Commentary: Council Goes to a Voluntary Electrification System – But Does It Go Far Enough?

Photo courtesy AECOM

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Given the pushback from both the public and local real estate industry leaders, it is not surprising that the Davis City Council further backed off the building electrification requirement.

But does the approach go far enough given the extent of the climate emergency that we are facing?

The city backed off a requirement at the point of sale, instead opting for a requirement that occurs at the “end of useful life.”

But as Nick Marin from the Yolo Realtors warned, “The CAAP relies heavily on what has come to be known as “end of useful life” which would require, at some level, residents replacing broken or worn out gas appliances with electric models. In theory it makes some sense especially when we understand that the sale of certain gas appliances may be banned by the state or other jurisdictions. However, the mandatory nature of the measure will doom it to fail.”

He argued, “It’s no simple, or cheap, feat to change out gas appliances for electric options.”

So the council further watered it down.  Outgoing councilmember Dan Carson favored a “robust voltary approach.”  Such an approach he said, would “not lock us into a date of change, but have a trigger and evaluation at some point.”

Instead he said, “start with a voluntary program and three years from the point where we actually launch a voluntary program with outreach and all the tools and maybe financial resources for folks, and education, we then do an evaluation to see if we’re getting somewhere.”

Only outgoing Mayor Lucas Frerichs was opposed to the plan arguing, “I would personally favor keeping the end-of-useful life replacement in there.”

But does this approach go far enough.

Councilmember Josh Chapman argued during his comments that he has seen residents step up voluntarily to fight against climate change.  While undoubtedly true, we know from social science research on voluntary compliance, free rider problems and the like, that voluntary systems never work.

The problem of free riding is too pervasive.  Other than the narrow hard core of committed activists, most people will at least implicitly reason that the cost of the change, the inconvenience of the change overwhelms the infinitesimal contribution that they would to the problem of climate change.

You need government regulation or strong financial incentives to override that free rider problem.

The naysayers on this policy are not wrong.  The cost here is enormous and the contribution that even a community-wide effort would make is negligible.

Transportation is by far larger local contributor to GHG emissions.  One of the biggest influences on climate change would be commuting to and from work.  If the state wants to greatly reduce its carbon footprint it ought to start by putting housing next to jobs to reduce VMT.

But this issue is not insignificant either.

While building energy is currently only 15% of Davis’ total emissions, the city still believes “this is a significant goal to meet the City’s carbon neutrality target.”  Staff adds, “Electrification reduces GHG emissions by replacing natural gas appliances with electric appliances if the supplied electricity is carbon-free (can also be referred to as 100% renewable).”

Staff notes, “Unlike the transportation sector where vehicle manufacturers have set aggressive targets to increase electric vehicle sales, there is no industry-wide commitment to decarbonizing existing buildings, which places most of the responsibility for action at the community level. The Building Energy actions in the CAAP primarily emphasize  voluntary compliance, through education and outreach.”

That suggests a statewide or even a nationwide electrification approach could reduce the carbon footprint significantly.  But it would have to be a broader approach.

I agree with many who believed that point of sales requirements were too onerous not to mention wasteful.  We could be phasing out the gas of gas appliances which have a limited shelf-life.  That could lead to a very real reduction.

By making it voluntary and giving it three years to evaluated, that puts us already into 2026 when the city needs to get a handle on things by 2030 and 2040 at the latest.

But the cost considerations are not insignificant and as council mentioned during their deliberations, most people find out their water heater is gone when it stops working.  All of sudden they could be out huge amounts of money.  That’s not necessarily workable either.

Clearly if this is a viable path forward toward reducing climate impacts and carbon emissions, the state and federal government are going to have to figure out ways to subsidize the conversion process.  That’s going to take a heavy lift at the national level given the amount of pushback and political divide.

It is probably more practical at the state level.  From that standpoint, the council is probably wise to avoid a heavy revolt at this time.  But I think they ought to search for subsidies and incentives rather than simply looking at a voluntary system.

In the end, climate change figures to hammer the US economy and cost taxpayers a tremendous amount of money.  Finding ways to prevent the worst effects is cost effective, but finding ways to cushion those costs especially on lower income households is essential.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ron Glick

    I’d like to see the City Council lead by example on this. They could start by electrifying the transportation fleet. They could retrofit city facilities. They could have a policy of not reimbursing for air travel which is probably the most carbon dense activity of all.

  2. Dave Hart

    Moving to all electric is unquestionably the future we need to embrace and see as necessary, not just desirable.  In my view, after thinking about it, is that the obstacles to converting need to be listed in our planning documentation alongside how we will overcome those obstacles.  Cost.  Well, that is really not a problem if we consider the cost of not converting and fiscal policy at the national level (tax policy, rebates and direct federal intervention) is the only way that costs to the end user can be effectively dealt with.  We have the capacity to do that but not necessarily the political will.

    Then, there is the issue of reliability of energy sources.  Natural gas for heating the home, heating water and cooking if the electric grid fails us for whatever reason has advantages that must be recognized.  The only way that obstacle can be overcome is sufficient electrical battery storage for each home and apartment.  Maybe the relative cost is too high right now, but building in attention to that as a solution in our planning and policy is the first step toward making that feasible because it signals a direction for technology and suppliers.  15 KwH battery storage per bedroom for every home or apartment unit should be a stated goal even if it isn’t seen as reasonable today.

    If people could see the place where we need to be and that there is a reasonable path for getting there, they will support aggressive policies to achieve it.  Attaining those goals must be supported by really massive federal spending over the next 20 to 30 years and, without that, we’re asking people to shoulder too much uncertainty.  It’s great for the city to forge ahead (and early adopters who can afford it play an important role) but the plan needs to point out the necessity of federal backing and that means political support in Congress and the Presidency.

  3. Todd Edelman

    “They could start by electrifying the transportation fleet.”

    That would be nice but it’s really just a symbolic issue — in fact most of the smaller City vehicles are hybrids already. It’s so unimportant except as a symbolic gesture that I actually offered free gas guzzlers to all the city council people who would vote against DISC, but none were interested. The city fleet is a tiny portion of all the vehicles in Davis and most of them are driven relatively short distances. Keep the hybrids, replace with electric at end of life, make the police use electric vehicles so that people comment that it doesn’t change the function of the police at all.

    The best way to lower carbon emissions would be by not buying new cars and by not having to drive very much.

    1. David Greenwald

      “The best way to lower carbon emissions would be by not buying new cars and by not having to drive very much.”

      I believe that’s largely wrong. Not buying new cars means you are driving older, less efficient cars.

      A big way to lower carbon emissions is make it so people don’t have to drive much by putting housing near jobs and transit lines.

      1. Ron Oertel

        I believe that’s largely wrong. Not buying new cars means you are driving older, less efficient cars.

        This type of claim is dependent upon a multitude of factors.  But a parked car creates no emissions.

        If you don’t drive much, the impact of manufacturing, delivering, driving new cars (and discarding of old cars) is likely higher than keeping the old one.  (Not to mention a lot more-expensive.)

        For that matter, not all old cars are that inefficient. (And as a side note, might not get their catalytic converters repeatedly stolen.)

        And if you’re referring to the batteries required for hybrids and electric cars, those have their own “additional” environmental impacts – both when new, and when they inevitably require replacement.

        A big way to lower carbon emissions is make it so people don’t have to drive much by putting housing near jobs and transit lines.

        Houses and commercial buildings are where they are.  You can’t easily pack them up and move them.  Though most development patterns exist because that’s what people preferred in the first place.  (Often times, they’re already served by public transit, as well.)

        For example, Davis has excellent public transit options to Sacramento.  And many employers there subsidized the cost for their employees.  (Compare that to the cost of driving and parking there.)  In the office I worked in, I’d estimate that 80% of the workers used public transit (from their homes throughout the Sacramento region).

        Of course, telecommuting has drastically and permanently changed the world, and is a major factor in the reduction of population (and total crash in commercial markets) in places like San Francisco.

        San Francisco is a place where “jobs” and “housing” already exist in close proximity to each other. And yet, folks are abandoning it. What does that tell you regarding what people prefer, when new technology provides them with more choices?

        Given a choice, most folks prefer to live in residential areas (or even rural areas), rather than next-door to commercial development. They also prefer to work at home.

        But driving isn’t limited to commuting in the first place.

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