Takoma Park Could Be Among Nation's First Cities To Ban Fossil Fuels Can one small city take on climate change? Takoma Park has a plan to stop using gasoline, heating oil and natural gas.
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Takoma Park Could Be Among Nation's First Cities To Ban Fossil Fuels

Takoma Park Could Be Among Nation's First Cities To Ban Fossil Fuels

Takoma Park would get a lot more electric vehicle chargers, under a proposed climate resolution. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU

What would it take for one community to stop emitting greenhouse gasses altogether? That's a question lawmakers and residents are grappling with in the small suburban city of Takoma Park, Maryland. The city council is voting today on a resolution that could make it among the first in the nation to phase out fossil fuels, including gasoline, natural gas and heating oil.

But what exactly would that look like?

Imagine it's the year 2045. You pull into a gas station to fill up, but then you realize it's not a gas station anymore. What appear from afar to be fuel pumps are actually chargers for electric cars, with signs over them featuring a red gas can with a slash through it.

This is the future imagined by city leaders in Takoma Park, but it's also the present — right now in 2020 — at one station on Carroll Avenue.

RS Automotive used to be a gas station with a small repair shop, but the gas station part wasn't making money, so owner Depeswar Doley shut down the pumps. When someone in the city government suggested turning it into a charging station, he wasn't sure about the idea, but he went home and told his wife and daughter over dinner.

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"My daughter is 16 years old — she hardly spoke with us before," says Doley. But when he told her about the charging station idea, he says her face lit up. "All of a sudden she smiled and she started talking about it." She said, "Dad are you going to do it?"

Depeswar Doley decided to swap his unused gas pumps for electric vehicle chargers. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU

Doley opened the charging station last fall — the first gas station in the country to go all-electric. The Takoma Park city council is considering non-binding legislation that aims to get rid of fossil fuels throughout the community — no more gasoline for sale, but also no more heating oil, no more natural gas, powering stoves and water heaters.

The goal is to reach net zero carbon by 2035 — meaning cutting greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible, and offsetting any remaining emissions by removing carbon from the atmosphere elsewhere, perhaps by buying carbon offsets. The city would aim to be fully free of fossil fuels by 2045.

"We really do have a deadline," says David Blockstein, with Takoma Park Mobilization, one of the groups advocating for the resolution. Climate change will cause irreversible damage, he says, unless we act as quickly as possible to stop burning fossil fuels. Blockstein notes there is a record level of carbon in the atmosphere now — more than at any time in millions of years. "So, well before there were humans on the planet," says Blockstein.

Local Governments Take On A Global Crisis

Even though Takoma Park is a small city — with fewer than 18,000 residents — Blockstein says policies implemented here can have a big impact. "What happens in Takoma Park doesn't stay in Takoma Park," Blockstein says (unlike Las Vegas).

Takoma Park is known by a variety of nicknames — including "the People's Republic of Takoma Park," and the "Berkeley of the East." It has a reputation for progressive firsts, which are sometimes copied elsewhere. One example: Takoma Park banned styrofoam food containers in 2014. D.C., Montgomery County and Prince George's County followed suit in 2016. In 2019, Maryland became the first in the nation to implement a statewide ban.

Gina Mathias, the city's sustainability manager, says Takoma is one of many localities taking action on climate change, even as the federal government falters. "Takoma Park is not doing this alone," she says. "We are just one of any number of cities working on similar goals to reach net zero, to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible."

That is certainly the case in the D.C. region, where local governments, frustrated by the lack of federal action on climate change, are taking on the issue. In Washington, city lawmakers passed legislation requiring 100% of electricity in the District to come from renewable sources by 2032 — a faster timeline than any U.S. state. In Virginia, lawmakers are weighing legislation requiring 100% renewables by 2050, and Maryland law requires 50% renewable energy by 2030.

In Takoma Park, Mathias spent the past year doing the research that would go into the climate resolution's proposals. She looked at what other places are doing and what is within the power of one small city to accomplish.

Among the ideas she came up with: phasing out natural gas by banning new natural gas appliances. "Major appliances have replacement lifespans — we know your water heater is not going to last much beyond 15 years," says Mathias. "So in 15 years, if you need to replace your water heater, you do it with a water heater that is not fossil fuel-based. The same thing with your furnace, or your boiler, or other major household systems that right now rely on fossil fuel."

In the not-too-distant past, many gas-fueled appliances were considered to be greener than their electric counterparts. Gas appliances generally use less energy and can have a lower carbon footprint than electric appliances, if electricity comes from dirty sources like coal. But as state laws push the electric grid toward more renewables each year, electric appliances get cleaner and cleaner.

Other cities are targeting natural gas appliances as well — last year, Berkeley (the real one, in California) banned natural gas in new construction. Mathias says banning gas only in new construction would not have much impact in Takoma Park, as the city was built out decades ago.

Energy use in buildings is the top source of emissions in the city — more than 50%.

Other actions recommended in the resolution include rating the energy use of nearly all buildings in the city, setting energy efficiency standards for those structures and requiring upgrades for the worst performing buildings.

Mathias says she had a hard time figuring out what to do about the second-biggest source of emissions in the city: transportation accounts for more than 45% of Takoma Park's emissions. "Transportation is a really difficult thing for a small city like Takoma Park, that's in between other jurisdictions, to tackle on our own."

She identified some small changes, like building more bus shelters to encourage transit ridership and allowing residents to install curbside electric vehicle chargers outside their homes. The resolution also suggests exploring ways to discourage driving: possibly establishing car-free zones or car-free days.

Don't try to fill up your gas-guzzler here. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU

'Don't Tell Me What To Do With My Table Scraps'

At a hearing last month, many residents had concerns about a draft of the climate resolution. Everyone supported the goal of going carbon neutral, but many questioned the methods and potential cost.

"I've already had friends who have moved out because of the tax burden," said Takoma Park resident Susan Baker, referring to the fact that taxes are higher than in surrounding communities. "If the cost for this becomes so outrageous that all the people that we want to be in our community can no longer live here, we're not doing smart government," Baker told the council members.

Others called the resolution "draconian" and "authoritarian," noting that that draft used the word "require" more than 10 times. "Requiring homes to compost and micromanaging light bulbs," scoffed resident Maxine Hillary. "When you require, you get into people's personal homes. Don't tell me what to do with my table scraps!"

Some in the crowd suggested lawmakers were going for splashy actions, like banning fossil fuels, rather than things that will actually reduce emissions quickly.

"Slogans and banning gas stations, that doesn't reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Mike Johnson.

He scoffed at the idea of copying policies from Berkeley and other West Coast pioneers. "We know how to write regulations better, we're in Washington, D.C., come on," he said, sparking laughter in the crowd. "We should be the leaders, we should come up with better ideas."

There's no full analysis of how much implementing the proposals would cost, but city staff estimate energy efficiency requirements could run between $1,500 and $4,000 for the least efficient homes. Replacing appliances could cost between $15,000 and $25,000, spread out over time. Citywide mandatory composting would require an additional staff member, at $70,000 a year, plus one new collection vehicle, at $80,000.

"We're going to have to pay one way or another," says activist David Blockstein.

"We're either going to have to pay by burning money to heat the planet by having inefficient homes. Or we're going to pay money to improve the efficiency of our homes," Blockstein says.

Since the draft proposal was debated in February, city leaders have made a number of changes, including removing the word "require," which rankled so many residents. They also removed specific deadlines for each action, leaving that to be decided as the plan is executed.

Sustainability manager Gina Mathias says taking out the dates doesn't necessarily weaken the resolution.

"I have a feeling the community might come back with more aggressive timescales than I originally proposed," she says.

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