Washington's Green New Deal: Climate Agenda
by Don Jenkins
"Yes, the eastside has the sunshine to make more solar power.
It also has the sunshine to grow more food,"
-- Yakima County Farm Bureau President Mark Herke
Step by step, Washington state has adopted the main canons of the Green New Deal, a sweeping set of mandates aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
Introduced nearly four years ago by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and currently co-sponsored by 104 U.S. House members, the legislation continues to languish in Congress.
While the federal bill has stalled, Washington state's Democratic legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee's administration have moved full speed ahead, passing laws intended to halve the state's greenhouse gas output by 2030 and achieve net-zero output by 2050.
They plan to do that by mandating 100% clean energy from wind and solar farms, hydroelectric dams and zero-emission cars and trucks.
While the goals are aggressive, the state has yet to document any reductions in greenhouse gases. The most recent figures, from 2018, show emissions have increased by 10% since 1990, the baseline year used in measuring carbon output.
But the new laws aimed at "decarbonizing" the electric grid, liquid fuels, buildings and factories are about to impact every part of Washington's economy, including agriculture. At the same time, they raise more questions than they answer.
Inslee claimed victory for his agenda at last month's United Nations climate summit in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
"My state," he said, "is moving faster, farther than any other place in the United States to eliminate the need for (natural) gas and oil."
Washington starts with a big advantage in getting to net zero. It produces more carbon-free hydroelectricity than any other state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Still, natural gas generates 15% of the state's electricity, second to hydro's 67%, the EIA reports. Nuclear generates 8%, renewable resources such as solar and wind generate 6% and coal produces 4%.
To hit its 2030 target, the state needs to eliminate half of the 99.5 million tons of atmosphere carbon it emitted in 2018.
"You could do it," said Todd Myers, an environmental analyst at the Washington Policy Center, a free-market think tank. But the cost "would be exorbitantly high."
The costs are expected to show up at the fuel pump and in the prices of food and other goods and services.
In the meantime, the state government anticipates a financial windfall by auctioning the rights to emit carbon.
All sectors of the economy must cut emissions rapidly, the Commerce Department's energy strategy states. The 2030 goal will be at least as challenging as the 2050 goal, it says.
To meet the challenge, the strategy looks to "many solutions (that) are not yet widely deployed," it says. Reliance on "advanced technology is unavoidable," given the state's ambitions, the strategy acknowledges.
To push technology along, the energy strategy calls for creating markets for electric vehicles and biofuels, discouraging the market for natural gas, spending massively and bringing about "behavioral changes."
People will have to drive less and through "state-supported education" be taught the "advantages" of electric vehicles to conquer their "range anxiety," it says.
The state has embraced the position that it must do its part to keep average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above the 1850-1900 averages.
They've already gone up 1.1 degrees Celsius, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
If the entire world goes to net-zero by 2050, average temperatures will be up 1.6 degrees, the IPCC projects. Washington state contributes about 0.2% of global emissions.
Farm groups, concerned about rising energy costs, fought big parts of Inslee's agenda, such as cap-and-trade and the low-carbon fuel standard. That fight is over.
"We're now in the implementation phase," Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said. "It's going to take work."
Farmers could profit from policies that recognize growing plants absorb carbon, he said. And while conventional natural gas is slated for extinction, renewable natural gas is not.
Renewable natural gas is made from methane from manure and has a smaller carbon footprint than that of fossil fuel.
"If we could capture that methane, wow, we're helping achieve something the rest of society can't," Gordon said.
"I'd love to see a dairy farm paid $200, $400 a year per cow over a 10-, 15-year agreement to provide the raw ingredient for renewable natural gas," he said.
Farmland in demand
The green energy revolution has already changed some of Eastern Washington's agricultural landscape.
Global companies are claiming flat, sunny spots near major transmission lines for solar panels that cover thousands of acres.
The state Clean Energy Transformation Act, requiring utilities to provide 80% renewable energy by 2030 and 100% by 2045, set off the green rush.
The rush coincides with a decline in the cost of building solar panel farms, while the cost of building wind turbines is increasing, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Solar companies also have letters from landowners who say leasing out their marginal land pays better than farming it and that the stable income will help them continue to farm and ranch.
The swiftness and scale of the rush, however, has stirred opposition from people concerned that no one knows how it will permanently change Eastern Washington's agricultural economy.
"Yes, the eastside has the sunshine to make more solar power. It also has the sunshine to grow more food," Yakima County Farm Bureau President Mark Herke said.
Counties traditionally control development, but solar companies can bypass them and apply to the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, an arm of the Inslee administration.
Counties are in a tough position, not knowing how much land the solar panels will eventually cover, Washington State Association of Counties policy director Paul Jewell said.
"Where does it end?" he asked. "I wonder if legislators thought about all the land that would be covered by solar panels."
Counting access roads, substations and buffers, a solar plant needs up to 7 acres per megawatt, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council estimates Washington will need to add 12,000 megawatts of solar power by 2050. Using those estimates, solar panels could cover up to 84,000 acres.
The additional solar plants would cover an area the size of Seattle and Moses Lake, with room for Sunnyside.
Inslee has said he will propose expanding the energy facility staff to speed up energy projects. At the UN summit, he decried "nimbyism" -- a reference to the Not In My Back Yard acronym -- as an obstacle to clean energy.
Crossing the Cascades
Clean energy sources will cause a "paradigm change" in the electric grid, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which develops a regional power plan.
The amount of power from coal-fired generators will decline and the future of natural gas is uncertain. "The electric grid is shifting to renewable resources at an aggressive pace," according to the council's 2021 Power Plan.
The shift means the supply of electricity will be more dependent on the weather. A 100-megawatt wind turbine may actually average 30 to 40 megawatts because of the variability of the weather, according to the council.
Hydropower could ramp up on calm days and at night, but it's unclear how water flow fluctuations will impact fish, according to the council. The state strategy does not include any new hydropower.
To replace fossil fuels and as a hedge against being at the mercy of one region's weather, the state strategy assumes drawing electricity from a large geographic region.
By 2050, Washington will import 43% of its electricity from other states with more wind, primarily Montana and Wyoming, according to one scenario in the state energy strategy.
More power will have to cross Eastern Washington and the Cascade Range to get to Puget Sound. The demand for electricity is expected to nearly double by 2050, driven in part by a proliferation of electric vehicles, including heavy trucks and off-road vehicles.
A study group convened by the energy facility council repeatedly heard from experts who warned that the power transmission system will have to be expanded, not just upgraded.
"At some point, you run out of cards to play," Bonneville Power Administration electrical engineer Anders Johnson said.
"Once you've done all those lower hanging-fruit options, then you're looking at rebuilding lines to higher capacity or whole new lines with new footprints," he said.
The east-to-west transmission system over the North Cascades already shows signs of being overtaxed, Washington Public Utility Districts Association policy director Nicolas Garcia said.
"It's really the major east-west way we get power from Idaho, Montana and other places into the Puget Sound region," he said.
"Unless we bring in new transmission or find another way to bring power to this particular area, we're going to wind up in the situation where we're no longer able to provide a reliable system," Garcia said.
On March 7, 2019, the North Cascades transmission system was nearly overwhelmed by a combination of a cold morning and a natural gas pipeline disruption.
"We were right up against what the operating limit was," Johnson said. "I would say it's sort of a preview for when the Washington utilities are suppose to be decarbonized and not using (natural) gas anymore."
The study group concluded that since new transmission lines can take 10 to 20 years to build, there isn't any time to waste if Washington is to meet its ambitious clean-energy goals.
The study didn't identify any possible routes for new transmission lines. BPA operates most of the transmission lines in the Northwest. BPA will take the lead in identifying new routes if needed, spokesman Douglas Johnson said. "We have in the past and will in the future," he said.
States can block transmission lines. While in Egypt, Inslee said the federal government must "take on some of the parochial interests that states have jealously guarded in the past."
"We really need the federal government to help us build a real national grid system, so that we can move clean, renewable energy across state lines," the governor said.
Dan Kirschner, executive director of the Northwest Gas Association, an industry group, said he doubts Western Washington will be able to do without natural gas-fired power plants that can generate electricity on-demand.
"It's hard to imagine a day when those natural gas plants are retired," he said. "On cold winter mornings, when the wind isn't blowing and the sun hasn't come up yet, you have to have something to turn on."
Most natural gas used in Western Washington comes from Canada. Renewable natural gas, including from dairies, could use the same distribution system, Kirschner said.
"This is where the ag community has some real opportunities," he said. "We're greening up the electric grid. We should be greening up the gas grid. We shouldn't abandon the gas grid."
Republicans in the Washington Senate, a minority, recently proposed an energy policy that keeps natural gas in homes, promotes more nuclear power and hydropower, and encourages the development of hydrogen vehicles.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said the Republican plan was more realistic. "What we have been given so far is a series of dates, goals that are mostly unattainable," he said.
Decarbonizing electricity will be easy compared to decarbonizing transportation fuels. "Clean fuels are the key to achieving the 2030 and 2050 greenhouse-gas reduction limits," according to the state energy strategy.
Biofuels initially will help reduce greenhouse gases, but liquid fuel demand is expected to peak in 2030 and then decline as more vehicles run on batteries, according to the energy strategy.
Liquid fuels aren't expected to be eliminated. They will be needed for hard-to-electrify sectors, such as air travel, but must be "fully decarbonized" by 2050.
By then, state greenhouse gases are projected to total 5 million tons a year, a residual amount offset by means of carbon sequestration such as growing trees and crops. Enteric fermentation -- livestock burps -- emit about 2.6 million tons now.
The low-carbon fuel standard goes into effect Jan. 1. Fuel suppliers will have to blend biofuels into gasoline and diesel, possibly raising fuel prices.
To make big cuts, the Legislature passed cap-and-trade, which covers 75% of the state's greenhouse gases. The areas not covered include emissions from agriculture.
Beginning next year, manufacturers that emit more than 25,000 tons of carbon annually will have to bid for "allowances." Each allowance grants the right to emit 1 ton of carbon.
Every year, the number of allowances will decline, forcing cuts in emissions and presumably pushing up the price of allowances.
If factories don't get the allowances they need in auctions, they could acquire them on a secondary market. Auctions will be open to investors, or "general market participants."
"These are financial institutions or Wall Street firms that are participating in the market to buy and sell allowances to make money off the transactions concerning allowances," Ecology cap-and-trade manager Luke Martland told the House Environment and Energy Committee in November.
Auction proceeds will go to the state. Ecology estimates raising $483.7 million the first year and $957.5 million the second. The money will go to climate-related projects.
Martland told lawmakers to not count on the money yet.
"Please, understand, these are just estimates," he said. "It's really speculative to try to estimate what the auction proceeds will be."
Cap-and-trade auctions put a price on carbon, or energy. Martland told lawmakers that Ecology won't know cap-and-trade's impacts until the auctions start.
"Whether it would increase the wholesale price of electricity is very hard for me to speculate on," he said.
"Let's get the program up and running, let's have the first auction. Let's see the impact it has on different sectors."
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