It started with an idea: in 2020, Los Altos Hills resident Anand Ranganathan proposed a simple way to reduce his town’s greenhouse gas emissions. Flash forward to 2022, when the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved an agreement June 28 allowing the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District to switch from using traditional to renewable diesel.
As a member of the Los Altos Hills Environmental Initiatives Committee, each year Ranganathan and his fellow committee members produce a greenhouse gas inventory, a list of all the sources of the emissions in Los Altos Hills. In 2020, the group was also working to develop a Climate Action Plan for the town when they found that more than a quarter of the town’s municipal emissions were coming from the diesel used by Los Altos Hills County Fire District equipment.
“One of the things I noticed is our trash collection had substantially reduced their footprint just by switching all of their trucks from regular diesel to renewable diesel,” Ranganathan told the Voice. “So we said, we should ask the fire department to switch to renewable diesel. That seems easy enough in theory, but in practice, it was unclear whether fire departments could switch right now, what kind of impact it could have on their equipment and all that. So I said I would take that on.”
Ranganathan began to research what it would take to make the switch. He learned that renewable diesel fuel is totally different from biodiesel, which is known to damage engines designed to take traditional diesel.
“Renewable diesel is chemically identical to diesel, except that it comes from organic sources, so it’s a closed loop,” Ranganathan said. “It’s still releasing carbon dioxide, but that carbon dioxide is reused to grow more organic material that can again be reused to make more diesel. So at least in that way, it’s carbon neutral.”
Through his research, Ranganathan also found that other major fire departments have switched to renewable diesel. Fire equipment can also switch back and forth between traditional and renewable diesel seamlessly, so if there was ever a shortage in renewable diesel, it wouldn’t cause an issue.
“It’s not like a one-way street where we switch all our equipment and now we’re stuck with this,” Ranganathan said. “So I talked to the Los Altos Hills County Fire Department and said, ‘Why aren’t you guys doing this?’ And they said, ‘We get all our equipment from the county, so you need to go talk to the county about that.’ That seemed like a much bigger deal than just talking to the local fire guys.”
Ranganathan realized he would need some support to get it done, so he wrote to Supervisor Joe Simitian, who represents Los Altos Hills. Simitian’s office helped connect Ranganathan with the right person in the county fire department.
“I went through a few back-and-forths with them,” Ranganathan said. “I pointed out how San Francisco’s (fire department) is using it, so they went off and did their own research and said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to switch it.’”
David Snow, director of support services for the Santa Clara County Fire Department, said it’s a simple switch that will have a big impact.
“A diesel engine does what’s called regeneration through a trapped filter system, so that we don’t put out as much carbon into the environment,” Snow explained. “In a fire truck’s world, you run short runs, (like) a medical call two blocks away. The engine’s going to want to go into regeneration a lot. With renewable diesel, it burns hotter, so there’s way less waste and byproduct it collects and accumulates, and has to be burned off.”
The key for a fire department, Snow said, is that chemically identical renewable diesel can be used interchangeably with traditional diesel. This is especially important when county fire apparatus are deployed throughout the state during fire season for mutual aid.
“Renewable diesel makes it possible to go back and forth between fuels as needed so that the response to locations with only conventional diesel poses no risk,” Snow said.
Ranganathan didn’t expect his proposal to become a reality so fast.
“I’m glad that we were able to make change,” he said. “I wasn’t particularly hopeful that this change would come so quickly, and I’m pleased that it did.”
Supervisor Simitian said Ranganathan’s efforts are a testament to the impact that citizens can have on their communities.
“I’m grateful to Mr. Ranganathan for pointing out the obvious,” Simitian said in a statement. “Engaged constituents make our communities stronger. It would be foolish not to be receptive to good ideas from our residents. They care. They’re engaged. And they’re well-informed.”