California is seeing one of the worst droughts in decades and even though we are not yet in fire season, there have been four times as many wildfires so far this year in California compared to previous years. If you live in Sonoma County, the impacts of climate change are very real. We all have our bags packed in case of a fire evacuation and more recently a requirement to cut back on water. Healdsburg is no different, having had the Walbridge fire last year and the recent water restriction limiting households to 74 gallons per person per day. One of the people at the front line of helping us navigate our way through the challenges posed by climate change is Felicia Smith, Healdsburg City’s conservation analyst. I recently sat down with her to chat through some of the challenges we face and discuss some of the solutions. Having got a BS in sustainability Felicia first worked for the County on some of the plastic waste reduction initiatives but quickly moved on to her role with Healdsburg city to help think through the bigger challenges facing all cities in California.
Dealing With The Water Shortage
With the recent outcry over people being told they can no longer run their irrigation systems and having their water restricted to 74 gallons per person per day, this was the first topic of conversation.
Before talking specifically about Healdsburg, it is important to put it in the broader context of California. In 2018, with California's historic five-year drought ended Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill 1668 which set water efficiency standards for utilities to follow. For example the bill says that indoor water usage needs to be reduced to an average of 55 gallons per person per day by 2023 declining to 50 gallons by 2030. The worsening water situation is just one sign of climate change making a real impact on our lives after decades of being ignored by officials. It was only 6 years ago that the then mayor, Shaun McCaffery, commenting on a report by a consultant on the future of Healdsburg water supply saying, "Healdsburg has a very stable water supply moving forward. There's a fear out there of a lack of water out there. When you look at it, it turns out everything is OK." Maybe not!
Fast forward to today. "We have known this situation has been coming for a while which is why we have had a steady drip (excuse the pun) of communication in water bills over the past 6 months. One of the biggest challenges is making people aware of how much water they are using. This is one of the reasons we partnered with Flume to help give people the tools to understand their own water usage. It is not until people realize how much water, for example, their irrigation uses, they can start to appreciate where water can be saved."
This definitely rang true for me. I installed a Flume on our water meter and I was embarrassed that we were pretty much using our daily allowance of one person on our yard even though we have drought resistant plants and artificial grass! Having had Flume for a month now, we are easily managing to stay with in the 148 gallons per day (between the two of us) and giving our yard the water it needs. According to Felicia, "people's usage varies enormously. For example there was one household that was using 75,000 per month. That is the water budget for 33 people in a single household! Giving people the insights into their own consumption genuinely helps change behaviors."
As we have seen water tanks appearing in front yards, and in some cases being buried in enormous holes in the ground, it has definitely renewed the conversation about grey water, or tertiary water. According to Felicia, "the program to deliver tertiary water has been incredibly successful. Our challenge has been keeping up with the demand. We currently have 850 customers who are looking to have water shipped to them and already have 350 households who are up and running with their tanks." Perhaps the recent crisis will reinvigorate the plan to bring purple pipe into Healdsburg, While it was originally intended for the high school, plaza, golf club and the parks, hopefully it will increase the desire to get this done but more importantly to extend access to it. For example in Windsor, all new construction is now required to be connected into the Purple pipe.
Using Less Energy Not Just Generating Cleaner Energy
Whether talking about water or electricity, the message is the same. "We need to learn to use less. All too often there is a singular focus on producing clean energy but we need to start off by educating people to use less. That being said, Healdsburg has a good track record of generating clean energy with 48% from renewable sources with the goal being 60 per cent by 2025," commented Felicia. I was surprised to learn that this is actually a more aggressive goal than at the state level where the goal is to increase to 60 per cent by 2030.
The largest share of that renewable supply, 40% of the total load, has come for decades from the Geysers geothermal field in the Mayacama Mountains. However with the Kincade fire, we lost the output of the geothermal plant and at the moment it is still being covered by natural gas. When everything is going as planned we are on track but then a natural climate-change driven event such as a fire sets us back," explains Felicia.
Centralizing clean power generation is one part of the story but having customers implement their own distributed solar installations is the piece of the clean energy puzzle. According to Felicia, "there are now have 275 commercial and residential solar implementations in service generating 2.87Mw which is a good start. To put it into context it is just 0.5% of the output of a typical coal fired power station.
When talking to Felicia I get the sense she has a bit of a downer on residential solar. She assures me that isn’t the case. “Solar is a key part of the solution, it just isn’t the only solution. My concern about the emphasis on residential solar is that it hides the real problem which is that we also need to use less power, we need to reduce our kilowatt useage. My frustration is that the implementation of solar has a disproportionately large share of the conversation. Let's face it, it is a lot more exciting talking about Tesla batteries than attic insulation!”
She has a good point. The good thing about the recent water “budgets” introduced by the city is that it has suddenly forced us to think about how much of everything we are using. As with water, no-one really thinks about how much they are using. Ironically, the thing that changed my perspective was implementing solar. It was only then that I had an app on my phone that tells me exactly how much I am generating as well as how much individual appliances use. Every time my wife dries her hair with the hair dryer or I turn on the microwave, I see what a huge draw they are on our power consumption. It is only by seeing that we typically use 14kW of energy can we begin to try to reduce it. The question is how do we reduce our consumption.
More Energy Efficient Buildings
When we start talking about how to make our homes smarter so that consumer behavior can be shifted by smart pricing models, it’s clear that this is an area where Felicia feels that we can make the biggest strides in improving the sustainability of our electrical footprint. "Making our homes smarter as well as changing the physical attributes of our homes and the devices within them is the only real way to try to drive our consumption down."
As with many other cities, Healdsburg offers rebates and incentives for people improving the energy efficiency of their homes
through physical changes such as installing low energy windows and enhancing wall and attic insulation through to installing electrical heat pumps for either cooling or heating. However it also offers rebates for installing a smart thermostat or more energy efficient appliances.
Are We Doomed?
Living in Sonoma County, or rather California, definitely puts us at the sharp end of climate change. Climate change is not something that can be fixed by California but if the impact it is having on our daily lives isn't enough to drive a huge shift in behavior, then nothing will. "There is a fundamental need to change the way we live at a system level. It's up to cities, states and governments to work together to help us all rethink our use of resources at a macro level. We all need to make small changes but it needs to be part of a bigger initiation to reconfigure the way we live," concluded Felicia.