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Arguments Heat up Over Washington State’s Clean Energy Future

(The Center Square) – Utilities and Transportation Chair Dave Danner is confident the state of Washington can meet its ambitious goal of an electricity supply free of greenhouse gas emissions in less than a quarter-century.

Todd Myers, environmental director of the free market Washington Policy Center, is not so sure.

“Well, I would say the state of the infrastructure right now is adequate,” Danner told “Inside Olympia” host Austin Jenkins during a Thursday appearance on the TVW program. “It is aging, but we’re in a period of transformation because…we have a state law that requires our utilities – it’s the Clean Energy Transformation Act – requires our utilities to get off coal by the end of 2025, to be net carbon neutral by 2030, and to be 100% carbon-free by 2045.”

In May 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the CETA that applies to all electrical utilities serving retail customers in the state and sets specific milestones to reach the required 100% clean electricity supply.

Myers thinks that not all those milestones are realistic.

“Moving from coal to natural gas isn’t really an issue,” he said in an email to The Center Square of the 2025 goal. “Relatively low prices for natural gas have made shifting away from coal more economic. The industry itself has, largely, already made that decision.”

He thinks the 2030 target is achievable as well.

“We will almost certainly hit the 2030 target to be net CO2 neutral because there is enough flexibility and Washington’s electricity is already very clean,” Myers said.

His skepticism was piqued at the 2045 date for being carbon-free.

“The 2045 target is very different, however,” Myers noted. “The 2045 target is arbitrary. There is no research that says we can hit it. It is a pure guess. While the targets are rigid, if arbitrary, the pathway to achieving the goal is theoretical. It is based on the hope that new technologies emerge and that the federal government provides the funding for a new transmission.”

He had more to say about the 2045 carbon-free goal.

“But perhaps more importantly, reaching the 2045 target of CO2 neutrality does nothing to help the environment beyond being ‘net’ neutral,” he said. “The difference between being CO2 neutral and ‘net’ CO2 neutral is like the difference between having cash in your hand or having it in your bank account. You aren’t richer if it is in cash.”

Carbon dioxide is no respecter of borders, Myers pointed out.

“In the same way whether we generate CO2-free electricity in Washington or buy it from Oregon, the planet doesn’t care,” he said. “Limiting ourselves to Washington state adds nothing but simply costs more. It is irrational.”

Danner called this a “time of significant transformation” in terms of moving toward distributed energy and storage of wind and solar power.

“If we can get battery storage to work for long periods of time you’re going to see more of those kinds of investments and that might negate the need for a lot of transmission lines,” he said.

Energy efficiency will play a big part in terms of offsetting the need for new sources of power, Danner argued, pointing to things like industrial processes and insulation in homes keeping the load on the power grid steady.

He did concede the impact of Washington’s growing population and the small but increasing number of electrical vehicles on the road.

“And there will be an increase in electricity,” Danner said, “and there will be need for a new generation.”

Fortunately, battery storage technology has been getting better, he said.

“And if you can move that power around, you can make a pretty efficient system,” Danner said, pointing out that technology advances will continue and noting that the price of wind and solar power has gone down in the last 10 years.

Myers acknowledged that the price of wind and solar power has gone down, but said the real key is storage.

“This means you not only have to pay for the electricity, but then pay again to store it,” he said. “With hydro and natural gas, you can adjust demand without having to store it. With wind and solar you essentially have to double pay. The technology to do this is very expensive right now, and to get from where we are to where we need to be takes not only improvements in technology, but massive deployment.”

A lot will be asked of the electrical grid in the future, Danner said, adding the existential threat of climate change means the state doesn’t have a choice and must act or else people will “bake in 114-degree weather,” a reference to last summer’s record-breaking heat.

“It’s going to be complex, no doubt about it,” Danner said. “It’s going to have some costs involved. I want to keep those as low as possible. But I think that we are putting a lot of eggs in a basket, but we have to. The costs of inaction are very high, too, and I think they dwarf the costs that we are facing here.”

Myers took Danner’s climate change observations in stride.

“Saying 114 degrees is hyperbole,” he said. “To be fair, it is at least somewhat closer to reality than Governor Inslee’s claim we are headed to 130 degrees, which is wildly unscientific and silly.”

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