s current electrical power would help. It’s not as simple as purchasing and plugging in electric appliances -- it’s more complicated. There’s the option of including a heat pump, which calls for additional research and a thorough reading of the brilliant Almanac article by Sherry Listgarten.
Steps for success: To make the climate plan ordinance successful, the city might start with identifying the number of homes that first need panel upgrades. The city’s job is to educate, and to provide incentives for taking the first step of upgrading panels. Public tutorials, free home assessments of electrical capacity, and an easy-to-understand list of steps to follow are essential. BayREN rebates don’t include basic panel upgrades, so many residents will be left out.
Hold off on mandates: The decision by Menlo Park to mandate the replacement of gas appliances for electric appliances should wait until the groundwork is first laid. A ballot measure on the Environmental Quality Commission's plan would be a delay and a distraction. The council has the authority to increase the utility users tax to 3% for a program to assist low-income homeowners. The nexus between the utility users tax and the move to a carbon neutral city is made to order.
Menlo Park is on the right path, and the steps to take and their sequence are crucial for success.
Brielle Johnck is a former Environmental Quality Commission member and Steve Schmidt is a former mayor of Menlo Park. They reside in Menlo Park.