Thursday, September 17, 2009

Benicia poised to embark on 'greener' future

Benicia poised to embark on 'greener' future
By Tony Burchyns
Posted: 09/17/2009

BENICIA -- The City Council has unanimously adopted a plan to reduce the city's carbon footprint, but several hurdles remain before it may take effect.

Major components of the plan include boosting wind and solar power production and making homes 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020.

City officials say the so-called Benicia Climate Action Plan isn't a quick solution, but rather a road map for gradually lowering the city's greenhouse gas emissions.

First, the council must name members to Benicia's newly created Community Sustainability Commission, which has been charged with managing and guiding the green transition.

The panel will consist of residents, but may not hold its inaugural meeting until October or November. Among its first tasks will be to prioritize the plan's more than 100 goals and strategies for timely implementation.

The members will advise the council and regularly review the plan, make recommendations about it and help decide which programs would become mandatory.

In adopting the document late Tuesday, the council issued instructions to focus on implementing voluntary programs first whenever possible. These include proposed solar-permitting fee waivers, home energy and water audits and energy-efficiency rebates for residents.

Other, more controversial proposals would require such actions as a building audit and efficiency program for Benicia's commercial and industrial sectors. These initiatives likely will take longer to implement.

Other city panels, such as the Planning and Historic Preservation Review commissions, may also be part of the review process.

Drafted over many months with the help of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo faculty members and students, the plan provides "a menu of options" for meeting the greenhouse gas reduction targets that Benicia adopted last year.

The Cal Poly team worked closely with city officials and the public to devise one of the state's first overarching community sustainability plans for a city Benicia's size.

Assistant professor Adrienne Greve of the Cal Poly City and Regional Planning Department personally thanked the council and staff Tuesday for providing the educational opportunity.

"Climate action planning is increasingly important," Greve said. "You have played a role in the future generation of planners."

The document -- more than 100 pages long -- is separated into eight realms, beginning with education and public outreach, energy production and transportation and land use. The other chapters address buildings, industry and commercial, water and wastewater, solid waste and parks and open space.

City officials say the plan is not a bundle of policy mandates, but a possible "road map" to a more sustainable community. Its individual goals are mostly aimed at lowering the city's carbon emissions and grid use during the next 10 years and providing financial tools for change.

Although the plan does not provide easy answers for a greener future, it represents the first overarching approach a Solano County city has taken to climate change.

Jenny Bard, regional air quality director for the American Lung Association, offered her group's support of the initiative and expressed hope that other Solano County cities would follow suit.

The plan addresses Benicia's long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals, which meet or exceed those established by state law for 2020. City officials have vowed to cut carbon emissions for municipal operations by a third below 2000 levels. And the council last September also vowed to reduce greenhouse gases in the rest of the community by 10 percent below 2000 levels by 2020.

Some programs such as solar financing options for businesses and homes, already are under development. The city also is considering generating some of its own power through wind turbines or solar panels to operate large facilities such as the waste water treatment plant. The city is expected to award contracts for some of these renewable-energy projects by November.

As for achieving Benicia's green vision, city leaders say one challenge likely will be encouraging residents and businesses to buy into new ideas without forcing behavior changes.

Council members Mike Ioakimedes and Alan Schwartzman said carrots would be better than sticks. Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson did not object to any proposed energy-savings mandates, but did recommend offering technical assistance to and for local businesses.

Contact staff writer Tony Burchyns at (707) 553-6831 or