DC’s Climate Policy Should Be Even More Ambitious: Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia
My name is Ryan Fitzpatrick, and I am a resident of Ward 5 in the District of Columbia and Deputy Director of Clean Energy for Third Way, a policy think tank here in DC. As we saw yesterday with the release of the new report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world is facing an enormous challenge in the fight against climate change. We at Third Way believe that this demands urgent, aggressive action now to reduce and eliminate carbon pollution as cost-effectively, and from as many sectors of the economy, as possible.
Washington, DC can – and should – set the national standard for cutting carbon and addressing climate change. This means 100% clean energy, and replacing gasoline powered vehicles with electric and getting people out of cars throughout our city as fast and as equitably as possible.
Less than a month ago, California set the current bar for climate action with passage of SB 100, creating a statewide Clean Energy Standard, and Governor Jerry Brown’s executive order to eliminate carbon pollution from the transportation by 2045.
We can do better. And we can do it in a way that includes every resident in the city, including those who live in Wards 5, 7, and 8, who are too often neglected or ignored. Just as California and Massachusetts recognized, however, this requires us to think beyond just 100% renewables.
The CleanEnergy DC bill acknowledges the value and the strong potential of renewable technologies like wind and solar to meet future electricity needs while helping to meet the District’s 2050 decarbonization goals. But we believe that the District can actually decarbonize the power sector even more rapidly—perhaps a decade or more before it would achieve that same target in the CleanEnergy DC bill. It could also use this legislation as an opportunity to make even further progress in other sectors, particularly in transportation, which has actually outpaced power generation as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.
This would certainly be a more ambitious plan. Though if we’ve learned anything from the IPCC report, it’s that now is exactly the time for even our most engaged cities and states to double-down on their climate efforts and demonstrate true leadership to their neighbors. The District has exactly this opportunity to stand out as a leader by accelerating the elimination of carbon emissions and expanding the array of tools it uses to get the job done. If done well, this extraordinary display of leadership does not necessarily have to come at an extraordinary additional cost.
First, I want to clarify that time truly is of the essence when it comes to climate action. Global warming is caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and these gases can remain present and potent for years, decades, or even longer. Because their impact is based on accumulation, every quantity of greenhouse pollutants we continue to emit in the years before they are completely eliminated worsens the problem. This is similar to what might happen with your personal finances—getting your spending under control the day before your credit card bill is due still leaves you with an accumulated debt and a bigger financial mess to clean up. As with carbon, the faster you move to stop adding to your problem, the less mess you’ll eventually need to take care of.
The bill under debate would eliminate carbon emissions from electricity used within the District by 2032 by requiring 100% of our power to be sourced from renewable resources. That would be a good step. But we believe the District has an opportunity to accomplish this important goal (offering carbon-free power) several years earlier by taking advantage of a wider variety of carbon-free resources. By expanding from a renewable portfolio standard to a clean energy standard that allows additional technologies like zero-carbon nuclear energy to supply some portion of required power, District government could effectively require Pepco to secure 100% carbon-free power within a year or two of enactment of this legislation. This would show that DC is taking the lessons of the recent IPCC report to heart, moving with a true sense of urgency to slash emissions and offering an example to other cities and states of what is possible if we are committed to fighting climate change.
As Third Way has explained in a recent report of our own, adopting more technology-inclusive clean energy standards, instead of commonly-used portfolio standards that only allow for certain renewable technologies, would enable most states to achieve emissions goals more rapidly and at a lower cost.1 The cost-effectiveness of clean energy standards is supported by a substantial amount of research from reputable government and academic institutions.2 A recent analysis from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looked at roughly 1,000 different scenarios of how to completely eliminate carbon from an electric grid. The study found overwhelming evidence that including some amount of “firm” carbon-free resources like nuclear, geothermal, natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration, biogas, etc. that operate on a more continual basis can significantly lower the cost of the transition—saving as much as 62% compared to a system based entirely on “variable” renewables like wind and solar paired with a variety of storage options.3
Renewable resources are a critical piece of the larger climate solution, and we must support their continued growth. But if we truly care about climate change, our priority must be set on eliminating emissions as fast as possible, not promoting one or two specific technologies.
For instance, other climate leaders like New York, Illinois, and New Jersey have recently acknowledged the valuable role that nuclear energy also plays in cutting carbon, and have taken steps to ensure their continued access to these clean energy resources. States like California and Massachusetts have pushed even further in this direction, expanding portions of their portfolio standards to include low-carbon resources beyond just renewables like wind and solar. The District could put itself at the forefront of this new trend in aggressive climate leadership by opening up its power standards to all technologies that can eliminate carbon from the grid.
In addition to making the transition to zero-carbon faster and more affordable, this technology-inclusive approach is a better way to foster innovation in clean energy. We can’t be certain of what new tools might be developed in the coming decades to generate power with no emissions or even “negative emissions”. Nor can we be certain of which existing tools might become more accessible thanks to cost reductions or performance improvements. But we can be certain that DC will not be the place where pioneers in these clean energy fields choose to research, develop, or demonstrate their technologies if District energy policies exclude them from incentives or restrict their access to the market. By making power sector mandates less proscriptive, the Council can achieve its emissions goals while giving the District an opportunity to be a hub for unique, next-generation renewables; carbon capture, use, and storage; advanced nuclear; and other cutting-edge clean energy technologies.
There are a number of other opportunities for emissions reduction that this bill could take advantage of if amended. For instance, DC Government is committed to exploring the potential of microgrids to provide secure, reliable electricity to targeted areas of the District. But depending on their ownership structure, it’s unlikely that these microgrids will be required to meet the mandates for carbon-free power that this bill expands, and it’s entirely possible that they would be powered by natural gas. Achieving the District’s microgrid goal is not much of a success if it acts counter to the District’s larger goal of eliminating emissions from fossil-fired power. The Council should explore ways to strongly encourage the use of clean energy to power microgrids, especially if the District intends to deploy them at a meaningful scale.
The Council should also consider opportunities within this legislation to spur a significant increase in infrastructure development to accommodate and accelerate the transition to an economy powered by low-carbon electricity. One opportunity is in energy storage. This bill could be used to put pressure on Pepco to assess storage needs that will facilitate a shift to a grid with a higher penetration of renewables, and even force the utility to deploy initial grid-scale storage projects, analyze their impacts, make the information they collect available to the public and to private vendors, and hopefully begin to reduce risk and cost associated with these types of projects.
With strong political backing for action on clean energy and climate, District Government should seize this moment to ratchet-up its efforts in the transportation sector, too. The CleanEnergy DC bill does well to create incentives in the tax code for electric vehicles and disincentives for the least efficient internal combustion engine vehicles. But these steps won’t necessarily guarantee that private sector developers deliver all of the infrastructure that will be needed to support this shift to clean transportation. Here again, the Council should consider allowing—or even requiring—Pepco to contribute to capital investments in infrastructure to speed up the adoption of electric vehicles and to rapidly electrify transit in the District.
On behalf of my colleagues at Third Way, I can say that we are encouraged by the Council’s commitment to climate action and proud to work and live in a District that is willing to take leadership on this issue. However, we believe that this legislation could accomplish so much more, and in an abbreviated timeframe, if it were adjusted to more effectively take advantage of the resources, tools, and technologies that the District has available to it. Given the urgency of climate change, DC must maximize every opportunity to cut emissions, lay the groundwork for a completely carbon-free future, and set the example of truly ambitious climate action for other governments across the country to follow.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameson McBride, Jessica Lovering, Josh Freed, Ted Nordhaus, “Clean Energy Standards: How More States Can Become Climate Leaders,” Third Way, June 27, 2018. Available at: https://www.thirdway.org/report/clean-energy-standards-how-more-states-can-become-climate-leaders.
Jesse D. Jenkins, Sam Thernstrom, “Deep Decarbonization of the Electric Power Sector Insights from Recent Literature,” Energy Innovation Reform Project, March 2017. Available at: https://www.innovationreform.org/2017/03/01/eirp-deep-decarbonization-literature-review/eirp-deep-decarb-lit-review-jenkins-thernstrom-march-2017/.
Nestor A. Sepulveda, Jesse D. Jenkins, Fernando J. de Sisternes, Richard K. Lester, “The Role of Firm Low-Carbon Electricity Resources in Deep Decarbonization of Power Generation,” Joule, September 06, 2018. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2018.08.006.