How to Green the Island

Since rapidly increasing solar power makes little sense in Alameda right now, the answer is less driving.


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The best way to green the Island is for Alamedans to drive less.

Photos by Clayton J. Mitchell

Gail Payne had what she called “a weird driver experience,” while stuck in the Posey Tube. As buses in a dedicated bus lane whizzed past her gridlocked car toward Oakland, Payne, who serves as the city of Alameda’s transportation coordinator, got angry at the buses. “But then I realized, ‘No, I should be on the bus,’” Payne said.

Her comments came during a “Love Our Green Island” town hall in May, as representatives from the city’s transportation, public works, and planning departments; Alameda Municipal Power, or AMP; and the Community Alliance for a Sustainable Alameda, or CASA, reported on successes in reducing greenhouse gas emissions locally, and invited the public to share their ideas on how to achieve greater sustainability.

The town hall occurred against the backdrop of President Donald Trump withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, California Gov. Jerry Brown assuming the unofficial mantle of U.S. ambassador for climate change, and a state-commissioned report that indicates the Bay Area could see sea levels rise by 3 to 4 feet by 2100.

CASA’s Ruth Abbe said the genesis for Alameda’s climate action plan came in 2006, when a group of citizens, inspired by Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth, asked the city to conduct an inventory of Alameda’s greenhouse gas emissions. The inventory found that 54 percent of emissions in Alameda—an island with little industry and lots of residential units—were transportation-related. Heating, cooling, and lighting accounted for 29 percent, and commercial uses 17 percent.

The findings confirmed that the most critical change needed in Alameda is for folks to drive less. The inventory also revealed that city of Alameda activities only account for 3 percent of Alameda’s greenhouse gas emissions. Or as Abbe put it, “97 percent of the Island’s emissions come from us.”

As a result of these findings, the city pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to 25 percent less than its 2005 emissions level and incorporated seven main initiatives into its action plan. These included a zero-waste strategy, community outreach, sustainable design and building standards, funding for alternative transportation, and a goal of 100 percent carbon-free sources of energy. By 2013, the city recorded an 8 percent reduction in emissions (below its 2005 level). “So we were on track; we had made some significant progress, and hopefully we’re still on track,” said CASA’s David Burton, adding that since 2008, the economy has bounced back. “But young people are driving a lot less, and that’s helped.”

 

About 54 percent of emissions in Alameda are transportation-related, while lighting accounts for 29 percent, and commercial uses, 17 percent.

So just how green is energy on the Island? Surprisingly, given the island’s weather and progressive values, the energy source mix for Alameda Municipal Power includes no solar. Why? It has to do with the fact that because Alameda remains mostly a bedroom community, it uses more power in the evening after the sun goes down than during the day. “Alameda is unique in that we need power at 7 p.m. on a winter’s day,” explained AMP Assistant General Manager Rebecca Irwin. “We’re not anti-solar, but until battery technology is more advanced, we can’t rely on it,” she continued, noting that the technology for storing electricity produced by solar energy during the day is not yet ready.

Currently, AMP has about 400 customers with rooftop solar systems who get rebates from selling energy back to the grid. But net metering rebates are ending in Alameda, because AMP hit 5 percent (the level at which rebates drop) of its generating capacity from solar in June. So will that lead to less solar? Irwin noted that AMP will continue to pay rebates through a successor compensation plan. “It doesn’t pay as well, but we feel it’s fairer,” Irwin said, noting that some people feel rebates create social injustice issues, since low-income renters don’t benefit.

In 2012, AMP raised $25 million by selling renewable energy credits to the California Department of Water. The state allowed the sale because AMP exceeded the state’s target of 25 percent fewer emissions than 2005 by 45 percent, she said. AMP used the money to fund projects that reduce greenhouse gases, including energy-efficient lighting. “We mailed 2 LEDs [lightbulbs] to every household,“ Irwin explained, noting that AMP provides discounted LEDs and appliance rebates.

With the city aiming to deliver an emissions update by December 2017, create a sustainability action plan by June 2019, and invite the community to a series of forums, starting this fall, the Island’s awash with creative ideas. Local residents Richard Bangert and Irene Dieter are suggesting creating a solar farm at Mount Trashmore, a former landfill near Bay Farm Bridge. It’s a big idea that everyone can relate to,” Bangert said.

And Damian Mason of Alameda Backyard Growers said that as the city prepares to become carbon-negative, it’s time to get serious about sequestration, a process in which carbon is stored back in the earth. “That way, we can have our carbon sink and eat it,” Mason said.

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