This month, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres issued a stark warning: “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back—and it is already doing so with growing force and fury.”
Nature’s wrath was on display this fall, as orange skies and raging wildfires forced thousands of Californians to flee.
Today, the San Jose City Council can help protect our climate safety by strengthening its updated all-electric ordinance for new buildings. We applaud Mayor Sam Liccardo and council members for their preliminary approval of this bold new policy. It’s essential for climate protection since gas burned in buildings (mostly methane) generates a third of our greenhouse gas emissions.
Unfortunately, what could have been one of the nation’s strongest all-electric ordinances now comes with a poison pill.
Due to pressure from Bloom Energy, an ill-considered exemption was added for Distributed Energy Resources (DER), allowing continuously-running fuel cells powered with fracked gas—plus even dirtier combustion-based cogeneration systems that last for two decades. This exemption could thus offset most or all of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions achieved by the ordinance.
Yes, businesses need a reliable source of backup power during outages, but that doesn’t mean they need fuel cells. LEED-certified architects like Stet Sanborn of SmithGroup verify that even very large facilities can cover their backup power needs with state-of-the-art solar-plus-battery systems.
As the Capital of Silicon Valley, San Jose should incentivize these clean-energy solutions, not the fossil gas past. Even diesel generators are preferable to fuel cells, because unlike fuel cells that are powered with gas all year, generators are only used during shutoffs, causing far fewer emissions.
Note that companies may have another motivation for using fuel cells: money. Fuel cells allow facilities to source less expensive, dirty gas energy, bypassing the local clean standard electricity as well as the fair share electricity charges that SJCE or PG&E must then collect from the rest of us.
Retired utility planner Tom Kabat warns, “Bloom-boxes are just selfish 24/7 energy arbitrage at the expense of our climate and our future. They make it harder for others to electrify because they drive up electric rates.”
Allowing fossil gas in new buildings also perpetuates environmental racism because the gas is extracted primarily in communities of color, causing serious health consequences.
What seems complicated boils down to three simple truths:
- DER systems that use fossil fuels are damaging to health, climate and communities.
- They are not needed: there are cleaner ways to source reliable backup power.
- An end run around the all-electric ordinance threatens our climate goals and SJCE’s viability.
Council members Raul Peralez, Magdalena Carrasco, Sergio Jimenez and Sylvia Arenas understand this. At the Dec. 1 council meeting, they voted on a first motion to approve the ordinance without the DER exemption. That motion failed 4-7.
On a second vote, the majority caved to Bloom and passed the ordinance with the DER exemption, by a vote of 8-3, with Peralez, Carrasco and Pam Foley dissenting to protest the exemption.
We mothers and youth urge council to remove this dangerous loophole today—or at the very least, direct staff to report on its implications and cleaner alternatives within three months. We’re happy to help with this and the Future of Work Workshop.
Scientists warn that we must reduce emissions dramatically within the next nine years, or risk hitting tipping points that spiral out of control. Every year of delay in cutting emissions makes the problem harder to solve down the line.
Make no mistake, the DER exemption will open a Pandora’s box that could derail our climate-smart progress—and set a dangerous precedent for other cities.
We ask the council: will you allow that to happen on your watch?
Linda Hutchins-Knowles is California senior organizer for Mothers Out Front, a national movement of mothers and others mobilizing for a livable climate for all children. She co-founded and coaches the Silicon Valley chapter. Maggie Dong, a sophomore at Branham High School, is co-lead of the San Jose team of Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].