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Mayor Sam Liccardo courtesy of the city of San Josevia Joe W Forth

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Exclusive Interview: Mayor of America’s 10th Largest City on Benefits & Challenges of Electrification

I’ve been following San Jose’s Mayor, Sam Liccardo, for some time. In 2019, I heard from environmentalists in California about how he was instrumental in getting all-electric building legislation through the city council of the nation’s 10th largest city. I’ve also been tracking San Jose’s nation-leading efforts in clean electricity and electric vehicles.

I’ve been following San Jose’s Mayor, Sam Liccardo, for some time. In 2019, I heard from environmentalists in California about how he was instrumental in getting all-electric building legislation through the city council of the nation’s 10th largest city. I’ve also been tracking San Jose’s nation-leading efforts in clean electricity and electric vehicles (with over 20% of new cars being EVs). I’ve wanted to know the secret to this city’s sauce and look for strategies and takeaways that the rest of our country might follow.

I was thus tickled pink when I had the opportunity to sit down with Mayor Liccardo and ask him about the ways in which his city was leading the nation, specifically on transportation and building electrification. And without spoiling the interview you’re about to read, I have to say our talk was quite interesting. Rather than unabashedly embracing the electrify everything movement his city is spearheading, he was more measured and objective in talking about both the opportunities but also the challenges of moving away from fossil fuels at the city level. Perhaps I got a taste of why he is so popular and won reelection in 2018 with 75% of the vote. His city is cutting edge and leading the nation in electrification but he’s measured, clear eyed, and realistic about the challenges of getting off fossils.

Mayor Sam Liccardo, courtesy of the city of San Jose

Mayor Liccardo, thanks for taking the time. You’re the mayor of the 10th largest city in the US and leading the charge on electrification both in buildings and transportation. Tell us, how do cities play a unique role in transportation and building electrification that other levels of government can’t or don’t?

Electrification is a great opportunity for us, certainly with buildings but also with transportation infrastructure since that’s the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in most of our cities. Moving our automobiles to the grid is crucial and San Jose is the leading city in the country on electric vehicles. We need to do it all and the push is on in all sectors, whether it’s in new building codes or electrifying train systems. In our case, we are currently electrifying a train which was built during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

At the same time we need to make sure we are greening our grid. Here in San Jose that really happened dramatically through the Community Choice Energy Program a couple of years ago, we were the largest city in the country to do that. Starting in January, 92% of our power will be drawn from non GHG emitting sources so it’s either hydro or renewables and we’ll be pushing it towards 100%.

It’s all downhill from here. How do I top an interview with one of the coolest mayors in the country?

Let’s talk about buildings a little bit. San Jose is the biggest city to electrify first residential buildings and now multifamily and commercial. What advice would you give to other cities looking into electrification?

I know there are a lot of different situations in different cities, some cities have investor owned utilities, some have municipal owned utilities, some have cooperatives. Whatever the relationship might be, it’s important that there is a really clear commitment to green the grid first because pushing folks to electricity if it’s coal fired doesn’t do any good.

The second issue is to really grapple with the perils of electrification and to be very clear and honest about the limitations. The limitations are much more severe down here in San Jose than they are in your neck of the woods (Portland, Oregon) because of all the problems we have with our infrastructure. PG&E and its lack of investment in maintenance and capital replacement, as well as all the impacts of climate change and wildfire and so forth that are causing everything from power safety shutoffs to having our independent system operator, which operates the grid for the entire state, literally browning out during high usage periods in the summertime, which is happening occasionally. Then we’re also seeing blackouts resulting from failing infrastructure so we’ve got a real problem with the grid and we need to be honest about that. Residents are understandably leery about us pushing them towards a solution that is not reliable and is not terribly resilient.

So the message is to be careful about the problems of the grid. But San Jose is still pushing for an all-electric future, so how do you balance that?

Yeah, we are, and it’s a really hard balance. It helps if you’re starting with new construction, because obviously that’s a small percentage of the built environment that you’re dealing with, so it helps to start there. We had to take some baby steps at first. We actually started this about a year ago with residential and some commercial, but we were hesitant about going to high rise because of some limitations around technology and what we were hearing from builders. So we engaged in a lot of outreach to see how it could be done and be feasible and be at least the same cost or lower. Because we’re blessed to have a very proactive private sector around us, we think we found good solutions that everyone can live with.

Then the other thing we had to do bluntly is we had to hedge our bets to some extent. For example, we made exceptions for hospitals, for data centers. If they’re using distributed energy which meets a certain standard around having zero emissions for NOx and SOx and particulates, then we’ll allow it (them to use natural gas). Not all environmentalists embraced this strategy because it still relies on some natural gas, but if you’re running a data center or you’ve got some industry that is super reliant on a grid that is always going to be up and running, you’ve got to give them options, and just having dirty diesel backups isn’t a very good solution. 

Let’s turn to transportation. San Jose has the highest per capita percentage of EVs in the country — what’s the secret to its success?

Well, have Tesla located next door (laughs). We’ve got a lot of Tesla employees in our city. In truth, there are a lot of different electric cars. I drive a Chevy Volt, my wife drives a Bolt. Like Portland, we’re a city with a relatively well educated population, with a progressive mindset. And people understand it and get it about climate change. It also helps to be in a place where you already have a significant amount of solar deployment because there seems to be a high correlation between those who have solar and those who drive electric vehicles, because we all feel better when we’re drawing the power off our roof. 

How about policies on the city side to promote transportation electrification?

We have been working really hard on the transit piece. We have the largest deployment of electric buses at our airport of any city* (there may be cities that have passed us now since we did that last year). It helps having some local producers here, like Proterra, who’s in the Bay Area. So, we’re working hard on the deployment of electric buses. There is a real constraint there on battery life and charging but we think with supercharging coming onboard that may get around that. For transit agencies, it’s just a problem with longer routes and having buses that just rely on the batteries.

It helps to have some state mandates in place. That’s really important. It forces the investor-owned utilities to make investments — for example, in car charging infrastructure — so you need to have partners at the state level that are willing to push with you.

[*Editor’s note: This is in regards to US cities only, not globally.]

I work with a nonprofit organization called Forth that does transportation electrification. How do NGOs play a role helping cities meet their climate goals?

Yeah, super important. One is to push us cause we’re often not even aware of what’s out there. City Hall can get siloed at times, and it’s really important to have the NGOs who are interfacing more proactively with the innovators. It’s also really important around moving the community. Because what we know about climate change is the most impactful things we can do really involve behavior and behavioral change. And all the great technology in the world is going to help, but it won’t really move the needle like we need.

For example, we’re partnering with some NGOs looking at the parts of the city where there’s not a good enough transit service because of budgetary constraints and asking if we can engage low-income residents in a cooperative model on an electric carsharing pilot. That’s where NGOs are really instrumental, bringing people along who may not speak English, helping them with a technology they may not be familiar with, and hopefully making mobility less expensive for them in the process. 

That brings me to another question: how do electrification and equity go together from where you’re sitting?

I think given the extraordinary capital costs we have ahead to upgrade our grid and deal with the legacy problems we’ve had. You look at gas infrastructure here, for example — we actually had a horrible explosion about ten years ago, a lot of people’s lives were lost in San Bruno. What we know is that consumers are going to be paying more and more and more for infrastructure, even as renewable energy gets cheaper. It’s going to be critically important that we can make these changes in ways that don’t further impact those who are already struggling mightily to pay their utility bills. 

One place to really start is to focus on multifamily housing and seeing how we can dramatically reduce the bills and make multifamily housing more fuel efficient and cost efficient. 

Do you think electrification inherently does that? And is that why San Jose is mandating electrification in multi-family buildings?

It’s certainly cheaper from a construction standpoint. There are competing theories about whether gas or electric prices are going to be rising faster in the long run, and I know it’s going to vary a lot by market given the particular infrastructure in that region. I’m not going to weigh into that debate other than to say — I’m firmly convinced that our future is electric (emphasis mine), so we better be investing dollars and making sure we’ve got a resilient grid. I think this is the greatest challenge for us as we think about all of our sustainability measures — we’ve got to ensure that there is a green dividend for the great majority of residents who can’t afford a Tesla, and I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of that yet. We’re spending a lot of time thinking about how to do it better, but we haven’t gotten there. 

Is there a particular program you feel like is on the right track?

All of them cost money, the ones that I can think of, so there is no great solution. At a time when we’re literally spending general fund money to feed people who can’t afford food, a lot of these programs are a lot harder to come by. Maybe this is a conversation that is easier to have when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic. I think there is great value in a lot of the utility-sponsored programs that have been focused on education with a small subsidy that helps somebody replace their gas water heater. I think there is great value in that. But it’s hard work and requires an army of trusted community partners. 

What are the next steps for San Jose in the electrification of transportation and buildings?

Certainly retrofits are where lots of folks are focusing now, and we’ve had some experience in that, but costs are challenging. Certainly that is one frontier that is an important one. Let me say there is one other one that we have to pay attention to and it goes back to the grid. We need at the national level a concerted microgrid strategy to enable more distributed generation of power and a more resilient supply. Or else a lot of our efforts will be undermined with the next hurricane, the next earthquake, or the next power safety shutoff if you’re down in California. We know that battery technology is a ways off — it’s still too expensive if you’re looking for storage that is going to last three to four days. There may be some interesting solutions using hydrogen and fuel cells that could be zero emission that are very exciting. But we’ve got to get to that holy grail of distributed generation that is resilient. I know it’s true not just in California but around the country. Read the book called The Grid and it will scare the hell out of you just how bad of shape our grid really is in. We know we got to get to electrification, but we need infrastructure that will be there for us.

I don’t mean to be Debbie downer, this is important work, but we don’t want to save people from one cliff while we’re pushing them off another one. 

Watch the full interview with Mayor Sam Liccardo here

 

 
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Written By

Joe lives in Portland, Oregon, and works for the nonprofit New Buildings Institute, which promotes electric and decarbonized buildings. He also volunteers with Electrify Now because he believes that electrifying everything, from transportation to homes, is the quickest path to an equitable, clean energy future. And of course, Joe and his family live in an all-electric home and drive an EV.

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