EDMONDS — Edmonds has pledged to have clean, renewable energy powering the homes, offices and other buildings within its boundaries by 2025. It is the first Washington community to join the Sierra Club’s national campaign to get city halls and statehouses to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The Edmonds City Council set the goal for its community after President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of of the Paris Agreement. The multinational accord aims to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions beginning in 2020 in an effort to soften forecast changes in the earth’s climate that could be harmful or even catastrophic for humans.
“It’s clear that the federal government is not going to do anything,” Edmonds Councilman Mike Nelson said.
He wrote and submitted the language containing the goal. The council passed it in late June. The resolution also requires the city to have a plan for achieving its goal by Nov. 1, 2018. The resolution does not contain any language penalizing the city for missing the self-imposed deadlines.
The city’s deadline of 2025 appears to be a stillborn goal due to the realities of how electricity is generated and transported to homes, shops and offices. Achieving 100 percent clean and renewable energy in eight years would require Edmonds to pull out of the regional power grid.
When a person in Edmonds flips on a light switch, the electricity illuminating the room comes from a variety of sources around the Northwest. The vast majority — roughly 87 percent — of electricity coming into an Edmonds home is hydropower generated by rushing water turning giant turbines in dams and other structures. A tiny fraction of the electricity — less than 1 percent — is created by towering wind turbines.
Hydroelectricity and wind energy are considered clean and renewable by the city.
The city council wants to cut out the approximately 10 percent that comes from a nuclear power plant and the 3 percent from either coal or natural gas plants.
The precise amounts can slightly vary year to year depending on weather and other factors, said Neil Neroutsos, spokesman for the Snohomish County Public Utility District, which supplies electricity to Edmonds.
The utility generates little of its power supply. It buys the vast majority — about 82 percent — from the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal entity best known for running many of the dams on the Columbia River.
The PUD’s various energy sources all feed into its power grid, which carries the electricity from the big transmission lines into smaller distribution lines and finally to individual buildings and homes. It serves about 330,000 customers in Snohomish County and part of Island County.
Regardless how the energy is generated, it all comes through the same distribution lines into the PUD’s power grid. The district cannot separate electricity generated at a dam from electricity created at the Columbia Generating Station, the nuclear power plant in Richland that supplies utilities from Washington to Northern California, including the PUD. The plant, operated by Energy Northwest, makes up about 10 percent of the BPA’s supply.
The PUD’s current contract with the BPA runs through 2028.
“There are not really any significant changes we could make before 2028,” Neroutsos said.
“That was not the understanding I had” after consulting with the PUD’s government relations office while drafting his amendment, Nelson said. “They gave me the impression that they are looking into” moving away from nuclear.
The PUD cannot dictate the sources of the BPA’s power supply, said Aaron Swaney, another PUD spokesman.
And Bonneville Power has no plans to shut down Columbia Generating Station, which has a federal license to operate into 2043, BPA spokesman David Wilson said.
While not renewable, nuclear power does not create carbon emissions, which scientific studies have linked to climate change, he said. Replacing it with a natural gas turbine would put about 3.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, Wilson said.
Edmonds might not realize its goal by 2025, but Nelson hopes that other cities will follow its lead to push for changes in the region’s energy supply.
So far, 32 cities around the country, two counties and the state of Hawaii have committed to moving to completely clean and renewable electricity. Five small cities already meet the goal, according to the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign.
President Donald Trump’s “America First Energy Plan” promises to increase fossil fuel use to encourage economic activity. The outline of the plan posted on the White House website says “President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.”
With few, if any, allies in the current administration, the Sierra Club and other environmental advocacy groups are changing their strategies.
“Now more than ever, we’re digging into the local level in light of the current administration,” said Victoria Leistman, a Sierra Club organizer who worked with Nelson to draft the Edmonds resolution.
“These actions taken at the local level are holding the U.S. accountable to the Paris Agreement,” she said.
If the roughly 1,400 cities belonging to the U.S. Conference of Mayors switch to all clean and renewable electricity, that would cut carbon emissions from the U.S. electric industry by one-third, according to the Sierra Club. If done soon enough, that would go a long way to satisfying the U.S.’ goals in the Paris Agreement, she said.
It is up to communities — big and small — to draw a “green line” against climate change, Leistman said.