By Kate Bradshaw
In a bid to be even more green than California at large, the Menlo Park City Council voted on July 16 to forge ahead with plans to require new buildings to be electrically heated and require some solar production on new nonresidential buildings, not including restaurants open to the public.
Starting with the next three-year state building code cycle in 2020, new large-scale nonresidential buildings would also be required to use only electricity, not natural gas, for cooking.
During a series of discussions, the Environmental Quality Commission explored different options before making its recommendation to require new buildings to be electrically heated, though occupants would still be permitted to use natural gas for fireplaces, cooking or other uses.
It also recommended that the city require a minimum amount of solar panels to be placed on new nonresidential buildings: at least 3-kilowatt systems for a building under 10,000 square feet, and at least 5-kilowatt systems for a building greater than or equal to 10,000 square feet, according to Joanna Chen, sustainability specialist for the city. The commission recommended that the council not ban natural gas for cooking, however, because of traditional cooking norms.
"Culturally, it doesn't seem that cooks are ready to make the transition," explained Rebecca Lucky, Menlo Park sustainability manager. "There seems to be a strong consumer preference to cook with fire."
Enivronmental Quality Commission Chair Ryann Price, speaking for the commission, added, "We felt like this found a nice balance between community acceptance and greenhouse gas reduction."
Others said the city should go farther, and in fact, across the Bay, the city of Berkeley on the same night became the first city in the U.S. to ban the installation of natural gas lines in new homes, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
"This city is in a big building boom," said Joanna Falla, a Palo Alto resident and member of Menlo Spark, an environmental advocacy nonprofit in Menlo Park. "And if these edifices continue to rely on natural gas, an estimated 212,876 tons of greenhouse gas emissions would result over the life of these buildings."
Mayor Ray Mueller said he'd like to see large nonresidential buildings with private kitchens — specifically, tech company cafeterias — required to use electric stoves. Other council members agreed: the council voted 5-0 to incorporate Mueller's suggestion into the group of recommendations it reviewed that night.
In additon, the council agreed to the commission's recommendations to require a minimum amount of solar power on nonresidential buildings. Beginning in 2020, the state will require low-rise residential developments — those of three or fewer stories, including single-family homes — to install rooftop solar panels, based on state requirements.
Adopting these more environmentally sustainable measures, called "reach" codes because they go beyond the state's standards, would support the city in the plans laid out in its "Climate Action Plan" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions citywide, said Lucky.
Peninsula Clean Energy, the joint powers authority that operates a community choice energy program to provide cleaner power throughout the county than PG&E provides, is also providing technical support and a $10,000 grant to the city to support it in its efforts to develop reach codes.
Combined with the commitment of Peninsula Clean Energy to make the electricity it provides customers 100% renewable by 2025, switching away from using natural gas to electricity could translate into a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emisisons.
Given the level of development going on in Menlo Park, these measures could affect a number of developments proposed to be built across the city. According to Lucky, there were about 100 new homes built during the last state code cycle, and there are about 20 proposals for new multifamily, office, retail and hotel buildings that have been submitted or are awaiting permit approvals.
If those buildings use natural gas, they could generate about 213,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the life of those buildings, and could increase community greenhouse gas emissions by 1% to 2% annually.
The council was open to considering one exception: John Tarlton, developer and property manager at Tarlton Properties, which houses many of the life sciences lab and office properties on the city's Bay side, asked to talk to city staff to come up with electricity alternatives for life sciences buildings.
"We have a concern in the proposed legislation that there is not currently technology available to us to heat life science labs and production facilities reliably with electricity," Tarlton said, noting "unique airflow needs" in life science labs. He said he would be open to adopting that technology as it becomes available. The city directed staff to meet with Tarlton for further discussion before the ordinance comes back in August.
After August, the ordinance would be up for a second reading in September. The proposed reach codes would then go to the California Energy Commission in October before adoption, then the state Building Standards Commission for approval by Jan. 1, according to staff.
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