Palo Alto’s Cool, But Practical Approach to Climate Change
Due to its southern latitude, it’s hard to think of Palo Alto in California’s Silicon Valley as a cool city. But when you talk to Gil Friend, the city’s Chief Sustainability Officer, it soon becomes apparent that Palo Alto is cool, and in more ways than one. Starting with the appropriately named Cool City Challenge Palo Alto is undertaking, in tandem with San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Recognizing that cities generate 70% of the planet’s carbon emissions and citizens generate 70% of those emissions, Palo Alto and its city partners recently completed a year long pilot program involving 45 separate blocks or community groups, tied not just to reducing energy consumption, but addressing the resiliency and liveability of those communities. As Friend will attest, the really cool thing about the program wasn’t just that the participating communities reduced energy consumption by 32% over the course of a year. It was also the fact that the program created a true sense of engagement, with 56% of residents getting involved.
“With this program one of the biggest payoffs was to get people to do things with neighbours who wouldn’t normally see one another. So, they came up with ways not just to reduce energy usage and save money, but also such things as how to respond and work together in case of a local emergency.”
Palo Alto has a long history of embracing sustainability through a variety of initiatives, but not always in unison. To address this challenge, Friend’s mandate when he was hired by the city in 2014 was in his words “to weave these programs together into a coherent strategy.”
Less than two years later, Friend helped Palo Alto to launch its comprehensive Sustainability Climate Action Plan, the cornerstone being the 80×30 initiative with the goal of reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2030. Friend positions this target as “in the Goldilocks category… not too hot and not too cold.” As he recalls, they started out in 2014 with three possible objectives.
“One, we could take a big leap and do a moon shot and be carbon neutral by 2025. Another was we could match the state’s target of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. But we didn’t feel that was cool enough. The third approach was the 80×30 goal, which felt was something people could get excited about and at the same time, was really doable.”
One of the key measures tied to the 80×30 target has been to make Palo Alto’s energy supply 100% carbon neutral, which they have since accomplished, making it the first utility in North America to reach that goal. Friend says the city initially got there by purchasing carbon offsets to match natural gas emissions as a bridging strategy. But they have since made significant headway by buying electricity from renewable energy sources off of the grid. “What we’ve come to terms with is that if you covered every roof surface in the city with PV, you could probably produce ¼ to ½ of our energy supply on a good day. But at this point, grid solar is far cheaper, so from an economic perspective, the utility is understandably focussing on grid solar.”
Another key initiative Friend has helped to bring to fruition, has been a new Green Building ordinance. “The building code is one of the few areas where we actually have authority (at the municipal level). So, in a state that probably has one of the most advanced codes in the country, we set out to establish standards that are about 15% more effective.” But these measures had to be cost effective as well.
“You can’t just tell people you have to build a green house and it’s going to cost a lot of money. You have to be able to say here’s a way to build a home that will save you a lot of money.”
The next big challenge is electrifying the city’s fleet of vehicles, big and small, while at the same time ensuring the equipment is both affordable and can stand up to the rigors of daily use. In fact they just purchased their first electric garbage truck as part of a new trial. Now how cool is that?
And that pretty much sums up Palo Alto’s approach to eventually being perceived as America’s greenest city under Friend’s stewardship. Introduce cool initiatives to combat climate change. But make sure they’re practical, so that council, city staff and residents buy in to those initiatives.