Washington way ahead of new federal emissions standards

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Grand Coulee Dam, a source of hydroelectricity in Washington.

The Environmental Protection Agency finalized America’s Clean Power Plan last week, giving states 15 years to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent compared to 2005 levels. By adhering to these limits, President Obama wants states to reduce their dependence for coal, focusing instead on renewable energy sources like wind, hydro, and solar power.

According to an analysis released by the Union of Concerned Scientists on Thursday, Washington is positioned not only to meet but to surpass the emissions targets set by the plan in both 2022 and 2030.

“One of the things that puts Washington in a good position is that they have already committed to a number of measures that will help them clean up their electricity mix,” said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The state already has three mandatory policies in place to reduce power plant carbon emissions: renewable electricity standards, energy efficiency resource standards and a commitment to retire coal-fired plants.

Washington gets over 60 percent of its power from hydroelectricity. While 15 percent of its utility power is still derived from coal, the state has commitments to retire the TransAlta coal-fired power plant near Centralia by 2025. Phasing out the plant will diminish carbon emissions for the state in a substantial way, but the loss in energy generation can be made up by cleaner sources like renewable energy and natural gas.

“Hydropower is a clean source from a carbon perspective, although those resources are coming under a lot of pressure,” warns Cleetus. “Hotter, drier conditions that are fueling wildfires are pressuring hydropower resources, and the risk is only worsening as climate change continues. [Hydropower] is a risk going forward because Washington may find it harder to rely on these resources.”

Washington joins 20 other states that are expected to surpass their benchmark emission cuts goals in 2022, and only 15 other states expecting to surpass their target levels in 2030, which includes Oregon, California and Nevada.

Our state’s position toward a clean energy future seems like evidence that the new Clean Power Plan rules are achievable. It also primes the state for unique economic opportunities, such as to trading excess “emission credits” with other states or utilities that find complying with the Plan more challenging.

Though Washington is a leader in the clean energy movement, there’s an opportunity to go further. This year, Governor Inslee offered a cap-and-trade legislation that would raise $1 billion a year from carbon source fees, but it failed to pass. Such legislation would put the state even further in the lead in reducing emissions.

“The Clean Power Plan is a very significant moment for our country,“ Cleetus said. “It is us as a nation to keep on reducing the biggest single source of carbon dioxide emissions and putting a limit on that. This is a real game-changing moment and it's really exciting.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Amelia Havanec

Amelia Havanec

Amelia Havanec is Crosscut's Science and Tech Fellow. She came to Washington from her home state of Connecticut by way of New York, Florida, California and Michigan in pursuit of the perfect pint. She’s a graduate student at the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Amelia is a podcaster, blogger, ice hockey player, indoor cycling instructor, and two-time marathon runner. She volunteers teaching yoga to inner-city kids in Detroit, but her “stress release” really comes from snowboarding. She’s shredded the gnar in New Zealand, Italy and Switzerland, and anticipates the next day when fresh powder hits the mountain.