Senate bill a path for carbon reduction

Republican-backed legislation in the Senate meant to require the state’s utilities to reduce carbon emissions is worthy of praise. It’s just too bad those backing the legislation couldn’t show more confidence in why they proposed it in the first place.

Senate Bill 5735 passed Monday, 26-23, with some Democratic support, after a battle of amendments added a clause to the legislation that finds “that climate change is real and that human activity may contribute to climate change.” The emphasis on “may” is ours. Prior to adoption, Democrats in the Senate sought to add the sentence about climate change but wanted an unequivocal statement that human activity does contribute to climate change.

“Why have a bill?” Washington State Wire quoted Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland. “The whole point of reducing carbon emissions is to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

It’s a partial victory, but one that at least stands in contrast to Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has reportedly instituted an unwritten rule barring the use of the phrase “climate change” by state agencies in reports and news releases.

And the tussle over wording threatens to distract from the intent of the bill and the good it could do.

Ferndale Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen proposed the legislation to amend Initiative 937, passed by voters in 2006 to require the state’s utilities to reach certain targets for obtaining electricity from renewable sources, such as wind power. The Snohomish Public Utility District so far has exceeded the initiative’s targets. Its 2014 report to the state Department of Commerce showed it invested $33 million in renewable energy sources that year, $11 million above its target.

Ericksen’s legislation, now in the House, seeks to give utilities greater flexibility by shifting the emphasis from renewable energy to carbon reduction, giving the utilities credit for every half-metric ton of carbon saved or prevented from release into the atmosphere.

Some environmental groups, such as Climate Solutions, say the legislation weakens I-937 and lets utilities off the hook for investment in renewable energy sources. But the intermittent nature of wind and solar has meant that back-up generators, fueled by natural gas, degrade some of those sources’ carbon-reduction gains. And the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee in its recent forecast found that wind will continue to represent the second-largest source of new energy development in the Northwest for the next 10 years.

If there’s a flaw in the legislation, as far as Snohomish PUD is concerned, it’s that it’s too specific about how to reduce carbon and doesn’t allow for advancements in technology. The bill specifically suggests reducing carbon by conservation, installation of electric-vehicle charging stations, conversion of state ferries from diesel to liquefied natural gas and other methods. All, good ideas but not the only ones.

In the years since I-937 passed, technology, such as the next-generation battery system Snohomish PUD is now studying in its Modular Energy Storage Architecture pilot project, was proposed and has continued to advance. Such energy storage technology would be a boon to wind, solar and other renewable sources by storing energy for use when generation wanes.

The House should amend the bill to allow credit for technologies yet to be developed. And while they’re at it, they can be clearer about why carbon reduction is necessary.

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