City Climate Corner

Microgrids: Fremont and Menlo Park CA

Episode Summary

What are microgrids and how can they save money, reduce air pollution and provide carbon-free power and backup power? We interview Rachel DiFranco, Fremont's Sustainability Manager about the trail they blazed five years ago when they installed microgrids on three fire stations. And we're joined by Menlo Park Council Member Cecilia Taylor and Menlo Spark Executive Director Diane Bailey, to talk about how they are integrating a microgrid into the rebuild of a Menlo Park community center.

Episode Notes

What are microgrids and how can they save money, reduce air pollution and provide carbon-free power and backup power? We interview Rachel DiFranco, Fremont's Sustainability Manager about the trail they blazed five years ago when they installed microgrids on three fire stations. And we're joined by Menlo Park Council Member Cecilia Taylor and Menlo Spark Executive Director Diane Bailey, to talk about how they are integrating a microgrid into the rebuild of a Menlo Park community center.


Episode Transcription


Abby Finis  00:02

Cities produce more than sixty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Big cities get a lot of attention, but most household emissions in the US actually come from communities outside urban cores, making them critical players in climate mitigation and climate justice. City Climate Corner explores how these small- and mid-sized cities are tackling climate change and moving toward an equitable and sustainable future. I'm Abby Finis.

Larry Kraft  00:23

And, I'm Larry Kraft. We're co-hosts for City Climate Corner. 

Abby Finis  00:29

Hey, Larry!

Larry Kraft  00:30

Hey, Abby!

Abby Finis  00:32

So a new IPCC report was just released. What's the news?

Larry Kraft  00:39

I think there are two messages. One is we're not going nearly fast enough in reducing emissions and we have to really step it up. If we don't, we're gonna blow past the 1.5 degrees by the end of this decade. And the other piece is that these solutions are actually rising at the same time are getting easier to use cheaper and more deployable. It's not a all doom message. It's kind of more intense all around which Dave Roberts said in an interview he did on PBS NewsHour, which I thought was really good.

Abby Finis  01:14

It's getting worse, it's getting worse faster. We kind of know that, right? The solutions piece, it all feels like it's just within reach. But, instead of reaching for it, we continue to grasp at what we've already got. How do we let go and transition to what needs to happen and do it at a timescale that we need to do it in? 

Larry Kraft  01:38

Boy, I wish I had the answer that question.

Abby Finis  01:42

Yeah, I saw that article that's Okay Doomer, and I don't want to be that necessarily, but it just...

Larry Kraft  01:49

Because you're not a boomer, right? You can say that of me more.

Abby Finis  01:52

I'm not a boomer but I might be a casual Doomer. I just, it seems like we're grasping, especially with inflation, especially with the rise in gas prices with the war in Ukraine. We're grasping at what we're used to, and we're grasping at, get these gas prices lower, open up the oil reserves, increased production and thinking along those lines. And how do we really shift that mindset to say no, let's not be beholden to these sources of energy. But let's look to these other sources. To not only transition us but to get us on the timescale that we need to be on to avoid the worst case scenario.

Larry Kraft  02:31

Oh, I wish I had the simple answer. Maybe it needs to be more people need to see the City Climate Corner dog Parker.

Abby Finis  02:41

Little timeline cons for you is my little puppy, Parker Robin.

Larry Kraft  02:46

And if you haven't seen a picture of him, it's on our Twitter account. And he is unbearably cute.

Abby Finis  02:52

He is. I think another pathway for it is sharing these stories and sharing through podcasts or other means. And I think that today's episode is a real testament to when you can get in ahead of a project or a situation and jump on those inflection points to have the outcome that is desired for our community. And so we're talking to some folks in Fremont and Menlo Park, California about a broad range of issues, but specifically around microgrids and having this clean energy backup and shifting away from the mentality of a diesel generator to a more resilient and cleaner system.

Larry Kraft  03:34

Well, let's listen to this. 

Abby Finis  03:36

Let's do it. 

Start of interview

Larry Kraft  03:39

Today we are speaking with Diane Bailey, Executive Director of Menlo Spark. Menlo Park, Councilmember Cecilia Taylor, and Rachel DiFranco, Sustainability Manager in Fremont, California. Welcome to City Climate Corner. Let's start with introductions. Rachel, why don't you go first?

Rachel DiFranco  03:59

My name is Rachel DiFranco. I am the Sustainability Manager for the City of Fremont in California. We're the fourth largest city in the Bay Area, and we are home to Tesla where electric vehicles are manufactured. We also have about fifty different clean tech companies here in our backyard. And we are working robustly to address our climate issues. So I am overseeing our Climate Action Plan implementation and working on an update to that plan now to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2045.

Larry Kraft  04:34

Councilmember Taylor, how about you?

Cecilia Taylor  04:36

My name is Cecilia Taylor. I've been on the Menlo Park City Council since 2018, representing District One, which includes the Belle Haven neighborhood and also the Haven Avenue apartments. The Belle Haven neighborhood is significant in this conversation, I believe, because it's the only community surrounded by highways and freeways. And we need to be looking at some more clean to air options for transportation along with mitigating the existing conditions of the community. 

Larry Kraft  04:36

And Diane?

Cecilia Taylor  04:36

My name is Diane Bailey, I run a small community climate nonprofit called Menlo Spark. We are focused on helping the City of Menlo Park and all cities throughout Silicon Valley accelerate a transition to a zero carbon economy and become more resilient, achieve independence from fossil fuels, and we are centered by equity and a sense of civic heritage.

Larry Kraft  05:30

We thought we'd start by learning a bit more about your communities. Rachel, can you tell us more about Fremont? 

Rachel DiFranco  05:36

Yeah, so we're a population of about 235,000 folks, kind of bedroom community pretty much directly between Oakland and San Jose, which are larger cities in Fremont. We are in this process of transitioning from an auto oriented suburb into what we term a strategically urban, modern, and sustainable city. So we're doing a lot of infill projects. We're focusing on transit oriented development, and really, you know, working to embrace a lot of the clean technologies that are actually manufactured locally in the San Francisco Bay area. Another thing to mention about Fremont is I think it was two weeks ago, Fremont got voted the happiest city in the United States.

Larry Kraft  06:20

That's cool. Councilmember Taylor, can you give us some background on Menlo Park?

Cecilia Taylor  06:25

Menlo Park has a population just under 40,000. It's between the city of San Francisco and the city of San Jose. We also have lots of biotech companies here along with one of the largest companies that we used to refer to as Facebook now Meta. Another piece, I believe that's important is that we are facing other issues around climate crisis, which would be sea level rise. Most of our community at least in the Belle Haven neighborhood, about eighty percent are in the flood zone. We also have less than a ten percent tree canopy. And we also are just recently a district in 2018. Each area has its own dynamics, the Sharon Heights area district five are concerned about wildfires. As district one is concerned about flooding and sea level rise. We're in a really good place. We're updating our housing element, our safety element, and embedding the environmental justice piece. We had previously adopted a Climate Action Plan which we are updating recently, maybe three years ago, the community here in my neighborhood, along with Facebook put together a project called The Menlo Park Community Campus to rebuild our community center.

Climate action background for Fremont and Menlo Park

Abby Finis  07:40

Both cities have been active in the climate spaces as you both have laid out here. But we'd like to hear a little bit more context-setting about what your goals are, and some of those broader strategies and where you are in those efforts today. So maybe we'll start in Fremont. Rachel, can you give us a little bit more background there?

Rachel DiFranco  07:57

Yeah, the city adopted our first Climate Action Plan in 2012. That was on the back of adopting the general plan that we're operating under. The general plan that was adopted in 2011 has a vision for transitioning Fremont from this audit oriented suburb into a strategically urban, modern, and sustainable community. And then our climate action plan really set the roadmap for how we're going to do that. It had an initial goal of achieving a twenty-five percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction from a 2005 baseline year by the year 2020. I was hired in 2013, to work on the implementation of that plan. 

Rachel DiFranco  08:36

In 2013 we also established our Environmental Sustainability Commission, which provides recommendations to the city. We've had a lot of collaboration with our sustainability commission. That group has helped inform policies such as what we call reach code. So going beyond the state building code to require higher levels of energy efficiency, and in 2016, they actually voted to implement mandatory solar on new residential developments, which was ahead of schedule. The state wide code put that into effect three years later. We also put forth reach code around electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Ten percent of parking spaces and both residential and non residential developments need to include EB charging capabilities. We did a comprehensive streetlight upgrade a handful years back that saved the city significant amounts of electricity, our electric consumption used to be about fifteen million kilowatt hours annually. And we cut that in half by doing the streetlight upgrade and then installing solar on our facilities. 

Rachel DiFranco  09:45

Now we're looking at ways that we can continue to improve our own operations through increased resiliency with battery backup integrated in with solar, aka micro grids. We're also looking at electrifying our city facilities so that we can then taper off of gas consumption. In the meantime, we've actually substituted all of our diesel fuel for backup generators and for heavy duty vehicles with renewable diesel, which has cut the the emissions associated with those uses in about half. And then we're doing a lot in terms of public facing outreach and education as well. We have a Fremont Green Challenge, which is our residential climate action engagement portal, where households can sign up and actually learn what their own household carbon footprint is, and then work to reduce their carbon footprint through various actions that they can implement. And we have runner friendly options and youth friendly options. Because there's a lot of kids here who are super enthusiastic about taking action on climate and want to encourage their parents to do the same. 

Rachel DiFranco  10:47

We've been working with a lot of Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops and elementary school classrooms, teachers, engaging them with that platform to really learn about what we can do at the local level to take action on climate. We're updating our Climate Action Plan, really trying to focus on the next three to five years. How do we deeply decarbonize both our buildings and our transportation sector, which are the largest sources of fossil fuels here.

Abby Finis  11:13

You know, I have to say that it oftentimes feels like progress is so slow, and we're waiting for these things to have big impact. But in these conversations that we've been having with cities, I'm just so blown away by the amazing things that you all list off and are doing, and I think that we will eventually reach a tipping point, and we will feel the impact of this. Diane, there is a pretty strong community driven effort happening in Menlo Park. And you mentioned Menlo Spark, can you give us some background on that and what the group is trying to accomplish?

Diane Bailey  11:45

There is a lot going on in Menlo Park on climate and we're inspired by what's happening in Fremont. I want to start with what councilmember Taylor mentioned, which is a new environmental justice element that will be included in the housing element. We're really excited for that it's the first time the city is going to take a serious look at environmental justice through its general planning. The city of Menlo Park actually has a long history of climate leadership. It started with a Climate Action Plan, around the same time as Fremont in 2013. And the goals were pretty modest. It was a twenty-seven percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2020. At the time, it seemed like a heavy lift, but we are really fortunate in that our County, San Mateo County formed Community Choice Energy, and they provide zero carbon power at no additional cost to customers throughout the county. And that has allowed the city to achieve its initial climate goals very easily, it reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about thirty percent citywide. 

Diane Bailey  12:44

During the pandemic, the city actually adopted a new climate action plan that was incredibly ambitious, aiming for zero carbon by 2030 through a ninety percent reduction in greenhouse gases, and then ten percent carbon removal strategies. It was adopted in July of 2020. And at the time, I don't believe there were any other cities doing that. But since then, a couple of cities have adopted that goal. So it's exciting. And at the same time, it's been a little bit slow going during the pandemic. In 2019, the city of Menlo Park was able to adopt the first all electric reach code to require all electric new construction. And it was first of its kind, but it came shortly after the city of Berkeley adopted its gas ban and Menlo Park established just a slightly different way of decarbonizing new construction. 

Diane Bailey  13:35

Since that time, I think over twenty cities have adopted a similar approach that moved cities away from an incentive based plan to a more direct all electric requirement for new construction, which turns out saves developers money and prevents further use of fossil fuels. And since that time, the city has been evaluating how to move existing homes and buildings off of fossil fuels, namely methane gas, which is a little more complicated, but the city is making a lot of progress looking at low income households how to provide assistance and providing some resilience because a lot of homes in Menlo Park don't have air conditioning right now. And by providing portable air conditioners with a heat pump that can also provide heat and replace a gas furnace. So there's a really good resiliency opportunity there. 

Diane Bailey  14:26

And then one more transformational measure is the infrastructure requirements that ensure access to EV charging for all renters. So any new multifamily buildings after provide that, EV, charging access for everyone, and I wonder if councilmember Taylor has anything to add on the climate actions in Menlo Park? Just understanding the dynamic in Menlo Park that was mentioned earlier about the bayside communities being really vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding versus up in the hills and more vulnerability to fire.

Cecilia Taylor  15:02

Thank you, Diane. There's so much going on that it has been really challenging. Trying to scale how much information we bring to the public. As we head into the summer months, it's really important for folks to have a good understanding of how to read air quality. I believe one of the biggest nuisance has been the leaf blowers. There has been a group of homeowners that have agreed to actually purchase the electric leaf blower for their gardener to use. Just trying to figure out small impactful pieces that can actually help build community, build relationships, and then also be a leader. So if your neighbor is doing it, maybe you'll consider doing it. 

Cecilia Taylor  15:44

The electrification of buildings once we adopted it, people were really concerned about how it was going to impact them financially. Organizations like Menlo Spark, climate resilient communities have been bringing information into the community at a scale that is digestible. If we give them all of our Climate Action Plan at one time, it's overwhelming. So it needs to be done. Looking at it more from a community perspective, as opposed to a policy perspective. And the city adopted a 95% electrification for all buildings in Menlo Park. Residents assume you mean me, that means I have to do it, I can't afford it, or I don't want to do it. But this is a goal. If we don't set the bar high, it makes it difficult to make change because it takes so long for change to actually happen. It's explaining to people what this means, and then how it will impact us in years. For me, it's just looking at how to use the policy to be voted the happiest city, because I would love Menlo Park to be on that list. And a part of how we breathe and how we live and our quality of life is so tied to that. And the climate is definitely key.

Microgrids background and Fremont fire station project

Larry Kraft  16:55

Well, there's so many things I could go into there, including leaf blowers, which I hate - the gas powered ones. Oh, but anyway, we're here to dig more into microgrids. And I know councilmember Taylor, you talked earlier about the community center. Before we get to that, I'd love for Rachel to provide some context around microgrids because you had very early experience with this. So can you tell us what microgrids are? And, then we'd like to learn about that fire station project.

Rachel DiFranco  17:24

Sure to piggyback off of Miss Taylor said was establishing ambitious goals for the work we're doing because we know it has to happen. And a lot of the time, we don't have all the solutions. One of the things that I have resonated with you can't hit the moon if you don't shoot for the stars. When it comes to microgrids, I actually got involved in a little bit of happenstance way. We have a lot of clean tech firms in our community, as I mentioned, and I had connected with one called Grid Scape Solutions early on in my role here in the city. So within a few years of that the California Energy Commission was releasing grant funding under what they call their EPIC program. The funds are really to get projects on the ground, utilizing technologies that are market ready or nearly market ready and trying to test them in ways so that we can expand their application. 

Rachel DiFranco  18:21

There was a grant opportunity for resilient low carbon microgrids that this company Grid Scape Solutions was really focusing on. Microgrids are essentially these mini power plants that allow a facility or group of facilities to operate within their own power system. What they're proposing for the city and this public private partnership was that we install solar on a few of our city facilities that would provide that clean energy generation, and then pair it with a battery backup system that would allow any generation not utilized by the facility directly from the solar to be stored. And then have this integrated microgrid controller that allowed the facility and the solar PV system and the battery to all operate seamlessly. 

Rachel DiFranco  19:20

At any given moment, we're utilizing the lowest carbon power in the most efficient way. So what that looks like in action is solar would be generating during the daytime hours when the sun is shining. The facility would be pulling power directly from that solar PV system. And then when there's additional generation from the solar that the facility can't utilize, that starts to send power into the battery, which then charges up that battery. If the battery fully charges and we're using everything we can in the facility then any excess generation at that point would still get sent into the electricity grid as it would in a normal solar PV system. 

Rachel DiFranco  20:00

When we shift into the evening hours when there's no energy being generated by the PV, then we start to pull energy from that battery backup, and utilize that no carbon energy until the late night, early morning hours, when that battery gets depleted to a certain level, we might start pulling a little bit of energy from the grid. So Grid Scape proposed this to the city said, we want to target facilities that need backup power in emergencies. We have eleven fire stations in the city of Fremont and we targeted three of those which are the highest energy using fire stations. And lo and behold, they got the funding, then we had to figure out a creative way to actually do this project, because there's all sorts of procurement challenges when it comes to doing energy systems. So we were able to utilize a California Government Code, it's 4217 point 10. That allows a local government to purchase an energy system without going out through competitive bid as long as that government can demonstrate that the system will generate savings beyond the upfront costs of that system. And so because this was grant funded, we were able to show that this would indeed do that and partner with this Fremont based clean tech firm to install these systems.

Larry Kraft  21:29

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Larry Kraft  21:47

The benefit of this is carbon free energy inexpensively. But are there other benefits?

Rachel DiFranco  21:57

Yes, because we have the battery backup integrated with the solar generation on these facilities, it allows us to operate independently from the utility grid in the event of any emergency where the power might go down. We are actually always maintaining about twenty-five percent stored power in the battery. And that allows for three hours of what we call islanding from the grid, where if at any given time, the electricity grid were to go down, our facility would cut over into utilizing that battery power that's stored, and we would have three hours. Usually, if there's a quick power outage, our utility can get the power back up and running within a few hours. 

Rachel DiFranco  22:45

Since we got them installed, our utility has been given the green light from the State Public Utilities Commission to do public safety power shutdowns. In California we've had very hot dry summers and drought conditions that have been exacerbated by climate change. And that has caused even more extreme wildfire season. And we have had wildfires breakouts that have been directly caused by a utility line getting knocked out by the wind and creating a spark. 

Rachel DiFranco  23:20

When we're thinking about resilient facilities, you know, fire stations are extremely important to keep up and running when it comes to having power because they're going to need to be responsive to any of these conditions. We've got the systems now that allow our firehouses even if there's a power outage to have that resilient power, that battery is always got twenty-five percent charge but then it gets recharged during the day too. So if the battery is fully charged, say it's the afternoon or evening hours, we actually have eight to twelve hours of islanding capability. And then we also have our diesel generators as a secondary backup. So if the battery does run out, we still have that secondary backup. And as I mentioned, we're now using renewable diesel so it's not as dirty as the traditional diesel fuel. And then once the sun starts to come back up and the solar generate again, we can recharge that battery so then we have an ongoing power supply versus a diesel generator that would need to be refueled. If there's a longer outage, say there's a major wildfire or an earthquake, we may have weeks without power, and the systems would be able to continually regenerate.

Larry Kraft  24:33

How long has it been functioning? And, it sounds like it's working.

Rachel DiFranco  24:37

The first Fire Station Fire Station Number 11 was up and running in 2017-18. And then fire stations number six and seven came up a year after that. So they've been operating for a few years now. And these public safety power shutdowns actually started to happen after we got our systems installed. Because of that there's been a huge momentum to think about resilient microgrids on public safety facilities across the state of California. We've been in a ground zero for folks from cities all over the place to come and check out our systems see how they work in action. The cost of the systems has also gone down. That was a benefit of this project, that it also supporting this local clean tech firm here in Fremont to be able to grow and create product that is less expensive and more readily usable. They started out as a team of like six or seven folks and now have over forty people employed in Fremont as a direct result of working on this project. And their microgrid controller also started out as a couple $100,000 system with all these different components that they pieced together. And now they have what they call their micro grid in a box ready to plug and play. There's not a lot of complicated wiring or hookups. They went from a couple $100,000 initial system to now a system that's 10s of 1000s of dollars.

Cecilia Taylor  26:03

Rachel, I learned so much about the microgrid just in this conversation.

Menlo Park’s new microgrid project

Abby Finis  26:08

It seems like a really smart solution, backup power and daily power, especially in California or dry places that have those fire issues. I believe Menlo Park was also inspired by this project and has embarked on its own microgrid project at a community center. Councilmember Taylor, can you give us some background information on this project?

Cecilia Taylor  26:29

The project was brought to the council in 2019. Initially, it actually was going to continue the use of diesel. Our sustainability manager along with the Environmental Quality Commission, our local nonprofits brought information, shared it with the community shared it with the council shared it with the city. And we're able to bring this project so that it included solar solar battery microgrid, with solar thermal and heat pump heating. Even at the price tag of a $5 million investment, it's well worth it because as time goes on, that investment will pay off. And to have something of that value that will have long term use, and then also provide clean air is extremely important. And this project has been fast tracked. So we can actually see and experience it I think by the middle of next year. It's just been exciting to see how quickly it moves. This is also considered to be a Red Cross shelter as well. And then I'm hoping that there can be clean air projects offered or at least some type of education programs that will happen within the facility. It was initially called the multi generational center, because it is going to house our Senior Center, our library, our youth center, we'll have a pool on site, and it also be a gymnasium. So it's all in one building.

Abby Finis  27:56

Yeah, that sounds like a really great community asset to have, aside from adding a microgrid to the project. You mentioned, it was originally going to be diesel. What contributed to changing to thinking about a microgrid?

Cecilia Taylor  28:10

Climate resiliency advocates, having great staff, having great partnerships with nonprofits and just reminding the council reminding the policymakers, even reminding some staff that weren't familiar with how impactful this could actually be just conversation. And the fact that even the cost, it isn't as expensive as people think. One benefit that Menlo Park has is that councils have been resilient with how we utilize our spending. And then also having an economic stabilization fund. Having a fund available so that when an opportunity arises, there's money to follow through, because usually it's resources that prevent cities from making change sooner than later. And so it's important when you have the resources to actually invest. And we invested in ourselves. This is a huge investment in ourselves.

Diane Bailey  29:05

It's a really smart $5 million investment. It will take about ten to fifteen years to pay that back. But the life of the project is closer to thirty years and over the project lifetime, the city will recoup an additional $5 million in savings on top of the initial investment. And it's providing a valuable service to the community in creating this Red Cross emergency shelter and continuous power the microgrid as Rachel described, every time the sun shines, it's going to generate new energy with the solar panels and fill up the batteries. Part of the batteries will always be partitioned to have emergency power available and then they'll replenish every day. That means that for the entire community center, all of the critical services will be covered in the event of an outage.

Abby Finis  29:54

Diane, can you talk a little bit more about the community partners and who is involved in driving this effort?

Diane Bailey  30:00

You know, initially city staff were a little reticent to explore microgrid, because it's a pretty complicated project. And we felt that an additional diesel pollution burden was not really appropriate for the community of Belle Haven, which is already disproportionately impacted by a lot of freeway pollution. What our organization Menlo Spark did is we looked at cities like Fremont and we looked for examples of successful microgrids to avoid the use of diesel generators. And we were really inspired by what Fremont did with our fire stations, we provided a couple of other city based examples and schools using microgrids and just package that up into a little background or for city staff. And then I have to hand it to city staff, they really did step up and do a fair amount of research, worked with consultants to do really rigorous evaluation of different bids and financial models. To help this micro grid pencil out, they have a really neat and interesting structure to the project where they're taking the water heating for the pool, and they're preheating it using the waste heat from the solar panels with additional solar thermal, and then there's kind of bumping that up with some heat pumps to keep the pools warm. So it's a really neat project that's pushing the envelope in a really smart investment that we hope other cities will copy. 

Rachel DiFranco  31:15

I want to jump in here, because something that has continuously struck me with the work we do in the climate and sustainability realm is that we have to demonstrate these long term savings for our projects and their big capital improvement projects. We're looking at millions of dollars spent on infrastructure, but we're demonstrating that not only is this investment going to pay itself back, but it's actually going to result in additional savings to the city's general fund. So we can spend that money on other things like public safety for instance. 

Rachel DiFranco  31:52

When we think about other types of capital improvement projects that public works, typically does, they're not held to those same standards, you know, they may be putting in, you know, things that have other public benefits, right, like bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, for instance, or filling potholes. There's really no energy savings metrics associated with any of these other measures. We have this win win with our projects. And yet, we typically don't have a fund for capital improvements associated with sustainability and resiliency projects. As we've moved from just the straight energy efficiency upgrades like switching out incandescent and halogen high pressure sodium lights with LEDs that result in kilowatt hour savings and reduced utility bill costs. And now we're moving into these projects that, you know, not only do that, but they also provide all of these additional resilience benefits, public safety, they're supporting the most disadvantaged folks in our community with diesel generators, we're reducing all this air pollution locally. We have huge public benefits associated with our projects, and we have not put the funding behind them in the same way that we have with traditional capital improvement projects. We're at this stage where we are transitioning, we do have state and federal dollars that are really starting to pour into climate and resiliency infrastructure in a way that they haven't before. But we're still not quite at that tipping point.

Abby Finis  33:24

I think that's a huge, huge point. And the burden has been on energy efficiency and sustainability and other energy improvements to have that return on investment. But what is the return on investment of a highway? You know, you mentioned Belle Haven is surrounded by highways, which actually has major negative externalities. I wonder, as an elected official, Councilmember Taylor, what approach do you all think when when looking through the budget? And how can we shift that so that we're putting the burden on these other projects to have positive externalities rather than just defaulting to them? What kind of approach can we take?

Cecilia Taylor  34:05

I believe sustainability needs to be rooted in everything that we do. And when we look at climate action, it needs to be a part of our Complete Streets Commission, not just our Environmental Quality Commission. It needs to be a part of our Library Commission. It needs to be rooted in everything that we do. And I believe that we are on that track. It's just now we need to tie resources funding to this initiative.

Larry Kraft  34:30

Diane, what did you see as the biggest challenge to getting this approved in Menlo Park? And then how was that overcome? Was it money?

Diane Bailey  34:39

Yeah, I think some people were concerned about using city resources on a project they considered nice to have but not a need to have. But at the end of the day, this project saves the city a lot of money and provides these valuable services to the community. And we think any chance the city can take to eliminate fossil fuel pollution is a really important step to take. And fossil fuel pollution, it's never written on anyone's death certificate as a cause of death. But we know that cities the world over are choked with pollution from fossil fuels like diesel generators, and about nine million deaths globally each year are caused by pollution from fossil fuels. So this is a really easy step that cities can take to eliminate this pollution with tangible health benefits to the surrounding community. And it's a smart investment that pays for itself. Independence from fossil fuels is important. Now more so than ever. So we hope that other cities will take a serious look at the steps that they can take to eliminate diesel generators and look at clean energy sources as a smarter way to provide emergency backup power,

Advice on mainstreaming sustainability

Larry Kraft  35:48

Especially becoming independence of fossil fuels is more important than ever right now. Just think about how that conflict over in Ukraine right now, it'd be different if we were independent of fossil fuels. So do you have any advice for other cities?

Rachel DiFranco  36:02

Both councilmember Taylor and Diane alluded to this, we're at the stage now where the work that we're doing in climate action and sustainability is essential to the long term livability, viability, health and well being of our communities and the members that live within them. And so we need to move away from this idea of sustainability as a nice to have, as Diane said, to really becoming an essential standard operational practice within our communities. And it's not just the role of the sustainability manager or team if you're lucky to have one, to be pushing these initiatives and implementing them. They need to be institutionalized and mainstreamed as councilmember Taylor alluded to, within everything that we do as a city. Our goals are to serve our communities and to serve our communities, we need to be accountable to our local environment, and really address climate change in a robust way. I actually have on a sticky note at my desk, those two terms institutionalization mainstream, because that's what I'm working to do. I don't need to bring myself up in stature within the city and build out a team, I need to get everybody else in all these different departments thinking about sustainability as a core function of what they do as well.

Cecilia Taylor  37:20

I don't even know what else needs to be added to that statement. I agree!

Larry Kraft  37:27

What she said.

Rachel DiFranco  37:29

And we need council members to understand that and to resonate with it, as well, right?

Diane Bailey  37:34

Well said, Rachel, I think you covered it well.

Larry Kraft  37:37

Thank you so much the three of you. This has been so interesting and educational. Councilmember Taylor, I really resonated when you said, "Hey, I've learned a lot today!" because I have as well. Thank you all very much.

Abby Finis  37:48

Yeah, thank you.

Abby and Larry debrief

Larry Kraft  37:52

All right, Abby, a lot we talked about in that episode. What were some of your takeaways?

Abby Finis  37:58

Yeah, I mean, again, I am so impressed with the amount of work some of these cities are doing, and how much progress they're making. And it does feel like we're getting to somewhat of a tipping point. And in some of these communities where you don't have to fight anymore for making the case for sustainability initiatives, it becomes the default. As Rachel was listing off all of the things that they do, and then adding that we have to report the what is the payback? You know, the question is always, what is the payback? And there's always this burden on sustainability to demonstrate a payback, and you don't have you don't say, oh, when is this highway gonna pay us back? Because it's going to take from us, it's never gonna pay us back. But somehow we rationalize and justify that, versus some of these things that have major health benefits of major climate benefits, and also pay us back. But that's what everybody wants to claim to.

Larry Kraft  38:55

That point really resonated with me to being involved in city government. You know, as we go through budget, it's what's your capital expenditures, and it's not reflexive to actually say, How much does this pass back? And these investments actually save money.

Abby Finis  39:12

Yeah, I think maybe you should flip the script and start asking questions about these other projects, and how are they going to pay us back? Yeah, the burden there.

Larry Kraft  39:21

Another thing I really liked was how Fremont blazed a trail with these microgrids, doing a pilot project with a local business that provided microgrids, learning a ton, and then helping that technology get down the cost curve, and now it's being deployed in a nearby city.

Abby Finis  39:42

Yeah, and I think that it's a really great example of not only a successful project, but also showcasing all of these additional benefits that come from having a clean microgrids situation where you improve the resilience of wherever it's applied to in this case it was a fire station. It's clean, so you're not adding pollution to the community. When we think about the possibilities around distributed energy and microgrids, we can think about the reduced burden on transmission and utility scale projects where there's increased by a risk of transmission lines going through dry forests. Just thinking through what the system wide resilience benefits can be from just locally generated electricity to reducing the hazard risk.

Larry Kraft  40:36

Looking into this, microgrids sounds like a very fancy name, but really, it's solar with batteries, and then some intelligent switching of flow of electrons. It's not that complex a concept, but it actually in the way it's being implemented, it feels kind of transformational, especially as we're dealing more and more with weird weather from climate change and disruptions to the grid. Having a more distributed energy approach just builds resilience in to disasters that may happen.

Abby Finis  41:07

Yeah, and it's catching on. Menlo Park picked up on it. And it's getting ahead of the project, identifying those inflection points, and making it clear what your priorities are. Councilmember Taylor, and Diane of Menlo Spark, and members of the community really took a look at what their goals are. And they're looking at a neighborhood of Belle Haven that's surrounded by freeways, pretty bad air pollution, and that compounding pollution that comes into the neighborhood that would have come with a diesel generator is eliminated. That's one step that they can take to get ahead of air pollution. In an already burdened community. It's just a really great example of deciding what you want, and pushing forward. And getting that result instead of going through with what is the status quo and then regretting that decision later and having to retrofit.

Larry Kraft  42:06

Yeah, and those benefits happen on top of it being a financial benefit to the community over time.

Abby Finis  42:13

It's not just a financial benefit. They're rebuilding a community center. And so it is a community space. It's an educational opportunity. It's an opportunity for residents to engage with one another, and to just demonstrate what these kinds of projects what these kinds of efforts can bring to a community. And I really like that it's being driven in large part by residents who are engaged in Menlo Spark, who continue to put pressure on the city to live up to the goals of its climate action plan. 

Larry Kraft  42:43

Love it. 

Abby Finis  42:46

We hope you enjoyed this episode of City Climate Corner. If you like what you're hearing, make sure to subscribe and give us a review. If you're able, become a monthly supporter through Patreon. As always, you can find more information on this topic and resources from each episode's guests on our webpage If you have an idea for the show, send us an email at or find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Larry Kraft  43:10

City Climate Corner is produced by Abby Finis and me, Larry Kraft. Edited by me. Our production assistant is Maggie Morin. Music by …

Abby Finis  43:19

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Larry Kraft  43:21

Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.