It’s almost been two years since three of the five members of the Los Altos City Council compromised on our current Los Altos Reach Code. This is a local building code covering environmental and green energy requirements – insulation, solar, electricity wiring, allowing gas lines or not, etc. Our 2020 REACH code is a somewhat more stringent version of the 2020 California state-wide building code that dictates certain MINIMUM environmental standards in new and some existing buildings. The local code allows cities to voluntarily REACH BEYOND the state minimum environmental standards.
By law, the city’s current Reach Code expires Jan. 1, 2023. If we don’t adopt a new one or renew the current one, the city would be subject to only the California State building code. In 2022 the state revamped Reach, increasing the minimum requirements (of course)! The 2022 California-wide building code is very similar to but not as stringent as the expiring Los Altos 2020 Reach code.
Our local carbon-fighting climate change activists and the Los Altos Environmental Commission hope to once again EXCEED the 2022 State building code minimums and our 2020 Reach Code with a new local Reach Code. In preparation for this upcoming political effort, the Commission updated the Los Altos Climate Action Plan (CAP) in March, 2022, moving several goalposts – like a 20% reduction in Los Altos energy use and eliminating natural gas – forward from 2040 to 2035. That CAP was approved by Council by a 3 to 2 vote. Naysayers – Anita Enander and Lynette Lee Eng – questioned whether most residents and property owners were even aware of, must less approving of moving up the deadlines.
IMAGE 1: SCREENSHOT OF WORKSHOP SLIDE Climate Action Adaptation Plan
As in the 2020 REACHING effort, for 2022 there will be a new, more ambitious 2022 Bay Area MODEL Reach Code. The model is developed cooperatively by three local clean energy providers – including Silicon Valley Clean Energy and other entities – to set a ‘recommended’ standard that cities could choose to adopt. This 2022 Model Reach Code development collaboration is still in progress. We should expect that the new Bay Area Model Reach Code will really try to REACH even higher than even before.
The Los Altos Environmental Commission does not at this time know what the final Bay Area Model code will look like, nor what version or variant code the Environmental Commission will ultimately recommend to the Los Altos City Council for approval in the fall. However, at the June 2022 workshop, Commissioners Tom Heckt, Lara Teksler, and especially Don Weiden, described a range of changes being considered for a NEW Los Altos Reach Code. To be clear, virtually all of the workshop information they shared applies to single-family homes, not to multifamily buildings. Let’s hit the highlights!
Commissioner Hecht – Highlights of Remarks
The Los Altos Climate Action Plan (CAP) looks towards phasing out gas in new and remodeled homes. No more natural gas stoves, water heaters, or furnaces. It’s cheaper to build homes that way. Why pipe in gas when the supply is being phased out?
That means using heat pump home heating, heat pump AC, and heat pump water heaters, as well as in the future Los Altos code perhaps require induction cooktops in the kitchen.
Of course, prewire for EV chargers as now, or just flat out require two EV 2 level chargers in all new or 51% remodeled single-family homes.
Besides the existing state requirement for mandatory solar panels on the roof, a future Los Altos Reach code might include mandatory electricity storage technology.
If the future Los Altos code were to still allow gas cooktops in the kitchen, then perhaps require more expensive ventilation than now. Why? To paraphrase, “We’re learning gas cooking is problematic – affecting air quality and impacting health.” New gas supply to outdoor pools and barbecues for new homes and major remodels could be banned.
IMAGE 3: SCREENSHOT OF WORKSHOP SLIDE – Common Questions from 2020 Los Altos process
Commissioner Teksler – Highlights of Remarks
Ms. Teksler addressed some of the most common concerns/questions asked during the 2020 Los Altos Reach Code process.
Question: “Electric appliances don’t really perform well, right?” Answer: If you have experience with old electric appliance for space heating or water heating, then that can be true. We recognize people’s affinity for gas stovetops, but induction cooktops are becoming more prevalent and have good heat control. Induction has safety benefits compared to gas cooking which affects indoor air quality and health.
Question: “Is the electric grid stable. Can it handle more load as more and more buildings electrify?” Answer: Three [sic trusted expert?] agencies are in charge [sic of that infrastructure]. They are the California Public Utility Commission (PUC), the California Independent System Operator (ISO), and the California Energy Commission. But many of the electric outages [sic and brownouts] are due to [sic natural] wildfires and storms, not the inadequate supply of electricity on the grid. And if we electrify, we can reduce the incidence of extreme weather events [sic being caused by climate change].
Question: “What about electric outages? You can still use your gas appliances, but not with electric!” Answer: You could also add storage to your all-electric home for resiliency. And gas stoves have electronic ignition so you’re still not cooking.
Question: “Which is cheaper to run? A gas or electric appliance?” Answer: It depends on the appliance. Costs of the two power sources seem similar. But we see natural gas utility prices going up. The electric appliances have higher energy efficiency performance.
Question: “Isn’t the Grid actually burning fossil fuels generating carbon to supply the electricity to us?“ Answer: No, [sic not in Los Altos where 98% of people use] SVCE – our Los Altos electricity provider now has storage for its 100% clean sourced wind, solar, and hydro power.”
IMAGE 4: SCREENSHOT OF WORKSHOP SLIDE – Los Altos Construction Permit Patterns
Commissioner Weiden – Highlights of Remarks
Lalahpolitico: Mr. Weiden had the unenviable task of introducing the idea that some new Reach code mandates should possibly apply to exisiting buildings’ renovations and alterations.
That could mean electric mandates for
1) minor home additions/alterations such as over 750 square feet and sooner than later mandates for …
2) gas appliance replacement. (Bay Area Air Quality Manage District is considering phasing out the sale of gas appliances. If so, you just won’t be able to buy one here.)
Such mandates to ‘switch to electric for existing homes’ might be applicable when
- a) a permit is issued for “work on a building, gas systems, or appliance”
- b) you need a permit to replace a gas appliance
- c) there is a sale of the property, the buyer or seller would have to replace the gas appliances.
Weiden explained the necessity of eventually having to apply the new standards to existing homes with some simple math. Only about 1% of the 10,000 single family home sites in Los Altos are rebuilt each year. Getting to the CAP goals of 20% reduction in power usage and elimination of natural gas by 2035 is not possible if codes only affect 1% of the stock per year. In Los Altos 80% of yearly permits are for minor changes and it is during these alterations where the change has to happen to get to the 2035 CAP goals. The Environmental Commission considers these CAP goals “a commitment.”
Lalahpolitico: He works for SVCE and is of course very committed to living GREEN. He related that his family has recently moved into all GREEN housing. It was refreshing for him to be so frank and direct about what inconveniences or discomforts to expect when switching from conventional appliances to “all electric” and how you will need to retrain yourself a bit. Here are some snippets from Tony.
Heat pump water heater: This is not a flash heater; it has a water tank. The technology takes a little longer to heat the tank water up, so people often install larger tanks. If you would have gone with a 40 gallon tank, for example, you might install a 50. They are noisy, so you want to place them in a garage, not in a hall closet near bedrooms. You will want a 220v one, because the 110v ones will be too slow for a roomy house.
Space heating: With familiar gas furnaces –you turn them on in the morning and they put out a BLAST of heat and get up to temperature And that’s not the experience of living with a heat pump. With a heat pump space heater you typically keep your house a little more ….you don’t let the low [sic at night] go as low as you would otherwise.
Heat pump clothes drying: The heat pump technology does actually definitely take longer to dry. Again, more efficient – but substantially longer to dry. I am speaking from personal experience because we have one.
Question from Attendee: “It’s all very well to say, ‘Add solar battery storage’, however currently doing so roughly doubles the price of solar. What is being done to reduce the cost of these vital batteries?” Answer: The questioner’s assertion that storage doubles the cost of a photovoltaic system seems feasible to me. The supply chain will improve. Government is working on it. There is research into non-lithium storage technologies and money for RFPs.
A FULL TEXT LIGHTLY EDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE WORKSHOP WILL BE POSTED IN A DAY OR TWO. If you have the time, it’s worth a read.
Lalahpolitico Bottom Line:
COUNCIL TO DO NOTHING? The current Los Altos Reach code expires Jan. 1, 2023. If that happened without any Los Altos City Council action this fall 2022, then the new, and somewhat improved 2022 California environmental code would apply to NEW CONSTRUCTION in Los Altos starting Jan. 1, 2023. But that California 2022 code is less stringent than our City 2020 Reach Code.
COUNCIL TO REINSTATE/EXTEND THE EXPIRING LOS ALTOS 2020 REACH CODE? The Council could this autumn just pass the current Los Altos Reach Code again for another 2 years because it still exceeds the 2022 California code in some ways. A ‘No change /minimum change to the status quo’ approach by the Los Altos City Council should be broadly acceptable to constituents and voters who are used to it applying only to new construction. In contrast, given how inauspicious the local, state, national and situations are, we think the public is not in the mood for reaching beyond what was in the current Los Altos reach code or what the state is imposing with the 2022 California Building Code
IMAGE 5: SCREENSHOT OF WORKSHOP SLIDE – the ‘plan’ – aka goal? – is to eventually require costly retrofits for existing homes?
In particular the bold idea that the City of Los Altos require switching to ELECTRIC when there are minor existing home repairs, replacements, alterations and additions will be hard to or impossible to sell. However, it doesn’t hurt if activists want to start talking about it though…because it’s going to be a long, long sales cycle!
The political problem is that about 80+% of our current 10,000 single family homeowners ARE NOT EXPECTING to do a tear-down rebuild or greater than 50% renovation, etc. Thus, they are comfortable that the current Los Altos Reach Code will not affect them personally directly.
However, once Los Altos environmental activists start pitching the idea that the 80+% of Los Altos homeowners should start NOW to sacrifice and make changes at home…there will be a broad outcry. There are probably a good number of families who, in a few years, hope to do a kitchen model including a new gas stove. Some families may be expecting to build an outdoor gas barbecue when mortgage rates go down. Let’s consider all the seniors ‘aging in place.’ Are we really going to make a senior whose gas stovetop, gas furnace or water heat or dryer is kaput, switch to electric induction and heat pump technology ? You can see that when activists start talking about minor replacements, minor alterations, and minor additions, then a whole lot of citizens have skin in the game.
B R E A K I N G N E W S: As Lalah was putting this post together there was already local restive murmuring: a local political faction — Los Altos Residents — circulated a survey asking if residents wanted a CITY ELECTION to vote up or down on ‘a natural gas ban’. Apparently they feel Los Altos City Council cannot be trusted to listen to “the will of the majority of the people.” and decide for all of us, for some of us? Gee, Lalah wonders why some people feel that way about Council? Maybe because 3 of the 5 councilpersons seem to favor new rules for council meetings. Specifically, there is chatter about ending the long-time practice of ceding of public comment time by members of the public allowing the award of up to 10 minutes of commenting time to a single representative. Does canceling that practice tend to muffle the expression of contrasting viewpoints? Or does it streamline meetings? Both? Which is more important? To whom?
Some ‘trusted’ Resources we considered:
CNN poll on attitudes about climate change by generation
Pew survey: attitudes about climate change by party and generation
Only 31% said “Climate Change is my top personal concern.” Somewhat fewer took any personal action to help with it in the last year.
Our conclusion is that there is probably a huge group of homeowning Los Altans who are clinging to the ‘right’ or ‘privilege’ of using gas. All those other green policies that don’t negatively affect their/our comfort and convenience in their/our own homes are just fine. Most of them/us vote for such state and federal policies. They/we’ll even pay taxes to support them. And if they/we get an electric rate subsidy, say from SVCE, or a federal rebate on an electric car, that’s swell too. They/we talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk when there is sacrifice rather than benefit involved.
About that sacrifice –a conservative-leaning commentary
Lalahpolitico: We suggest that by 2024 Environmental activists – in Los Altos and across the State — figure out how to lobby for more state subsidies and perhaps exemptions from Building Code rules, especially for the aging population. But of course, housing activists target the aging NIMBYs as a major impediment to their goals of getting them to move away or …? Certainly passage of Prop 19 last year was a spur to move on for seniors. And if Prop 13 tax breaks can be reduced or removed…bye bye grannies and grandpas.
- Sorry Ms. Teksler. Gas stoves, even ones with ignition, can still be lit with a match. However, one can’t do a Sylvia Plath exit with one’s oven anymore though.
- Sorry Ms. Teksler. You said gas stoves cause indoor air pollution impacting human health? Maybe overblown claims there per this New York Times article.. My Google search a few days ago found at least 3 pages of results substantiating the idea though. But two years ago when Lalahpolitico covered the Los Altos Reach Code process, there were no such articles. Funny? Manufacturing a new fear narrative?
- Sorry Ms. Teksler. Even though 98+% of service accounts in Los Altos may buy ‘clean’ electricity from SVCE bring us closer to our Los Altos CAP goals, about 58 % of electricity per year on the Western Electricity Coordinating Council – that’s our regional grid – is from gas and coal fired plans.
This EPA page explains a bit how SVCE can ‘legitimately’ claim to be 100% clean energy. It’s a paper certificates trading/market system. Of course, all the actual kilowatts generated by plant operators – whatever their source — are the same once they are on the grid.
That means other cities and jurisdictions are ‘virtually’ consuming more of the dirty energy. If you think about it, it’s obvious that a place like Oregon which generates so much nice, clean hydro power, in terms of kilowatts right there in Oregon is probably consuming mostly kilowatts from nearby –aka clean. As for California, as a state we import significant kilowatts from Arizona which has coal-fired plants. The point is Los Altos is just transferring our electricity carbon to some other place’s ‘ledger,’ and being subsidized 2% of rates (?) to do so!
Sources of US electricity Generation, 2020 The EPA https://www.epa.gov/green-power-markets/us-electricity-grid-markets
CA the largest net electricity importer of any state in 2019
Last Gasp – Other alleged Downsides
to the Broad Acceptance of All Electric
- “Induction stovetops require a new set of pots and pans. Another expense and thing to adjust to.
- All electric is not cheaper to build as asserted and complicates the production of more housing.
- People will cling to older homes with gas, slowing real estate turnover and opportunities for a better insulated, newer housing stock.
- People wanting to build a brand new house with several gas appliances, will choose to build it in cities without such Reach Codes, and will be paying property and sales taxes there instead of to Los Altos.”