Hutchins-Knowles, Inexperienced: San Jose must cleared the path in electrifying new buildings

When the orange sky in September and the record breaking forest fires came alive, we are in a climate crisis. The effects hit low-income and colored communities first and worst, threatening the viability of civilized life on earth. A majority of Americans (72 percent of voters in a recent Fox poll) are concerned about this crisis and want to take action now. Parents are concerned and know that our children’s future will be badly affected.

That is why we put the love of our mother bears into practice and support a courageous climate policy in our communities. When we learned that the gas burned in buildings is the second largest source of climate pollution in our region and that it severely affects indoor air quality, we joined the battle for the range regulations for electrifying buildings.

In the past two years, 39 California cities and counties have enacted ordinances that require new buildings to run on clean electricity rather than dirty gas. This is important in order to achieve our climate goals, as methane from fossil gases is 86 times more climate-destabilizing and harmful to the climate than coal.

We loved it last fall when we convinced San Jose to introduce a strict building electrification code that eliminates fossil gas from new low-rise buildings. Now is the time for San Jose to take its climate leadership to the next level.

This Tuesday, the city council will vote on expanding San Jose’s groundbreaking all-electric code to almost all new buildings: high-rise, commercial, industrial, and manufacturing facilities. If not watered down, the new San Jose code will be the strongest in the country and a model for reducing indoor air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, one company, Bloom Energy, filed a last-minute request to exempt its fuel cells from the new regulation, despite Forbes calling its technology “too dirty and too expensive”. Unfortunately, the city is about to comply with Bloom’s demands and is proposing an exemption until the end of 2024: four full years!

Make no mistake: this will seriously affect the effectiveness of the San Jose Code. Bloom’s fuel cells are connected to gas pipelines and run primarily on fossil gas. The justification for allowing their use is that some businesses need a continuous power supply and cannot even afford a temporary blackout as they can with public safety blackouts. Bloom promises “Always On” power that will not be affected if the power grid fails.

There is one big problem, however: Bloom’s energy servers are not economical if only used during power outages. Instead, they run around the clock for 5 to 10 years or more. Using it for “emergency power” is like killing a flea with a tank: unnecessary overkill.

The carbon emissions from using gas-powered fuel cells for base load power are enormous and threaten San Jose’s ability to meet our climate goals. Instead, the city should allow diesel generators to be used during shutdown until battery storage technology is sufficient.

Yes, diesel is dirty, but using replacement diesel generators would take 100+ days to match year-round CO2 equivalent emissions from using continuous natural gas powered fuel cells! If diesel power is only allowed during shutdowns, routine maintenance, and testing, emissions will not come close to those from dirty fuel cells that run continuously.

We urge the city council to pass the originally proposed updated gas ban regulation and to reject the short-term attempt to introduce an exemption for dirty fuel cells. Our city is too smart to fall for greenwashing and too important a role model for other cities across the country. We cannot allow gaps in the size of pipelines to achieve a livable climate.

Jenny Green is a volunteer leader of Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley, the local chapter of Mothers Out Front, a national movement of mothers and others that works to create a livable climate for all children. Linda Hutchins-Knowles is the senior organizer of Mothers Out Front in California and coach of the Silicon Valley and San Francisco teams. Both live in San Jose.

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