Washington state now has the strongest clean electricity law in the nation. That's how many environmentalists describe new regulations that force utilities to get off coal by 2025 and to be 100 percent free of greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed the 100 percent clean energy law last week as part of a package of climate action bills that supporters celebrated in a subsequent rally.
“From today forward, Washington state is leading in the effort to defeat climate change — that’s what we’re doing today,” Inslee declared at the ceremony.
But will it really work?
This isn’t the state’s first attempt to do something about climate change. More than a decade ago, another law set benchmarks for reducing greenhouse gases across many sectors, including agriculture and transportation.
We reached out to Daniel Schwartz, the director of the University of Washington’s Clean Energy Institute, to learn more about the transition. He’s been tracking these regulations and thinks they will work. He agrees that our law is the strongest in the nation — because of an interim goal it requires utilities to meet.
“I think the idea that by 2030 we will be carbon neutral in our electricity is on a timeline very aggressive compared to the other four states that have 100 percent clean energy,” Schwartz said. He says there also are social justice provisions in the law that incentivize high labor standards for jobs in the field.
“And when you look at what our U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics says about fastest-growing jobs in the next 10 years, solar installers and wind service tech are number one and number two," he said. "And so, bringing in the idea that we want those to be good family wage jobs at the same time, I think that’s a pretty progressive step.”
Schwartz expects the new regulations to yield lots of good results, especially from now until 2030, as electric utilities strive to become carbon neutral and while they still have a fair amount of flexibility in how they do so.
“I am super excited. I honestly think it’s going to unleash a lot of innovation,” he said. “Everything we do that’s on a shorter time horizon is important for climate change and I think this bill has incentives in the short-term to let us innovate so that it’s easier, lower-cost, to do the long-term things we need to do and we can be a model for the nation in that regard.”
Still, he thinks the law doesn’t yet go far enough for the state to meet targets set in 2008.
WHAT SHOULD RATEPAYERS EXPECT?
Schwartz says average consumers may start getting more solicitations from their utility about ways they can make their homes more energy efficient. There might be deals on energy-saving windows or other forms of weatherization. Businesses that use a lot of power might get offers to take part in demand-response programs, such that they would get big discounts for turning down their boilers or other machines at certain high-demand times of day. He thinks most users won’t see much difference in terms of what happens when they turn on a switch.
But he says it’s not clear yet whether people’s electricity costs will go up.
“As a consumer, you’ll be getting incentivized to save energy — that will be lowering your cost. But the rates may go up a little bit,” Schwartz says, by as much as 2 percent a year under the law. It’s hard to predict how that will all pan out ultimately.
“How that balances out — if the utility helps you with efficiency and then increases the rate by two percent — I don’t know where the wash is going to be for the consumer.”
He adds that there are built-in accommodations and protections to manage energy costs for low-income users.
To learn more, you can listen to the whole conversation, by clicking the “play” icon at the top of this post.