Kicking the state’s carbon habit may seem as likely as visiting a distant galaxy for the weekend if your vantage point is I-5, coal trains rolling through town, or ships transiting coastal waters laden with tar sands oil. But duck into a commercial building powered by renewables or wind farms like Wild Horse and Kittatas in Eastern Washington, and you’ll realize a clean energy future is already on its way.
In the aftermath of another UN Climate Summit and Typhoon Haiyan’s climate savagery, it seemed time to assess the state’s own carbon output in three key areas: energy, transportation and fossil fuel exports.
Energy, hands down, gets the highest marks, particularly when it comes to grid power for buildings and housing. The most significant carbon slayer here is energy efficiency: insulation, retrofits and thermal wraps of windows, doors and roofs. It may not sound sexy, but it’s a conservation measure that’s been gaining ground for thirty years.
The Northwest (WA, OR, ID and MT West of the Rockies) has saved enough energy through efficiency measures to power nearly five cities the size of Seattle, according to KC Golden, a policy analyst with Climate Solutions. Energy is best understood in megawatts rather than time, he says, and an estimated 5,000 average megawatts have been saved over the course of a year. (A megawatt hour is a million watts for one hour). Seattle likely uses 1100 megawatts a year. Efficiency measures also count as savings. A building might last a century. A window maybe 25 years. A fridge maybe 10.
Since 2006, each of Washington’s 17 largest electric utilities have met or exceeded energy efficiency targets mandated by I-937. The initiative, known as the Energy Independence Act, ramped up renewable energy production and required state utilities serving 25,000 or more customers a year to obtain 15 percent of their energy from new renewable sources by 2020. The Northwest Energy Coalition estimates that I-937 allowed the state to avoid 14 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2010 alone.
Not all agree that the initiative is a success. Todd Myers, environmental director with the Washington Policy Center, disputes claims that investments in renewables such as wind and solar will result in cheaper energy for Washington state. Both wind and solar, he says, are more expensive per kilowatt hour than hydro or natural gas.
His argument: Legislation should be cost effective. “How much CO2 reduction do you get for every dollar that you spend this way?” Myers asks. It’s a question a coalition of lawmakers and business groups aligned with the Policy Center have asked the State Auditor to answer.
Rachel Shimshak with the Renewable NW Project says Myers misses the point. Policies like I-937, she says, provide not only enormous environmental benefits, but long term economic benefits as well. “It’s like a home mortgage. You have certainty and predictability,” says Shimshak. “But it’s a long term comparison. If you had a way of valuing all the benefits and shoe horning that into costs, renewables would win hands down.”
According to Shimshak, investors have already sunk $8 billion into wind, solar and other renewables in Washington state. That number jumps to $20 billion when you look at the entire region, including Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Policy drivers like the sales tax exemptions for capital invested in the state, she says, tap local carbon-free resources and generate income and incentive across the state’s red/blue divide. Market barriers make it difficult to credit all the benefits they generate: local resources instead of imports, a lower risk of climate regulation and a stable price over 30 years.
Still, a look at the state’s overall “energy” picture proves Washington has a long way to go before it can call itself carbon free — or even environmentally sustainable. Hydro, long the region’s “clean energy” powerhouse, comes with a price: Thirteen wild salmon species are endangered; 11 are near extinction. Coal still accounts for 30 percent of Puget Sound Energy's power supply. Natural gas, often touted by officials and utilities as a clean energy alternative to coal, was responsible for nearly a million metric tons of CO2 emissions in the state in 2010, according to the most recent findings by the Department of Ecology.
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