Zimmerman: San Jose needs to stand up for its climate goals
An aerial view of downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

Almost two years ago, the San Jose City Council passed landmark legislation banning the use of natural gas in new residences, becoming the largest city in the nation to do so. Shortly after, councilmembers considered additional legislation banning natural gas in commercial properties. In the eleventh hour, at the behest of Bloom Energy, an exemption was added for distributed energy resources (DER).

DER facilities are small-scale and most often intended for use during power outages. The ordinance defines DERs as “electric generation or storage technology that complies with the emissions standards adopted by the State Air Resources Board.”

While this exemption may seem like a small fish in a pond full of bigger polluters, there are compelling reasons for its removal.

The exemption is too broad

First, while this exemption was intended for fuel cells only, including Bloom Energy servers, the technology-neutral language opens the door to more than the council bargained for.

Per the exemption, the natural gas ban does not apply to “facilities with a physical connection to the electrical grid and a Distributed Energy Resource for necessary operational requirements to protect the public health, safety, or economic welfare in the event of an electric grid outage.”

Engineer and zero-carbon building designer Stet Sanborn explains the exemption is “a CO2-wolf in fuel cell clothing.”

“The exemption as stated for distributed generation technologies encompasses far more technology than natural gas-powered fuel cells,” Sanborn said. “That exemption also includes all combined heat and power systems, including co-gen and tri-gen systems, which are for more widespread and far cheaper than Bloom fuel cells.”

Thus, the exemption intended for the gas-powered fuel cells could unintentionally open the door for even more polluting forms of DER.

According to Jennie Loft, spokesperson for San Jose’s Environmental Services Department, the development applicant would simply be required to fill out a DER form which is then reviewed by the city. She noted if the DER qualifies based on the ordinance language, “we would envision that the city would approve it.”

The most recent data available on methane gas-powered fuel cells in San Jose indicates there are about 20 systems, with a combined generation capacity of about 30 MW, all installed between 2010 and 2019. As of yet, no exemptions have been requested under the new ordinance.

There is no legitimate need for the exemption

Second, the premise for the DER exception—that alternatives to fuel cells are too expensive or unreliable for other critical infrastructure—isn’t totally accurate.

“All of the all-electric buildings I’ve done have been at cost or lower (than those with gas) because you’re not paying for gas lines to be connected and run all through the building,” said Sanborn, a principle at architecture and engineering firm SmithGroup. Regarding Bloom specifically, he noted, “In a robust (life cycle cost analysis) in today’s dollars, all-electric wins for every building type. PV+battery will outperform Bloom today and also outperform diesel generators.”

Even diesel generators—while still bad—are not as bad for the climate as fuel cells. Diesel generators are only run in case of an emergency, whereas fuel cells, even those intended only for emergency use, are run continuously, 24/7 every day of the year.

“If there’s truly a hardship case where there is no other way for a facility to have the power it needs, they can apply for a hardship exemption that’s already written into the gas ban ordinance,” said Linda Hutchins-Knowles, a volunteer with Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley. The group has mobilized resistance to the DER exemption.

San Jose needs to take a stand

Last, and most importantly, San Jose needs to make a point to the fossil fuel industry that it will not be manipulated—again. The exemption raised legitimate concerns about the influence of lobbyists in San Jose politics, highlighting the close friendship between Mayor Sam Liccardo and Carl Guardino, who recently stepped down as Bloom Energy vice president.

“Removal of this exemption is important not only for the environment, but also because it sets a dangerous precedent of industry and insider interference in climate policies,” said Susan Butler-Graham, team coordinator for Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley.

Dashiell Leeds, conservation organizer with the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, agrees and said San Jose had previously been explicit with its intentions to move away from fossil fuel infrastructure.

“This exemption fundamentally contradicts the core purpose of the city’s entire climate planning effort,” Leeds said.

In summary, the exemption undermines San Jose’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and could potentially prevent the city from reaching its climate goals.

I encourage you to let your San Jose councilmember and the mayor know this exemption should be removed as soon as possible. Doing so will get the city back on track to achieving climate neutrality and reestablish San Jose’s climate leadership.

San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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