Two weeks ago, members of the Palo Alto Student Climate Coalition and 350 Silicon Valley spoke to Palo Alto’s City Council about the harms being wrought by climate change, and a few asks that they have, primarily related to building emissions. (1) Some said they would like to see the city training and attracting more skilled tradespeople to help with electrification. Others said they would like to see more promotion of the Heat Pump Water Heater program. Several said they would like to see more investment (e.g., staffing) in the Sustainability focus area. And a number asked the city to declare a climate emergency and set a date by which it will discontinue gas service.
Since then, I’ve heard some grumblings about these asks, in particular about the suggestion that we announce a date for phasing out the use of gas. The petitioners say that will allow us to plan better, and yet it is hard for many city residents to contemplate that gas will one day not be available. I’ve heard: “I just got a new stove, they can’t take that away from me.” and “My house is a tear-down. It makes no sense to electrify it.” and “Who is going to pay for me to get all new heating?” and the more generic “Worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
I’m sympathetic with all of this. With the speakers, I agree that climate change poses a serious threat and that we aren’t doing enough to reduce our emissions quickly enough. I do believe that we will stop having residential gas service at some point in my lifetime, and that that is ultimately a good thing. Steps like declaring a climate emergency or setting a date for gas shut-off could give us more tools to accelerate the transition away from gas. So I applaud the speakers’ devoting time and energy to speak up. That said, I also agree with the grumblers. Home retrofits can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly. It’s hard enough to voluntarily decide to do one, let alone be forced into one at your expense. Some households don’t want to spend this money, and others don’t even have the money to spend.
So how is this inevitable (in my mind) change from gas to efficient electric heat going to happen? The progress of Palo Alto’s Heat Pump Water Heater program will be illuminating in this respect, since it aims to take all of the pain away from the transition. “Rebates, permits, contractors -- one call does it all.” The program makes the process of electrifying a gas tank water heater as easy as possible and cost neutral for many installations. If we see good uptake with this program as it starts operating at scale, can we translate that to electrifying HVAC equipment? And if we do not see good uptake, what do we learn from that?
While some of the grumblers are not keen to take any action -- perhaps climate change seems too vague or distant a threat, or Palo Alto too small to make a difference, or China’s progress too slow, or … -- I think that many of you do care but dread the idea of a forced, expensive, disruptive major home project, or alternatively of a rent hike or even lost rental to accommodate the work.
So I’m curious what other ideas you might have for reducing our residential emissions. Policy is difficult to get right (e.g., fair, equitable, funded, appropriate for homeowners, renters, landlords, etc). But if you put on your “common sense” hat, what comes to mind?
The one that I always gravitate to is to ramp up gas prices over time. That would encourage more people to switch, or even just to use their existing heat pump air conditioners for heating in the winter. The EPA proposed a few months ago that the “social cost of carbon,” which estimates the cost of the damage that burning fossil fuels is doing, should be $190/ton. That works out to about $1/therm, a 50% or so increase in the gas bill. That is a substantial amount, but if we phase it in gradually and apply the proceeds to help lower-income households convert to electric heat, it might be doable.
I understand that there are many constraints on how we price our utilities, so it is likely that doing something like this would require the city to declare a “climate emergency”. Several groups are asking President Biden to do the same, given the 15+ $1B or more weather related disasters that have occurred so far this year.
Alternatively, maybe we could raise funds in a more progressive manner, for example via property tax or similar, and then disburse them with a generous electrification program, similar to the HPWH program. What if it were opt-in? Or tax deductible?
What if we found a less monetary way to strongly encourage tradespeople to install electric rather than gas appliances? Maybe permits could be free and expedited? Or the city could partner with a supplier to offer significantly discounted appliances available in a central location?
Or even more alternatively, what if we were to say that the case for building electrification is difficult in Palo Alto, with its temperate climate (we don’t really need air conditioning or use much heat) and sky high building costs. So what if instead we were to fund the electrification of homes in another place in California where the conversion was (a) more desirable and (b) less expensive? That is off-shoring our problem in a sense, but it could buy us some time in a way that satisfies more people.
I don’t know much about writing policy, and I expect these are technically bad ideas, but I’d like to hear what kinds of “common sense” (in your mind) approaches could best help us to wean our way off of residential gas service.
Notes and References
0. Sorry this blog post is late. I was up late (early?) watching the World Cup final. Are you not blown away by the positioning and passing skill of the Spanish team?!
1. I’m not sure why the speakers were focused on building electrification. Many of our emissions come from transportation (both road and air), from food (both food waste generally and beef and dairy more specifically), and from general consumption (vs reduce/reuse/repair). But for this post I will also stay focused on building emissions.
Current Climate Data
Global impacts (July 2023), US impacts (July 2023), CO2 metric, Climate dashboard
Earth had its warmest July on record in 2023, and its fourth consecutive month of record-high global ocean surface temperatures.
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