As Menlo Park considers urgent action to address the climate emergency, many questions have been raised about the proposal put forward by the city’s Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) on which I serve, to discontinue installing new gas appliances (“Guest opinion: How to get on board with Menlo Park’s climate action plan,” Sept. 24).
First, let me say that I generally do not favor big government for solving problems best solved by markets. I am a capitalist and a business person at heart.
However, after studying the climate problem intensely for the last two years, working with engineers to evaluate all possible solutions and electrifying my own home and car, I am convinced that electrifying everything with clean electricity is the cheapest, fastest way to address the climate crisis. And contrary to my natural inclination, I believe that government needs to be involved if we are to make the transition before the climate tips into an irreversible suicide spiral. Bill McKibben recently called the climate crisis “a timed test,” where every second counts and every minute we wait lowers our chance of passing. And if you think, after decades of procrastination and bad choices, there’s someone waiting in the wings to save us from the consequences of our poor preparation, I’m afraid you will be sorely disappointed. Our future is in our hands. We have the technology. We have the ideas. We just need to get moving.
Some critics and some well-meaning citizens question whether the “burnout ordinance” proposed by Menlo Park’s EQC is practical, whether it has been well-researched and whether those of us working on it know what we are doing. Although eventually I hope the city will take a more active role in educating the public, I am happy to share answers to some commonly asked questions.
Does my home have the electrical capacity to fully electrify?
For most people the answer is yes. You can fully electrify your home on 100-amp service with no trenching, no digging up your driveway and no contact with PG&E. All you need is a good electrician familiar with the National Electrical Code (NEC), specifically section 220.83(B) that deals with adding new electrical loads to existing buildings. It is untrue that everyone needs a 200-amp panel in order to fully electrify their home. As part of my due diligence on the proposed “burnout ordinance,” I have worked with fellow commissioner and former utility engineer Tom Kabat to apply the NEC to real-world retrofits on existing electrical panels. Electrical load calculations performed according to the NEC show us that an existing home can be converted from gas appliances to all-electric and stay under 100 amps. There is a helpful free watt calculator tool at redwoodenergy.net/watt-diet-calculator that can assist with the load calculations, and there are good examples of all-electric home retrofits at tinyurl.com/electricretrofits.
Electrifying on 100-amp service does require that you choose your electrical devices wisely, and this is where some guidance is helpful. For example, if your goal is staying on a 100-amp service, you should avoid electric resistance water heaters because they suck up amps and opt instead for a lower amperage version, such as a 15-amp heat pump water heater. Similarly, you should avoid amp-hungry HVAC systems and instead choose a variable speed HVAC heat pump, like mine, that sips power at 17 rated amps (less than a standard electric dryer!). These choices are not hard to make and are just as effective, often costing the same as their higher amperage alternatives.
Does a water heater need a dedicated circuit?
Heat pump water heaters currently on the market require a dedicated circuit, as do most major electrical appliances. If your electrical panel is short on physical space (vs. electrical capacity) and you don’t have room to add circuit breakers, you can address this by adding a subpanel for landing your new electrical appliances, each with its own dedicated circuit. That’s what I did in my own house and avoided replacing the electrical panel.
What happens if my water heater dies suddenly and I don’t have the circuits in place?
Building owners who want to avoid this situation should start planning now for electrification by proactively installing electrical circuits to the locations of future electric appliances, especially the water heater. That way, when a gas device “burns out” it can be easily replaced with an electric model on short notice. In Sacramento, the municipal utility there provides an emergency heat pump water heater replacement program for those who didn’t plan ahead. Residents call a 1-800 number and a heat pump water heater will be installed at low cost at their home within 48 hours.
Are contractors trained in electrification?
I was able to find capable, highly rated contractors for all of my electrification projects. More are getting educated every day. Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE) just launched a training program on electrification for contractors that offers a $500 stipend to take the online course.
Are there rebates for panel upgrades?
In the rare circumstance that someone actually needs a larger electrical service in order to electrify, Peninsula Clean Energy offers up to $1,500 for panel upgrades (see peninsulacleanenergy.com/heat-pump-water-heater. There are also generous rebates for electric heat pump water heaters and HVAC units to cover the extra costs of electric equipment.
Many more questions about electrification are answered by local nonprofit Menlo Spark at tinyurl.com/menlosparkfaq.
Can’t we wait?
For those who say that we must wait and work out every detail before passing policy to discontinue the installation of new gas equipment, I understand where you are coming from. Maybe you didn’t realize we were taking a timed test and you want to stop the clock so that you can sharpen your pencil or look at your notes one last time. I get it. The problem is that there’s no stopping the clock now. Every minute counts. We must act now, however imperfectly, or we will fail.
Josie Gaillard is a Menlo Park resident and sits on the city’s Environmental Quality Commission.