Check out Palo Alto Online’s City Council Voter Guide for comparisons of all seven candidates’ views on housing, rail crossings, sustainability and public safety.
Lisa Forssell sees a direct connection between rising rents, power outages and the cost of sandwiches and haircuts.
Forssell, a member of the city’s Utilities Advisory Commission since 2016, has spent years advising the City Council on ways to make Palo Alto more sustainable, whether by moving people away from using natural gas and toward carbon-free electricity or by encouraging greater adoption of electric cars. She has also helped oversee the Utility Department’s $300-million budget and has wrestled with the practical issue of making sure the city’s utilities are operating smoothly.
One trend that she noticed as a commissioner is the increasing difficulty that Palo Alto has in attracting and retaining linespeople. Over her six years on the commission, Forssell said the utility went from being about 10 linespeople short to up to 20 short. There are also shortages in system operators and engineers.
“We have linespeople who commute from Central Valley and they commute 100 miles to get to Palo Alto,” she said. “It’s kind of hard when you have an emergency to call in that crew.”
The issue, like many others, is directly linked in her mind to the city’s housing shortage. Palo Alto’s lack of affordable housing also drives up other costs, including the price of haircuts and sandwiches. Businesses have a hard time finding workers because there’s no housing for them in this region. Some shut down. Others raise prices.
“If they had enough staff and they were paying the staff enough to live actually close by, the sandwich could be $15 instead of $18,” Forssell said. “I don’t think I can make a $18 sandwich come down in price, but at least if I can keep it from turning into a $30 sandwich, then it’s moving in the right direction.”
To create more housing, Forssell supports higher density for infill developments downtown, near transit and along El Camino Real and San Antonio Road. She also wants to smooth out the process by creating “area plans” for neighborhoods that the city deems ripe for redevelopment. These plans would spell out the city’s vision for housing, green space and transportation. The city would also “make it clear that proposals that meet the area plan will be approved,” she wrote in response to a Palo Alto Neighborhoods questionnaire.
Forssell, who currently works as a producer in the design studio at Apple, is no stranger to technically complex and politically thorny issues. The Utilities Advisory Commission’s work has only become more central in recent years as the pandemic forced people to rely ever more on high-speed internet and accelerated the council’s discussions about expanding the municipal fiber network. At the same time, the council has begun to accelerate its stalled efforts to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline.
When Forssell applied for a second term on the commission, she cited the major challenge of balancing the competing priorities of keeping utilities safe and affordable while pursuing the city’s sustainability goals. In her interview, she cited the statewide trend toward more renewable energy as a good reason for Palo Alto to move ahead with urging people to switch from natural gas usage to electricity.
“While it’s true that at this moment in time we can buy offsets for the gas and buy renewable energy credits on the electric side, which is how we neutralize the carbon footprint of the electric utility, long-term the electric grid has gotten get cleaner and cleaner and more legitimately completely carbon neutral and renewable,” Forssell told the council. “If we changed our applicants to be electric, then we’re along for the ride as the California grid gets really clean. Whereas if we’re still burning natural gas, we’re not able to participate in that transformation.”
As the ranking utility expert in the seven-member field of City Council candidates, she wants to play a more active role in the balancing act of keeping utilities both clean and reliable. She told the Weekly that she had decided to run out of “a desire to instead of being advisory, to have a real vote on the real council.”
“And to grow beyond the utilities issues, which run the gamut from keeping the lights on, keeping water running, very operational things, to aspirational policy around climate change,” Forssell said.
She’s made that pivot in her personal life as well. After graduating from Stanford University in 1995 with a degree in computer science, she spent 17 years at Pixar Animation Studios and held several managerial roles, including technical director (her credits include “Up,” “Finding Nemo,” “Toy Story 3” and “Cars”).
In 2015, Forssell made the switch from working on animated cars to dealing with real ones. She returned to Stanford to earn a business degree and a master’s degree in energy and environment. For a graduate school project, she consulted with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, where she gathered data pertaining to electric vehicles. The following year, the council appointed her to the Utilities Advisory Commission. In 2020, she won a second four-year term.
If elected, she would favor providing residents with financial incentives for adopting electric appliances such as heat pumps for space and water heating. She also would support requiring new housing developments to be all-electric and phasing out natural gas in commercial buildings, residential remodels and outdoor spaces, according to her response to a Weekly questionnaire.
She has no illusions about the difficulty of the task, particularly when it comes to convincing residents to give up their gas appliances. She said she would support these residents through provision of subsidies, on-bill financing and installation assistance.
“I totally get it, if people like their gas appliances or have just made significant investments in gas appliances,” Forssell said. “It’s just hard because the polar ice caps are melting and not just Palo Alto but a much, much broader swath of society needs to be taking huge steps like this.”
Stay tuned: The Palo Alto Weekly’s endorsements in this race will be published on Oct. 7.
This article was originally published by Palo Alto Online.