Aug 18 2020

OPINION: Reach Codes Should Be Rejected

The ultimate goal of the Reach Codes is to force mandatory 100% electrification of homes. As we are in the midst of rolling electrical blackouts because the State power grid has insufficient capacity and rotating outages are a not uncommon disruption, let’s reflect on what a 100% electric home means during a blackout. No cooking, no cooling (or heating in winter), no lights, no charging your Tesla, no internet; those in 100% electric homes will be back to the Stone Age.
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Going to 100% electricity will stress the State grid further. Except for black swan events like PG&E’s 2010 San Bruno explosion, rolling natural gas outages are unknown. There is a glut of natural gas. Forcing 100% electricity on homes is too much, both from practical and economic perspectives. Electricity is a much more expensive power source than natural gas. Exacerbating this is that Californians pay electric rates 56% higher than the average of other states (source: Center For Jobs and the Economy) on top of our sky high housing costs and nationally second highest gasoline costs. On top of the high costs of the Bay Area, increases are coming as PG&E exits from bankruptcy and will sharply increase rates to comply with court orders to secure its power grid from causing future fires.

The goal of Reach Codes is commonly accepted, of “doing the right thing” by the environment. We all agree with that, however, the Reach Codes are a blanket solution that has many pitfalls and should be rejected in favor of an incentive based system in Piedmont.

Rick Schiller, Piedmont Resident

11 Responses to “OPINION: Reach Codes Should Be Rejected”

  1. I agree with Rick’s perspective. In 2024, PG&E will be de-commissioning it’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. That power plant provides 8.6% of total California power generation and 23% of carbon-free generation, and providing the electrical needs of more than 3 million people (according to PG&E’s June 2013 report: http://www.pge.com/includes/docs/pdfs/shared/edusafety/systemworks/dcpp/PGE_Economic_Impact_Report_Final.pdf )

    Natural Gas is a relatively clean fuel as described in the 02/13.14 Smithsonian Magazine article by Sarah Zielinski:

    “Burning natural gas, for instance, produces nearly half as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy compared with coal. Natural gas is thus considered by many to be a “bridge fuel” that can help nations lower carbon emissions while they transition more slowly from fossil fuels to renewable, carbon-neutral forms of energy. The recent boom in natural gas production in the United States, for instance, contributed to a 3.8 percent drop in carbon emissions in 2012.”

    I believe most Piedmonters realize that burdening on our electtical energy supply at this time is not worth the minimal reduction in GNG.

    But I do believe promoting energy conservation in Piedmont makes sense. One easy way to do that is to immediately enforce the ban on non-electric leaf blowers. They are huge GNG polluters and huge noise polluters as well.

    Dai Meagher, Piedmont Resident

  2. Rick Schiller’s comments are exactly on target. Last fall, due to a PG&E blackout, we were without power for 3 days. We had a completely dead house except for two functions which are on gas. We still had hot water for bathing and washing dishes, and a gas cooktop (lit by hand) that allowed us to heat food. According to our PG&E bills, our water heater only comes on once every two or three days, so it can’t be using much gas. In an era of frequent blackouts and an insufficient electrical grid, the small gains to be made from converting everything to 100% electric are simply not worth the side effects.

    Due mainly due to PG&E’s growing electric unreliability we are in the process of installing solar with battery back-up for our electric needs. It’s expensive but we hope it will be the better alternative.

  3. I largely agree with Rick, Dai, and Mike R. The attack on NG is misguided. Besides the argument that NG efficiently produces heat just where it is needed, we are now realizing that there simply isn’t enough electrical generating capacity for widespread electrification. We should be pushing solar, however. That’s where big reductions in energy occur, often 100% per household. Allowing the federal solar tax credits to expire is insanity for anyone interested in GHG reduction. Also, the majority of the state’s transportation budget goes to highways. How can that be consistent with a policy of fighting climate change? The proposed Reach code measures are little more than feel-good exercises.

  4. Nice thoughts on the topic! Thanks Rick and the others that commented.

    Best,
    Patty White

  5. I couldn’t have more respect for Rick and the two Michaels but they are really missing the big picture here. The severe weather we are experiencing (and which is the cause of the electric shortages they lament) is the consequence of global warming which is caused by the burning of fossil fuels like natural gas. Electrification has its shortfalls (mainly storage) but relying on natural gas to solve global warming will not work. And natural gas is not as benign as Dai says – recent studies have shown that natural gas production results in significant leakage of methane, a much more potent green house gas (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/30012020/natural-gas-methane-carbon-emissions?amp).

    The goal of the Reach codes is not 100% electrification. First there are two sets of Reach codes. For remodels that don’t change the footprint of the home, the Reach codes mostly require insulation or the use of more efficient lighting. And only if the cost of the project exceeds $25,000. 75% of Piedmont’s building permits are For projects less than that. The goal is to use less natural gas, not electrify. For homes that are adding a complete second story, 30% to the first story or a detached ADU, the Reach codes require the installation of solar panels IF there is adequate solar exposure. If your FAR is over 55%, you won’t have to add solar panels to your addition.

    The Reach codes for Piedmont are flexible, allowing the homeowner to pick energy efficiency options that fit best with the project. Incentives sound nice but why do that – most of the Reach code options pay for themselves through energy savings. There’s your incentive. Plus you’ll save the planet.

  6. While Garrett and I have come out on opposite sides of this, I know his attention to detail and scientific analysis is top drawer. In fairness, I will correct one statistic he cites even though it serves his viewpoint: 80% of projects are under $25k. City Staff further states that 15% of projects are $25k to $100k leaving about 5% above 100k.

  7. I find this argument about natural gas very alarming and frustrating. Climate change and the extreme weather we are literally experiencing now — caused by burning fossil fuels, including natural gas — means we need to … burn more fossil fuels!!?? I don’t see how that makes sense!

    Rather, we need to ensure our electricity system is more resilient and powered by renewable energy to change our trajectory. The fires and extreme weather are already getting worse and worse – this summer may be our new norm but let’s stop it from getting even worse than this, please.

    I would also refer you to my EDF colleague’s blog (he is an expert on CA energy) about these latest blackouts, which states: “It appears the blackout was caused in part by a NATURAL GAS POWER PLANT that unexpectedly shut down because it could not handle the heat.”

    And here is his conclusion: “We need to reject the false argument that fossil fuels are the most reliable way of generating electricity – this week has proved the opposite is true.”

    Please read the full blog here:
    http://blogs.edf.org/energyexchange/2020/08/20/rolling-blackouts-in-california-prove-conventional-power-plants-need-to-become-extinct

  8. I just have to say, that Rick’s and related views seem to be missing the point. Nobody is expecting Piedmont to be 100% electrified any time soon, and that NG is going away completely any time soon. The point is, the Reach Codes are just one element (a small one at that) of our longer term transformation and adaptation to climate change; we need to keep our focus on the future not on the past, as comfortable as that might seem. Furthermore, does anybody truly believe that there will not be hiccups on this journey? These outages are actually helpful to our learning how to make this transition, we don’t learn by doing nothing! In fact the outages were curtailed by people voluntarily taking action by reducing demand! And lets not forget that this whole event we can at the feet of unmitigated climate change, including the fires. These kinds of lessons apply to all of us in our personal lives; facing our fears and adjusting to our evolving world is part of our process of adaptation, just like in some many other aspects of our lives. Lets not inflate one small step (Reach codes).

  9. Dear Piedmonters,

    I certainly appreciate the civic participation of all of those here. I appreciate even more the folks who are providing up-to-date (rather than 6-8 years old), relevant, verifiable scientific information from accurate, current local and expert sources.

    Kudos also, to the residents who are taking personal responsibility and improving the situation locally, regionally, and globally (by installing solar panels and back-up batteries at their homes and other 21st century changes) as well as calling for more State transportation funding for efficient public transportation options. While I think it would be great if homeowners would use (or ensure their landscaping staff is using) electric landscaping equipment (like leaf blowers and lawn mowers) rather than gas-powered equipment, that equipment is not a large driver of Piedmont’s annual GHG emissions. Although the gas-powered varieties are undeniably a noise nuisance (particularly with many of us working from home these months), exterior lawn equipment accounts for <1% of GHG emissions in Piedmont. Eliminating their use would not have a big impact. Nevertheless, I would cheer and welcome that behavior change!

    Next, I find it a bit perplexing to call for the rejection of Piedmont's very reasonable Reach Codes– which are merely baby steps to slowly assist in averting further climate disaster– based on the claim that continuing to use natural gas will prevent us from being thrown into Stone Age living when PGE's grid is down. Let's face it, except for gas stoves, water heaters and furnaces (the latter of which usually aren't functioning in the Bay Area during fire season– mine, for example is OFF between May to October), everything else that is powered in our modern homes, is powered by electricity. Thus, we would STILL be without our internet/Wifi, our lights, and most kitchen appliances during power outages, whether we have electrified or not. Furthermore, as Michael R points out, gaining energy independence is only currently available by protecting oneself from energy infrastructure failures — whether electrical or gas (neither of which happens very frequently) by installing PV panels and storage batteries.

    Like Michael R's, our home was subject to 2 PSPS power outages last fall– one lasting nearly 4 consecutive days and the other spanning 2 days. I was indeed thankful to have our gas stovetop (yes, lit by hand) and water heater during that time. Does that mean I want to retain those gas appliances and continue to contribute to global warming— heck no! After the PSPS last year, I got quotes to install a heat-pump or solar water heater, and a heat pump furnace (we had solar rooftop panels already). Does anybody who is calling for Council to reject these very mild Reach Codes ENJOY breathing this smoky, unhealthy air for .5 out of every 12 months every single year? Do you want to wait until there's even less snowpack in the Sierra, more so-called 100-year floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, superstorms, severe drought, even more frequent and severe wildfires, to take any action at all, even the tiniest of adjustments, which these Reach Codes represent? As Rick pointed out, the Reach Codes, as articulated, will only effect 20% of those Piedmonters who apply for a permit each year and a much smaller real percentage of Piedmonters overall because only a small fraction of Piedmonters undertake home renovation projects each year (Perhaps Rick or Garrett can tell us what % of Piedmont property owners on average even apply for any permit each year?) And, as Garrett pointed out, what sense does it make to fuss about requirements for very few homeowners which will actually be cost-effective improvements for those homeowners AND provide an environmental benefit. Reach Codes are devised to be a win-win proposition. State Law requires that Reach Codes approved by local jurisdictions be cost effective as well as beneficial for the environment. This entire debate seems to me to be a matter of either a lack of understanding how these Reach Codes were derived, or merely a knee-jerk oppositional response ("If I don’t understand the issue sufficiently, my answer should be 'No’"). Hey, I get it, I would want to understand it more, too, before feeling comfortable approving. I would ask those who are feeling uncomfortable with the Reach Codes to read the City Staff reports and/or watch the 6 recorded public information sessions which were held to get residents’; and building professionals’; feedback on Reach Code drafts— in essence, try to do a bit more homework.

    All that said, I agree that electrification is not the ONLY step which needs to be taken, but it is one of the only levers available to our small Piedmont City government so I applaud our leaders and City staff for putting their best feet forward and doing what is within their capacity to accomplish. We also need to greatly expand our renewable energy generation capacity and promote energy conservation. Thank you, Michael, for doing this by installing a rooftop solar power system, and which over 100 other Piedmont households have also already done. These admirable;early adopters; are leaders in showcasing their commitment and making a contribution to averting the worsening effects of our collective climate crisis. These change leaders were, indeed, nudged to action in part by the federal and state incentives which have been offered over time for renewable energy generation and other energy conservation measures (like installing home insulation, energy-efficient windows, doors, lighting systems, appliances and the like). These clean energy pioneers represent the low-hanging fruit; those who will take action when incentives are first offered. The remainder are those whose inertia, fear, uncertainty and/or overwhelming obligations prevent them from taking advantage of these incentives, however much of a 'no-brainer' they may be (both from a financial perspective and from the perspective of simply being a responsible and caring Earthling). More than incentives are needed to make progress on most issues of important change with the 'inert majority'. There are numerous examples in history which serve to illustrate the point that prohibitions and/or requirements are often needed to motivate some to 'do the right thing', as Rick put it (seat belts, smoking, allowing every adult U.S. citizen to vote unhindered, to marry whomever they love, basic inoculations– mask wearing!– etc.) I urge Piedmont citizens to understand and support these Reach Codes and our Council representatives to take up and approve the proposed Reach Codes which will at least set us on our way to making slow– but necessary, and acceleratingly so–progress on Piedmont's adopted and approved CAP 2.0.

  10. It is more important to help Piedmont residents during this pandemic.
    Rick Schiller is correct! The REACH code is unrealistic.

  11. With or without the pandemic, Piedmont should approve the Reach codes. They are the “vaccine” for climate change. They are entirely reasonable and have been proven to be cost effective and easy to implement.

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