In a session dominated by climate change-related proposals, a Senate bill has been introduced calling for Washington state energy production to be carbon-free by 2045.
During SB 6253’s January 23 public hearing of the Senate Energy, Environment & Technology Committee, its neutral stance on nuclear energy was roundly debated, with some utility providers say the carbon-free goal by 2045 could cost billions to attempt but is not attainable in that timeframe.
“I know it’s a sincere goal … the question is, is it a realistic goal?” said Tim Boyd, a lobbyist for Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities, a nonprofit organization.
If passed, the bill would set a timetable for public and private utility providers to eliminate electricity produced by coal and natural gas in favor of “carbon-free” energy, defined as a “resource that emits no greenhouse gas pollution as part of its generation activity” or is “a renewable resource.” That includes energy generated by hydro, wind, solar and nuclear power.
Citing the state’s recent wildfire seasons and hurricanes in other parts of the country, sponsor Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-40) described the bill as “beginning the conversation we must have…to move us toward a carbon-free future.
“These issues must be addressed,” he added. “This is the direction that we must go as a state.”
The public hearing was preceded by a gathering the day prior of environmental activists and lawmakers backing climate change-legislation, including Governor Jay Inslee.
The state legislature in 2008 set the following carbon emission reduction goals:
- By 2020, reduce emissions to 1990 levels
- By 2035, reduce emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels
- By 2050, reducing overall emissions to half of 1990 levels
“A zero-carbon future by 2045 is a laudable goal,” Boyd said. However, he added that it’s not attainable within the next 20 years unless new technology is developed. That was the conclusion of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s 2016 Seventh Power Plan.
Even if the state did try, it would ultimately cost ratepayers $20 billion, he said. “And we still don’t get there, unless a new technology comes along. If it doesn’t, we come up short of the requirements in this bill.”
He also noted problems with the bill’s treatment of natural gas, which utilities intend to use to transition away from coal. As written, the bill would keep it “off the table.”
Ranker noted that Hawaii, which in 2015 enacted a goal carbon-free by 2045, appears to be on track to meet the objective. He added “As far as natural gas, it is a decent transition and an important transition fuel that we should be looking at.”
Sharing Boyd’s concerns was Isaac Kastama, representing Franklin and Benton PUDs (public utility districts). He suggested pushing back some of the deadlines “to make this a more reasonable and achievable standard.”
“The bigger-picture issue is technical achievability and the least cost approach of 100 percent,” he said. “That’s a pretty high marginal cost for utilities. We’re 92 percent carbon-free. That seems pretty close to 100 (percent), and therefore we should be able to get there, but that’s done at a very expensive cost.”
Some of the bill’s strongest opposition in the room came from environmentalists who took issue with the inclusion of hydropower as a renewable energy source, while at the same time tacitly allowing nuclear power, which also emits no carbon. The testimony drew a response from Senate Republican Deputy Floor Leader Brad Hawkins (R-12), who said, “I just would like the folks testifying to understand and value the importance of hydropower. Sometimes the things I’m hearing don’t seem totally consistent with the ways things are in Washington state.”
He added that without hydropower or the nuclear energy produced by the Columbia Generating Station located in Richland, energy costs would be “out-the-roof high.”
No further action is scheduled for the bill.