In 2020, major events and disruptions have altered the world around us. We confront a global pandemic and a rapidly warming planet that threaten our health today and survival tomorrow.
Against this daunting backdrop, mothers and others are coming together to build the necessary power to protect our climate and children–like the power the Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley team has built in their local community and ultimately in the halls of power.
The team’s passionate advocacy over the past year and a half helped to secure the final passage, on December 15, 2020, of a newly expanded, all-electric building code in San Jose, California, the nation’s tenth-largest city. This makes San Jose the biggest U.S. city yet to ban fossil gas infrastructure in virtually all new buildings, setting a powerful example for other cities!
And they’re not done yet! Please sign their petition urging City leaders to remove an exemption for dirty gas-powered energy.
The story begins in the summer of 2019, when Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley joined the Campaign for Fossil Free Buildings in Silicon Valley (FFBSV). At that point, few of their members knew what a reach code was or why building electrification is essential to solving the climate crisis. But they were eager to learn.
To start, they hosted a webinar with experts from the Sierra Club and Menlo Spark to educate their members about reach codes–city or county codes that “reach” beyond state minimum requirements for energy efficiency in new buildings. When the members learned that the “natural” (fracked) gas burned in buildings generates up to 40% of Silicon Valley’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that reach codes can accelerate an equitable transition to buildings powered by clean electricity, they launched a whirlwind campaign to urge San Jose to pass the strongest possible reach code.
They wrote Letters to the Editor; met with City staff, council members and the mayor’s advisors; conducted a Twitterstorm; and spoke at a press conference and City Council meeting. Mayor Liccardo and the council members listened to the mothers and allies! On September 17, 2019, they unanimously declared a climate emergency and passed a strong building electrification reach code. After a large youth-led climate march and rally at City Hall, at which Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley spoke, the Council returned in October to adopt an even stronger ordinance banning fossil gas infrastructure in new low-rise residential construction!
In the following months, the team helped allies pass reach codes or gas bans in several nearby towns, including Morgan Hill, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Saratoga, Campbell, Los Altos and Sunnyvale. It was time now to set their sights on an even bigger prize: extending San José’s all-electric ordinance to all new construction, including high-rises and commercial sites.
Mothers Out Front members celebrate after Morgan Hill bans gas in new buildings
Taking the Lead
By now, Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley had become well-versed in building electrification, and volunteers Jenny Green and Shruti Gopinathan had led their own informative webinar on reach codes. So they were ready when, just days before the scheduled vote, local company Bloom Energy launched an insider campaign to secure a loophole in San Jose’s proposed gas ban extension. Leveraging the influence of Silicon Valley heavy weight Carl Guardino (their new Executive Vice President and a friend of Mayor Liccardo) Bloom convinced City staff to add a last-minute exemption for “distributed energy resources” (DER), including Bloom’s fuel cells.
When they learned that these fracked gas-powered fuel cells operate 24/7, 365, generating large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley jumped into action to lead the opposition to the misguided exemption. Susan Butler-Graham attended strategy meetings with allies, Hoai-An Truong led social media outreach, Jenny Green sent action alerts and an official letter, and Hutchins-Knowles spoke with council members and the mayor and wrote a detailed critique of the exemption.
Their quick work secured a delay of two weeks in the vote on the ordinance, during which the team and their allies generated several dozen letters urging Council to pass the updated gas ban ordinance without the exemption for dirty energy. NRDC allies created an infographic which the team shared on social media. On November 30, the day before the first vote on the new ordinance, Green and Hutchins-Knowles published an eye-opening op-ed in San José Spotlight.
The Council Votes
At the December 1st virtual City Council meeting, dozens of members of the public, including Mothers Out Front, gave moving public comments. This is what it looks like to build power: an outpouring of parents, aunties and youth insisting that their representatives take action commensurate to the climate crisis and stop the build out of fossil-fuel infrastructure. Hutchins-Knowles also spoke up in solidarity with Local Union 393 (representing plumbers and pipefitters), endorsing their request for a Future of Work workshop with key stakeholders from labor, business and the environmental community, to ensure a just transition for workers.
After lengthy discussion, the Council finally voted. On the first vote, four courageous council members voted for the updated gas ban ordinance and against the DER exemption: Raul Peralez, Magdalena Carrasco, Sergio Jimenez and Sylvia Arenas. That motion lost, 4-7. On the next vote, the majority voted 8-3 to adopt the updated ordinance with the DER exemption.
In the days surrounding the vote, Mothers Out Front hit the press. With the support of allies at NRDC, they secured seven earned media pieces describing the big win—and the big loophole. The week after the first vote, the team hosted an online screening of “I Am Greta,” viewed by over 200 people. After a post-screening discussion facilitated by Stephanie Morris, the team collected 133 signatures on a last-minute petition to Mayor Liccardo and the council members, urging removal of the exemption.
On December 15, the morning of the final vote on the ordinance, Hutchins-Knowles and Maggie Dong, co-leader of Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action’s San Jose Team, published a powerful op-ed in San Jose Inside. At the virtual City Council meeting, Mothers Out Front and allies urged the Council to insist on a more detailed study of the DER exemption. However, facing a lengthy agenda for their final meeting of the year, the Council rushed to adopt the updated ordinance without requesting this important analysis.
The Work Continues
The work of the Silicon Valley team is not done. After taking some time to savor the central role they played in convincing the nation’s tenth largest city to ban fossil gas in most new construction, they will continue to advocate for a belated analysis of the impact of the DER exemption on San Jose’s climate-smart goals.
So before you enjoy that holiday cookie or cup of holiday cheer, please support the work the team has started by signing their petition. Share this message with your friends and family: they can sign during the virtual cookie-making or New Year’s Eve parties.
Join the chorus of voices insisting that no gas means no gas … so we’ll all have a healthier and safer new year!
Rosemary Lytle, Frontline Communications Consultant for Mothers Out Front, is a columnist who worked in newspaper journalism for nearly 20 years. Linda Hutchins-Knowles is Mothers Out Front’s California Senior Organizer.
On October 29, 2019, electrification advocates cheer after San Jose bans gas infrastructure in new low-rise residential construction