wind turbine with solar panels

Napa County Planning Commissioners talked about the proposed phasing out of natural gas-powered water heaters in rural homes and other possible steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

They talked about the latest version of the county’s climate action plan and associated environmental impact report. About 14 people watched from the audience on Wednesday and five spoke during public comments.

At its core, the climate action plan is a carbon-cutting call to action. Dozens of steps include increasing participation in Marin Clean Energy’s 100-percent renewable electricity option and supporting use of cleaner-energy agricultural equipment. The plan would affect only unincorporated areas governed by county government, not cities.

“These are significant issues and they require us to create a document and a plan that sets the bar high,” Commissioner Dave Whitmer said. “I’m not afraid of that.”

One idea that has drawn attention is requiring new water heating systems –including replacements in existing homes when the old systems wear out – be powered by electricity or alternative energy rather than by natural gas.

The North Bay Association of Realtors said homeowners account for less than 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and are being unduly prioritized by the climate action plan.

Some homes could require thousands of dollars in electrical system upgrades for water heater replacements, a letter from the group said.

“Launching the (plan) with a series of costly requirements on residential, ignoring higher emissions in other sectors, runs counter to our housing crisis and public goals,” Cynthia Turnbow wrote on behalf of the North Bay Association of Realtors.

Planning Commissioner Anne Cottrell asked the climate action plan consultant, Ascent Environmental, for more information on the water heater issue.

The water heater measure is low-hanging fruit for residential, said Brenda Hom of Ascent Environmental.

Since much of the electricity is to be generated without carbon emissions, that leaves natural gas to address. In 2009, 34 percent of natural gas usage in homes came from heating water.

Whitmer said he’d like to have incentives to help people replace their gas water heaters.

“We got into this mess because all of us are contributing to it,” Whitmer said. “And we’ve got to get out of it by getting as many people as we can across the community involved in it.”

A previous attempt by Napa County to craft a climate action plan ended in failure in December 2012. Wine industry groups said new growth – which in the rural county is primarily wineries and vineyards – bore too much of the carbon-cutting burden in the plan and the county Board of Supervisors agreed.

The latest climate action plan effort began in 2015. Wine industry representatives at Wednesday’s meeting voiced no significant complaints about the latest version.

“We believe the process with Ascent has been open and collaborative,” Michelle Novi of Napa Valley Vintners said after the meeting. “We are encouraged by the most recent draft.”

One primary agricultural measure is supporting the conversion of diesel or gas-powered irrigation pumps to solar, electric or other alternative power sources.

The county would provide technical assistance to farmers and help find grant funding. An option for existing diesel pumps is to use renewable diesel, which contains no fossil carbon.

For certain new agricultural projects subject to environmental review, such a a proposed vineyard on a slope greater than 5 percent, this measure would be required for new pumps.

Jim Wilson of Napa Climate NOW! said after the meeting that the county’s climate action plan is on the right track. But he wants bolder action in the face of what he called a climate change emergency.

He favored having the county adopt a more ambitious target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. That means any carbon emissions would be balanced by carbon removal.

Napa County’s climate action plan environmental impact report contemplated a net-zero-by-2030 alternative.

Among the steps needed would be a major mass transit service expansion, 100-percent waste diversion from landfills, converting septic systems to composting toilets or blackwater recycling systems and requiring as much tree preservation as feasible, the report concluded.

Whitmer expressed concern that the county’s climate action plan would apply only to unincorporated areas. He wants to see a coordinated, more holistic Napa County approach that includes local cities.

That could be coming. The Napa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday adopted a climate change resolution calling for a community round table, advisory group or similar body to identify carbon-cutting strategies with cities. The cities are considering the same resolution.

The Board of Supervisors appointed Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza to represent the county on the planned regional climate change group. If two representatives are needed, Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht will also serve.

“The countywide commitment recognizes the need for decisive, near-term actions to reduce excess trapped heat and prevent further global warming,” said Chris Benz of Napa Climate NOW! “The next step is to determine what actions we take and how we obtain funding for them.”

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.