Opinion: We need clean energy opportunity zones

by Ray Mueller on March 29, 2022

Over the past decade, Menlo Park has moved from laggard to leader in local action to transition energy use toward healthier, cost-effective alternatives that dramatically reduce climate change pollution. As a City Councilmember and former Mayor, I can’t express how rewarding it has been to work in partnership with residents, businesses and community organizations to adopt our first ever climate targets, make 100 percent clean energy available to all residents through PCE and put in place zero emission programs for new construction among many other advances. Our community has much to be proud of and yet, as the headlines show each day, there is so much more to be done to play our part in averting the worst from climate change.

The next great challenge Menlo Park and local jurisdictions face in the transition to clean energy, is how to empower and incentivize residents to convert existing residential and commercial property away from CO2 emitting gas appliances and infrastructure to a renewable clean energy future. The long-term cost savings, efficiency and health benefits from this transition are terrific. But, in the near term, policymakers are wrestling with real challenges regarding how to fund such conversions. How can we make it feasible for residents, including those on fixed incomes, to pay for the conversion of gas to electric appliances and home electrical upgrades?

To make the transition in existing buildings to clean energy work for everyone, I am proposing the State of California consider creating Clean Energy Opportunity Zones. Within these Opportunity Zones, the state could pilot test approaches, such as tax write offs, rebates, grant programs, incentives for business creation, and labor training programs. Lessons learned could then be drawn up for future legislation, and scaled statewide.

Such legislation could create a multi-tiered framework allowing for a prioritized number of local jurisdictions to apply to be designated as Opportunity Zones. Within those Opportunity Zones, tax write-offs could be piloted for property owners making improvements to facilitate electrical conversions. Additionally the legislation could provide funding for appliance rebates. The legislation also could provide incentives for business creation, training programs for labor, and grant opportunities for local jurisdictions facing capital infrastructure hurdles. Most importantly the legislation would need to require the cooperation of PG&E and local utilities.

At the local level, to participate in the Opportunity Zone, Cities and/or unincorporated County participants would be required to adopt Climate Action plans, collect data and metrics, measure progress, document frontline challenges, and conduct culturally competent outreach programs to the public, providing information about the program and collecting feedback.

Finally, the legislation could require all of the data collected to be sent to the Governor Office of Planning and Research, which would then evaluate the information and make recommendations to the State Legislature how to move forward in scaling what worked.

I concede the idea to create Clean Energy Opportunity Zones, is but one of many possible approaches to help aid the conversion of our existing infrastructure. I provided it to Senator Becker, who was as always encouraging. His office is investigating the idea. I share the idea here in this editorial to encourage readers to also share their ideas. What could the state, county, and city do that would help your household convert gas appliances to clean electricity? If we all had the help, how soon would we be willing to act, at a time when scientists tell us our immediate action is urgently necessary.

Ray Mueller has served on the Menlo Park City Council since December 2012.

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