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Los Altos council set to vote on reach codes

Update 7/2: This story has been updated to include information about a subsequent poll that was done showing different results than the earlier poll.

The Los Altos City Council is scheduled to decide whether to proceed with mandating controversial reach codes at its July 14 meeting. 

The proposed codes would establish infrastructure for electric-vehicle charging and ban natural gas in favor of all-electric amenities in new housing construction. They have generated strong, contrasting responses, with proponents and opponents both pointing to surveys to confirm their views.

Results of an early spring online survey conducted by the city of Los Altos posed the question, "Are you in favor of mandating all-electric for all new construction?" Results showed 70.3% of the 300 registered participants said they are “very unsupportive” of this scenario resulting from reach codes – which “reach” beyond established energy-efficiency guidelines. Another 4% said they were “somewhat unsupportive.”

However, a subsequent survey following an April 29 webinar with the city's Environmental Commission, posed different questions and options, and drew different results. This time, the question was, "Which of the following reach codes would you support?" Among 266 respondents answering, 26.7% chose "a total ban on natural gas (including outdoor use)"; 46.1% chose "all new construction and major remodels"; 29.6% were for "all electric for new construction only"; 20.4% were for "all electric for new construction with exceptions for cooking"; 29.6% were in favor of "mixed-fuel (gas and electric) with additional efficiency measure for new construction"; and 27.2% were in favor of no reach codes. 

The topic has pitted cost-efficiency-minded residents against those who favor fighting global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It also reveals a clash of philosophies over government’s role in dictating reach codes.

Leading the campaign in favor have been local environmentalists, including the local nonprofit Greentown Los Altos.

Leading the campaign against what has been called a natural-gas ban is a grassroots group, Los Altos Residents (LAR), that recently held its own webinar (losaltosresidents.org) on the subject.

The discussion has often centered on Los Altos Mayor Jan Pepper. As CEO of Peninsula Clean Energy, Pepper has been subjected to criticism over a perceived conflict of interest. The council voted 3-2 in November to pursue the reach code mandates, with Pepper voting in favor.

Pepper initially said there is no conflict of interest because there is no monetary gain for her as the head of a nonprofit agency. But Los Altos resident Freddie Wheeler, an attorney, is convinced there is a conflict and has reported it to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (see related story in the print and online editions).

Local environmentalists note that all-electric construction in new homes would at least put a dent in carbon emissions – natural gas accounts for 35%, transportation for 58%. They also contend that the vast majority of residents would not be impacted, with estimates of 40 new homes being built every year.

Members of Los Altos Residents, however, cite the slippery-slope factor, noting the mandates could lead to more restrictive measures that phase out natural gas. They also claim the codes would ban natural gas in new commercial and residential construction, as well as “scraped” remodels.

The prevailing reasons for keeping natural gas include expense and retention of gas-powered stovetops and ovens. Some attest to better cooking with gas over electric stoves. Some gas proponents said they are also are looking to avoid higher costs that come with maintaining all-electric homes and point to unreliability with power outages amid increased wildfire risks.

All-electric proponents, however, note the phasing out of natural gas is an eventuality as more is done to combat climate change. They also point to the flammability risk, citing the 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people. PG&E officials support the proposed Los Altos reach codes. The Mountain View and Los Altos Hills city councils have already adopted similar codes.

The current proposed codes, if adopted, would expire Dec. 31, 2022.

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