Federal inaction on climate change pushes responsibility to the local level

Feb 21, 2012
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“This is probably the worst Congress for the environment in history” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) in dramatic opening remarks at a February 13 event focused on promoting clean energy sustainability and economic growth in metro Washington.

Connolly lamented “the anti-intellectual anti-science mentality” that pervades much of Capitol Hill as dangerous for the country and urged environmental groups to get better organized. “[These groups] were nowhere to be seen in 2010” Connolly noted. In their absence special interests – many of whom are neutral to the environment at best hostile at worst – were able to prevail.

Connolly heavily criticized opponents of policies aimed at environmental protection and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “They’re eviscerating the environment and preventing an honest debate about energy from taking place” Connolly said. “They’ve managed to make the environment an extremely partisan issue for the first time in history.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) speaking on the policy and politics of climate change

Despite his stark picture of the situation on the Hill the Congressman offered some hope as well. Connolly pointed out that since the Clean Air Act of 1990 utility prices in his state of Virginia have actually decreased aligning with recent reports showing that environmental regulations are not the job killers or economy wreckers they are often purported to be.

While “the other side wants people to believe the only solution is drill baby drill” Connolly noted that there are other more sustainable sources of energy that we need to pursue. “That’s why you guys are here today.”

The event Connolly spoke at which was co-sponsored by MWCOG and Applied Solutions also featured a panel of officials from Boulder Colorado Sonoma County California and the District of Columbia discussing innovative ways they are promoting local investment in clean energy.

Picking up on Connolly’s remarks Jonathan Koehn from Boulder observed that paralysis at the federal level on climate change pushes responsibility on this major issue to the local and regional level (a point we’ve made several times here at The Yardstick).

Koehn speaking about Boulder’s transition to a locally-run electric utility noted that Colorado gets about 90% of its energy from carbon intensive fuels. However the Boulder community has a strong environmental conscience and wanted to reduce their carbon footprint. And Boulder has discussed power -purchase options with renewable energy generators throughout Colorado and the region.

To achieve aggressive local energy goals the community recognized there are essentially two paths: stay with Xcel energy Boulder’s incumbent Investor-Owned Utility or “municipalize” and take over control of the local energy sector. And that’s what the community has set its sights on. In November 2011 Boulder voters granted the city the authority to move forward with the legal and technical work necessary to create what’s being dubbed as the utility “of the next century.”

If the community makes it through the fight with Xcel Boulder will be in control of providing energy and will be able to determine the energy portfolio and the energy rates they are comfortable with. So far the concept of creating a municipal utility to achieve aggressive local energy goals is garnering considerable attention – from supporters of local control as well as those who support the vertically integrated business model of investor-owned utilities.

Both Sonoma County and the District are developing variations of Sustainable Energy Utilities (SEUs) which are public-private partnerships that fund energy efficiency and clean energy programs. For example in one of its initiatives the DC SEU plans on providing rebates to business owners who upgrade lighting systems in light of the U.S. Department of Energy’s ban on T12 fluorescent lamps coming into force July 2012. The District will also provide financial incentives technical and design assistance and other services to owners of large buildings who are implementing building and equipment renovations or initiating new construction projects. The DC SEU is focused on the residential community as well designing a number of initiatives to help District residents save energy and money (find out more about the District’s work here).

Similarly Sonoma County’s Community Choice Aggregation project will enable cities and counties to form service areas that enable customers to purchase power locally which can increase the level of renewable energy use and significantly reduce greenhouse emissions within each service area. Amy Bolten from Sonoma County Water Agency (and who also serves as Deputy Director of Applied Solutions) noted that providing a cleaner energy choice for Sonoma County residents and localizing clean energy projects is the overall goal of Sonoma’s program.

According to DC’s SEU Managing Director Ted Trabue given that 99% of the energy consumed in the District is produced beyond its borders local production is a priority for DC as well but reducing energy costs reducing energy use and producing local economic growth are the primary objectives for the District. The DC SEU was established as part of the Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 (CAEA) enacted by the Council of the District of Columbia. The DC SEU is a project of the DC Sustainable Energy Partnership under contract to the District Department of the Environment (DDOE).

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