A fresh approach to clean energy, carbon reduction

Mar 11, 2015

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.

When we in the Washington Senate passed our energy bill this week, we achieved one of the most elegant solutions to one of the most intractable problems our Legislature has ever faced. How do we fix our troubled renewable-energy law?  Not only did we hit on what I think is the golden answer, we also found a way to achieve the major reductions in carbon emissions that so many today think so important. We managed it without imposing a cap and trade policy, taxing carbon emissions, raising gas and electricity prices, or increasing the misery of the poor. Every state with a similarly clunky renewable energy law might consider something like it.

Our approach challenges deep-ingrained notions and longtime political alliances. Around the Washington statehouse we keep hearing arguments that aren’t true – that we are somehow against clean energy. Or that we want to destroy Initiative 937, the 2006 ballot measure that imposed the renewable-energy rules in this state. I think the real problem is that one of the best environmental ideas in years emerged on the Republican side of the aisle, precisely because we are not wedded to any particular solution.

Washington is among 37 states nationally that impose some sort of a renewable-energy purchasing requirement on electric utilities, and in this state the problems are rather acute. Most of our power comes from dams – cheap, clean and affordable – and there is no good reason to replace it. Nor will our utilities need any more power in the foreseeable future — the Great Recession forced a reset of all the old demand forecasts. Yet utilities will be required to buy more so-called “renewable energy” anyway, and for practical reasons most of it will come from windmills. By the time these standards are fully implemented in 2020, we will increasingly be displacing hydropower – selling it to California – so our utilities can buy more expensive wind.

Now get this. The rules say nothing about making that energy clean, and we can reasonably expect to see carbon emissions rise. The wind has to be backed up with some other source of power, because it doesn’t blow all the time, and the most feasible substitute is natural gas. So not only will power be more expensive, it will be dirtier, too.

With Senate Bill 5735, we give utilities a new way to comply with our renewable-energy rules, by investing in programs that reduce carbon emissions. We spell out a few in our bill – conservation, electric-vehicle charging stations, conversion of our state ferry fleet from diesel to liquefied natural gas. But anything that reduces carbon is fair game. We award utilities credits for the number of tons of carbon reduced.

Presumably utilities will put their money wherever they can get the biggest bang for the buck – and I’m betting it will be on environmentally friendly clean energy solutions and carbon reduction, not costly windmills.

If we use Washington’s 2020 targets as our yardstick, the total maximum carbon reduction would be 5.4 million metric tons a year, or about 5 to 10 of percent of our total output. We’ll never hit that number, because we’ve already spent billions of dollars on windmills, but that gives you an idea of the magnitude. Converting the state ferries alone reduces 8,000 tons – imagine all the worthwhile projects that might be accomplished, at no additional cost to ratepayers or taxpayers.

In a time when draconian policies like cap and trade, carbon taxes and low-carbon fuel standards are being debated, this idea looks more and more like a breakthrough. I hope our Democratic colleagues in the House will be able to evaluate it on the merits.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, is chairman of the Washington Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.