Mark McDermott

City will switch to 100 percent renewable energy

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by Mark McDermott

The City Council Tuesday night voted to use all renewable energy at city facilities, stop the use of pesticides and herbicides in all the city’s green spaces, and consider a possible ban of all gas-powered landscaping equipment within city limits.

It all began with a discussion of leaf blowers. The Manhattan Beach Village Homeowners Association requested an exemption to the citywide ban on leaf blowers. The gated community proposed a pilot program that would allow the use of electric leaf blowers, which are both environmentally less impactful and less noisy than their gas-powered counterparts.

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“This ordinance is over 20 years old,” said Scott King, a board member from the MBVHA. “I believe the technology of leaf blowers has changed since then.”

Mayor Steve Napolitano, who was on the council that originally instituted the ban due to noise pollution, was amenable to the proposal.

“The question is are we going to continue to play the game of cat and mouse with those folks, or are we going to see if the technology is better?” Napolitano said the city grapples with enforcing its many bans —  on smoking, plastic bags, polystyrene, mylar balloons, and plastic straws — and that the leaf blower ban was largely being ignored.

“Yes, we ban them now, but you hear them every day in Manhattan Beach,” he said.

Councilperson Suzanne Hadley argued that bans that are not enforced undermine respect for the city’s laws, and further, that fining gardeners for using leaf blowers didn’t seem appropriate.

“I am not in favor of levying huge fines on gardeners who are struggling like a dickens to make a living in Southern California,” Hadley said.

Councilperson Nancy Hersman disagreed that difficulty in enforcement equated to lack of value in banning things, using smoking and speed limits as examples.

“What it does do is let somebody know that this is not allowed in our community, and for the most part people are going to obey the rules,” Hersman said. “You can’t just say if you can’t enforce it 100 percent it’s no good.”

Councilperson Hildy Stern said the issue really came down to money, because all that leaf blowers do is allow for more efficiency, and thus cheaper landscaping costs.

“We know we can’t give up our environmental concerns and we can’t give up our health concerns because the cost of living is more expensive,” Stern said. “And I don’t think we can carve out a population and say, ‘It’s okay for you to impact health and the environment.’”

Leaf blowers kick up particulates that have been shown to damage human health; their use is opposed by the American Lung Association, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has issued a report warning of their adverse health impacts. More generally, gas-powered landscaping equipment has increasingly come under environmental scrutiny. The CARB issued another report that showed there are 16 million “off-road” engines used in gardening in California, as opposed to 18 million cars, and that by 2020 ozone-damaging emissions from those engines will exceed those from cars.

Napolitano agreed that carving out the Village homeowners would not be equitable but proposed a compromise. He asked staff to investigate a citywide ban on gas-powered landscaping equipment and the environmental gains that could be achieved by instead using all electric equipment. His motion was approved by council.

“We could reduce impacts environmentally overall if we go all electric, rather than just the blowers,” he said. “I see that as a tradeoff that could be an overall win for the city.”

The next environmental decision the council faced was the opportunity to switch to entirely renewable energy for all city facilities. The city last year joined the Clean Power Alliance (CPA), a nonprofit community choice energy (CCE) program made up of 31 public agencies across Los Angeles and Ventura counties that enables residents to buy renewable energy through their Southern California Edison bills. The CPA has three tiers —  100 percent, 50 percent, and 36 percent renewable energy. Those who opt in at 100 percent see increased costs of 7 to 9 percent; 50 percent is on par with standard SCE costs; and 36 percent realizes a 1 to 2 percent cost savings.

City facilities have been at the 50 percent tier, which has allowed the city to realize a 22 percent greenhouse gas emission reduction. According to Dana Murray, the city’s environmental sustainability manager, opting in at 100 percent would double that reduction to 44 percent while costing an estimated $70,000 to $90,000 annually.

“It is not an overstatement to say this would be the biggest environmental decision ever made by this city,” Murray said.

Climate scientist Juliette Hart, a resident, and member of the city’s Sustainability Task Force, urged the council to take the action as “a simple step” with significant environmental impact. Hart, a contributing author to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, works for the United States Geological Survey to develop sea level rise and coastal storm science. She wrote a detailed email to every councilmember, not from her role at USGS, but as an extremely concerned citizen.

“I have been steeped in the science for two decades and can say unequivocally that climate change is real, it’s accelerating due to human activity and it’s about to get away from us if we don’t act now,” she wrote. “If we don’t curb our emissions starting immediately, the future is not one any of us would want for ourselves…or for the children we love so dearly.”

Hart also argued that acting now is the most cost-effective route the city could take.

“Any single dollar spent today to plan for climate change offsets $6 in potential future costs from damage to infrastructure, natural resources and the health of our community due to climate impacts,” Hart said. “When you take in this true accounting of costs and benefits —  there is really no debate…this is a step that the City of Manhattan Beach can’t afford not to take.”   

Napolitano argued that the biggest decision the city has made environmentally was actually joining the CPA, to begin with, and he wasn’t sure that the cost of going to 100 percent renewable was the most impactful way to spend the money. He suggested buying solar panels for city facilities, and thereby getting it off the grid entirely, would be more effective.   

“We need to end our reliance on outside energy at some point, and to start doing that we need to start investing in our own infrastructure and our own power generation infrastructure, which we really have not even begun to do in this city,” he said.

Stern said the decision was not mutually exclusive —  that in fact, the city could both switch to renewable energy right now and go solar further down the road. She likened it to an infrastructure repair, such as a leaking roof, in which the city has no real choice but to act immediately.

“This is a cost to repair…Our earth is leaking. We have to do this now,” Stern said. “We have to find a way to repair that.”

Councilperson Nancy Hersman agreed. “What is happening today is climate change,” she said. “What is happening today isn’t about the long term viability of the city, it’s about the long term viability of the planet…Climate change is real, it’s happening, and we need to do something today to save our planet the way we are hoping it will be for our kids and grandkids. We need to plan for the future. It couldn’t be more important. All the rest of the stuff pales in comparison.”

“We’ve never been a city that sits back and lets everyone else take the lead,” Hersman added. “We are a city that gets out in front of things.”

Hadley opposed it. She said her own family had gone solar and she was sympathetic to the need for sustainability but that this was only one of many possible steps.

“That $70,000 could go toward our guaranteed pension and benefits payment, which are rising by a million a year,” she said. “That is much more a train coming at us and we can see the headlights. That isn’t far into the future.”

The council voted 4 to 1, with Hadley opposing, to switch to all renewable energy.

Finally, the council took up a recommendation from the Sustainability Task Force to green all of its landscaping, insect, and pest control practices. The issue became urgent last summer when a jury in San Francisco found that Roundup, the most popular weed killer in the world, gave a former school groundskeeper terminal cancer and awarded the man $289 million in damages. The city at the time was using Roundup; the council ordered its discontinuation and asked the task force to come back with recommendations for alternative practices.

Those recommendations included: banning the use of all non-organic products for the control of weeds in parks and open spaces; replacing landscaping with plants that naturally repel rodents; rather than use of rodenticides, trapping gophers manually; prioritizing use of organic products in city facilities to control pests; replacing First Strike rat bait with traps and vitamin-based bait; and budgeting for up to $117,000 in increased labor costs, largely for manual weeding; and initiating a public education campaign about the health importance of such green practices.

After some debate over the price tag, the council came to a compromise —  they trimmed labor costs to $17,000, and essentially agreed to let more weeds grow. Councilperson Richard Montomgery noted that back during the recession beginning in 2008, landscaping had been cut back due to budget constraints, and weeds hadn’t overtaken the city.

“We just watch and see what happens,” he said. “Some native plants are okay.”

The compromise passed unanimously. “We are just going to have to get used to weeds in the fields,” Hersman said.

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