Hutchins-Knowles, Green: San Jose must show the way on electrifying new buildings
A coalition of organizations supports San Jose going all-electric. Photo courtesy of Mothers Out Front.

As September’s orange skies and record-shattering wildfires made vivid, we’re in a climate crisis. The impacts are hitting low-income communities and communities of color first and worst and threaten the viability of civilized life on Earth. The majority of Americans (72 percent of voters in a recent Fox poll) are concerned about this crisis and want action now. Parents are worried, aware that our children’s futures will be severely compromised.

That’s why we’re channeling our mama bear love into action, advocating for bold climate policies in our communities. When we learned that the gas burned in buildings is the second largest source of climate pollution in our region and severely degrades indoor air quality, we joined the fight for building electrification reach codes.

In the past two years, 39 California cities and counties have adopted ordinances requiring new buildings to be powered by clean electricity, not dirty gas. This is essential to meeting our climate goals, as the methane from fossil gas is 86 times more climate-destabilizing and worse for the climate than coal.

We were thrilled last fall when we helped convince San Jose to adopt a strong building electrification code, eliminating fossil gas from new low-rise buildings. Now it’s 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 ground-breaking all-electric code to include almost all new buildings: high-rise, commercial buildings, industrial and manufacturing facilities. If not watered down, San Jose’s new code will be the nation’s strongest, proving a model for reducing indoor air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, one company, Bloom Energy, has made a last-minute request to have its fuel cells exempted from the new ordinance, despite its technology being called “too dirty and too costly” by Forbes. Unfortunately, the city is on the brink of acquiescing to Bloom’s demands, proposing an exemption through the end of 2024: four entire years!

Make no mistake: this will seriously undermine the effectiveness of San Jose’s code. Bloom’s fuel cells are hooked up to gas lines and powered primarily by fossil gas. The justification for allowing their use is that some businesses need continuous power and cannot afford even temporary power loss, as occurs during Public Safety Power Shutoffs. Bloom promises “Always On” electricity that wouldn’t be affected when the electricity grid goes down.

There’s a huge problem though: Bloom’s Energy Servers are not economically viable if only used during power shutoffs. Instead, they run 24/7/365 for 5 to 10 years or more. Using them for “backup power” is like killing a flea with a tank: unnecessary overkill.

The carbon emissions from using gas-powered fuel cells for baseload power are enormous and threaten San Jose’s ability to reach our climate goals. Instead, the city should allow diesel generators to be used during power shutoffs until battery storage technology will suffice.

Yes, diesel is dirty, but it would take​ more than 100 days of ​using back-up diesel generators to equal the CO2-equivalent emissions of ​using ​continuous ​natural gas-powered fuel cells ​year-round! If diesel power is only allowed during shutoffs, routine maintenance and testing, the emissions won’t come close to those of dirty fuel cells running continuously.

We urge the City Council to adopt the updated gas ban ordinance as originally proposed and to reject the last-minute attempt to squeeze in an exemption for dirty fuel cells. Our city is too smart to fall for greenwashing and too important a role model for other cities around the country. We cannot allow loopholes the size of pipelines in the race for a livable climate.

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

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