Palo Alto Building Electrification Plan Adopted: One Approach to Address Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Goals

City of Palo Alto
Nov 3 · 7 min read

Learn more about the new building electrification plan adopted by the City Council on November 4 and current ways the community can be more sustainable and move towards electrification today

The City of Palo Alto has led the way in addressing sustainability and reducing green house gas reduction goals. This blog shares past progress towards the City’s ambitious goals and provides a look at the City’s building electrification plan adopted by the City Council on November 4, which seeks to further the City’s sustainability goals in the future. City Council adopted changes to Palo Alto’s Reach Codes, advancing an all electric requirement for new residential and commercial construction in 2020. Also learn about ways the community can move towards electrification.

City Sustainability and Climate Action Goals

In April 2016, the City Council adopted a Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Framework, which includes an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goal of 80% from the 1990 level by 2030. This goal is 20 years ahead of California’s statewide goal of an 80% reduction by 2050. More recently, the City Council approved a three-year Sustainability Implementation Plan, spanning from 2018 to 2020, which directs staff to explore green building, energy efficiency, and electrification policy options that go beyond code minimum. As shown in the figure below, among the Action Plan emission reduction strategies, building electrification accounts for 43% of the 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies.

For more on the City’s Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Framework, go here.

Electrification Defined

Electrification means a shift from fossil fuels (like gas) to electricity to power cooking equipment, space and water heating appliances, and transportation. Natural gas contributes to Palo Alto’s greenhouse gas emissions. Palo Alto’s Utilities Department sources its electricity from renewable and hydroelectric resources meaning that it is cleaner and healthier compared to fossil fuels. It can also be more affordable.

For more about electrification, go here.

For more about the City’s Utilities, go here.

What are Energy Reach Codes?

Every three years, the State of California requires the adoption of new building codes, including energy codes. In addition to the mandatory updates, the State allows jurisdictions to adopt more stringent energy codes — or reach codes — to help meet greenhouse gas reductions. Under 2019’s standards, new single-family homes will use about 7 percent less energy than those built under the 2016 standards. To achieve the state’s energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction goals, the California Energy Commission (CEC) has encouraged cities to adopt “energy reach codes” that are more stringent than the baseline statewide requirements.

Palo Alto has been a leader in exceeding California requirements and has created reach codes for the past 9 years. CEC guidelines also require any proposed reach codes to be cost-effective for building owners to avoid additional financial burdens. For statewide studies on residential and non-residential new construction cost-effectiveness, go here.

For more about the City’s Planning and Development Services, go here.

For more about the City’s Zoning Code, maps and other details, go here.

All-Electric New Construction Plan Adopted

More than fifty communities in California are considering adopting reach codes. On November 4, 2019, City Council adopted changes to Palo Alto’s Reach Codes, advancing an all electric requirement for new residential and commercial construction in 2020.

The City Council adopted the following:

  • Move forward with all electric new construction regulations effective by the end of April 2020
  • Explore elements of all electric commercial with a goal of implementation by the end of 2020
  • Develop a plan for electrification standards for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)
  • Approval of a rebate program
  • Define the distinction between residential remodels and residential new construction

Background on City Staff’s November 4 City Council Meeting Proposal

City staff’s proposal included a tiered approach to setting a two-year target for all-electric new construction and, incentivizing all-electric construction and requiring any mixed-fuel construction to meet the maximum standards. This strategy is intended to further the City’s greenhouse gas emission reduction goals and improve overall building efficiency.

This approach includes:

  1. Requiring new homes and low-rise multi-family buildings of three stories or less be built using an all-electric design — no gas utility hookups; or, mixed-fuel (electric/gas) with a design to facilitate conversion to electrical utility service and achieve a ten-point energy reduction rating (EDR 10) beyond the state standard.
  2. Requiring new office and retail buildings be constructed using an all-electric design — no gas utility hookups, or mixed-fuel with a design to facilitate conversion to electrical utility service and increase building efficiency by a 12% margin beyond the state standard.
  3. Requiring new hotels, motels, and four-story multi-family buildings be constructed using an all-electric design — no gas utility hookups; or, mixed-fuel with a design to facilitate conversion to electrical utility service and increase building efficiency by a 5% margin beyond the State standard.
  4. Promoting voluntary electrification in existing homes and business (which represents 38% of the City’s GHG emissions reduction strategy) through utility financial incentives and public outreach/education campaigns.
  5. Strengthening compliance with state and local reach codes by requiring third-party compliance certification to ensure energy efficiency targets are achieved in new mixed-fuel buildings, and define terms related to substantial remodels in the next 18 months to clearly distinguish when residential and non-residential remodels constitute new construction.

The City Council direction and staff’s proposal support the strong community interest to reduce natural gas consumption and therefore reduce greenhouse gas emissions and balance these new standards with continuing to allow use of gas ranges and fireplaces, which are common features in new home construction and, compared to other appliances, produce less greenhouse gas emissions. The changes also serve to provide advanced notice to prospective home builders and developers of the City’s intent to move quickly toward an all-electric design requirement.

Every three years, the State of California adopts new building standards that are codified in Title 24 of the California Code of Regulations, referred to as the California Building Standards Code. Upon publication of the new Building Standards Code, local jurisdictions are allowed 180 days within which to amend the model State codes to enact more stringent local building standards. Such local amendments to the model State codes must be supported with findings that are based on unique local climatic, geologic and topographic conditions. Also on the November 4 City Council agenda are recommended changes to eight Ordinances that repeal and adopt various sections of the City’s Municipal Code updating California Building Codes and other local amendments.

For the November 4 City Council meeting staff report on energy reach code recommendations, go here.

For the November 4 City Council meeting on other changes to the City’s building codes, go here.

Incentivizing Electrification and Online Tools

Palo Alto is a fully built-out city, with less than 1% of the building stock being torn down and rebuilt each year. To meet the City’s aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals, it is necessary to address emissions from existing building stock in addition to major reconstruction. The Palo Alto Utilities Department offers customer programs and education campaigns to promote and facilitate building electrification targeting the existing building stock, but an expansion of these programs will incentivize the electrification of existing buildings and complement the Reach Code.

Existing utilities programs include rebate programs and technical assistance. Utilities launched a Heat Pump Water Heater (HPWH) Rebate pilot to promote the replacement of gas water heaters with heat pump water heaters. Soon, Utilities will be launching a Home Electrification Readiness assessment to help homeowners evaluate their energy use and assess the master electric panel for home electrification. This service will be offered as part of the Home Efficiency Genie program.

Over the next 12 months, there are plans to launch a series of electrification incentives to help drive the electrification of existing buildings. These incentives will cover air source heat pumps for space conditioning, induction cooking, and high-efficiency electric clothes dryers. In addition, there are plans in the works to offer a rebate to homeowners who install an EV charger and upgrade their master electric panel at the same time, which makes additional electrification measures easier to implement. Having a menu of home electrification incentives gives homeowners the option to either replace home appliances one at a time as appliances reach the end of useful life or do it more comprehensively as part of a remodeling project to fully electrify the house and disconnect the gas meter.

To complement the home electrification incentives, City Utilities actively raises awareness of the benefits of an all-electric home. Recently, the City’s Utilities Department launched cityofpaloalto.org/Electrification, a home electrification webpage as an online resource for homeowners.

For the City’s Utilities Department customer services portal, go here.

Additional Online Resources

Go to cityofpaloalto.org/Electrification to learn more about how to electrify your house.

View the City Council agenda for the upcoming November 4 meeting and presentation on proposed Reach Code changes.

Sign up for citywide newsletters and follow the City on social media to receive updates.

PaloAltoConnect

City of Palo Alto

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Official communications from the City of Palo Alto. Connect about issues of interest to our community. Follow us on social media at www.cityofpaloalto.org

PaloAltoConnect

Official communications from the City of Palo Alto. Connect and join the conversation on issues of interest to our community.

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