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Climate Dispatches: Electrifying everything

 

We here in the Tahoe/Truckee region are gearing up for another long fire season, especially with the meager snowfall we received this winter. And projections are that future wildfire seasons will continue to get longer and more intense until we get a handle on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Every country, every state, every town needs to do its part, and Truckee is stepping up, particularly Truckee Donner PUD, but there is a lot more that needs to be done. One of the most effective things we here in Tahoe/Truckee can do to reduce our GHG emissions is electrify our buildings and all forms of transportation.

Before I dive into electrification, allow me to give you a little context. There are six big pieces to slowing the rate of emissions and eventually reducing the amount of GHG in our atmosphere:

1. Convert our electrical grid to run off of zero emission energy sources



2. Electrify our building, transportation and industrial sectors

3. Manage our natural and cultivated lands to absorb as much carbon as possible




4. Curtail the use of super greenhouse gases (man made gasses with hundreds to thousands of times more heat trapping ability)

5. Greatly limit our use of plastics

6. Yes it’s true, eat less meat

The good news is that if we just do the first two pieces: convert our electrical grid to zero carbon energy sources and electrify our building, transportation and industrial sectors, we will be over half-way there. And the even better news is that at least for the vast majority of transportation and building sectors we have the technologies available to decarbonize now (the technology to decarbonize the industrial sector is still a work in progress). Scientists have concluded that we need to cut the world’s GHG emissions in roughly half by 2030 in order to avoid the possibility of irreversible climate change. So it is imperative that we implement these first two pieces as soon as possible, because the other pieces are more complex and in some cases require technologies that have yet to be perfected.

So where does Truckee stand at this point? The vast majority of us in our town get our electricity from the Truckee Donner Public Utility District (TDPUD). The TDPUD has done an amazing job of staying ahead of the curve on renewable energy. Right now, the TDPUD energy portfolio is made up of 65% renewables (wind, solar and hydro), with some combined cycle natural gas power plants making up the balance. By 2022, that renewable portion will rise to 75% with the addition of the Navajo Nation’s Red Mesa Tapaha Solar Project.  Long duration energy storage technology is coming along and some utility scale projects are starting this year.  Within the next five years, the TDPUD hopefully will have some viable technology options for managing the intermittent nature of renewable energy. With some luck and hard work, the TDPUD energy mix will be close to 100% renewable in five to ten years. That would be an impressive achievement, but not sufficient to the scope of the climate emergency.

The Town of Truckee completed a GHG inventory in 2016 and updated it in 2018, and it showed that our largest source of emissions was from our building stock. Most of that came from our use of natural gas to heat the air and the water in our homes and businesses. The next step to lowering the emissions of our town is to convert our HVAC systems and water heaters to use heat pumps. Those of you who became acquainted with heat pump technology when it first came out over twenty years ago are probably rolling your eyes because the technology was not up to the task. But the technology has come a long way. There are buildings in Martis Valley that are kept toasty warm all winter long by heat pumps. Heat pumps will actually have a lower cost of ownership over their lifetime than do gas appliances. That won’t help with the upfront sticker shock though. The TDPUD currently has a generous, yet very limited heat pump rebate program that hopefully will be expanded.

The Truckee GHG inventory also showed that the 2nd largest contributor to our GHG emissions is the transportation sector. As an EV owner myself, I can testify to how well these machines work in this climate with great handling in the snow and plenty of gear hauling ability. And every year more models are introduced at all price points. The total cost of ownership of an EV is lower than that of an internal combustion engine vehicle due to maintenance and fuel costs. I won’t go into a lot more detail on EVs here because a previous Climate Dispatches column already did a great job of covering this, but I bring it up here again, just to highlight that we have it within our power to take a huge chunk out of our collective GHG emissions in our town.

The United States contributes 15% to the world’s GHG emissions these days. And Truckee emits an infinitesimal percent of that. So why should we go to all this trouble? The answer is two parts. The first is that we can and should serve as a model and as an inspiration to other small towns, especially small towns in similarly cold climates. If we can show the way for five other towns our size, then we have quintupled the effect of our GHG reducing actions. I’ll close with a statement, a challenge and a question. Our town relies on snow and its tourism dollars, and we are surrounded by forests that are becoming sicker and dryer for longer every year. So if we won’t lead the charge on solutions to climate change, who will?

Matt Tucker is a full time Truckee resident, father, husband and founder of RebuildClimate.org.


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