On February 6, I attended the city’s monthly Climate Action Task Force meeting. It had been moved from the Mayor’s Board Room to City Council chambers, as three experts were scheduled to make presentations using PowerPoint slides. I wondered if there were a second reason to move the meeting to this larger space, as I counted at least 28 people in the audience, including three City Council members, several Whatcom County Climate Impact Advisory Committee members, and several local environmentalists.
The city hired David Roberts of Kulshan Services to oversee this group’s work process and product. He facilitates these meetings.
Tonight’s focus was on local renewable energy and energy resources, and the speakers represented Puget Sound Energy (PSE), Western Solar, and Convivium Renewable Energy. Time was allotted at the end of the meeting to make work group assignments for task force members.
Before the meeting began, I decided to start a list of everything that was labeled a challenge, or barrier, to a rapid transition to renewables. Dear readers, you will find four of them in this article and may want to start a list yourself.
Note: The PowerPoint slides and videos of these presentations are here: https://www.cob.org/gov/public/bc/climate. Scroll down to the bottom of the webpage.
Puget Sound Energy
David Mills, Senior Vice President for Policy and Energy Supply, Puget Sound Energy (PSE), presented first. He stated that PSE is committed to significantly reducing their carbon footprint and is working with the state to achieve the goals reflected in the current 100 Percent Green Energy legislation:
• No coal in rates after 2025
• Carbon neutral by 2030
• Carbon-free by 2045
PSE provides energy to 61,000 Bellingham customers, 53,000 of them residential users. Our fair city is one of PSE’s largest Green Power customers — 5,660 of us are on their 100 Percent Green Power program, representing 11 percent of PSE’s total Green Power customers. He also described PSE’s Green Direct program, which allows large-scale energy customers to buy electricity generated by renewable resources rather than the conventional mix, which includes coal and natural gas.
My subsequent google search located the list of Green Direct customers in Whatcom County: WWU, Whatcom County, City of Bellingham, and the Port of Bellingham.
Mr. Mills related that the current challenge to converting to renewables involves having enough energy available during peak energy demand periods. Typically, the largest demand for energy use is during early morning and evening hours, when the sun isn’t shining and the wind may not be blowing.
The utilities are required by law to meet all energy demands, and, if renewables are insufficient during these peak load times, the utilities must switch to another energy source, usually a combination of hydro and fossil fuels, to meet the demand. Avoiding brownouts and energy surges, which can do real damage, is a priority. Rapid development of battery technology would assist in rapid fossil fuel phase-outs. Battery technology hasn’t evolved sufficiently to be cost effective. It went on my list of barriers.
Mr. Mills also shared that PSE is investing in community solar — more on that below — and has an electric vehicle pilot program. PSE does not intend to build any additional natural gas generating plants.
The second speaker was Marcus Virta, Director of Business Development at Western Solar, who presented on solar technology. He began by showing the impressive growth trends of this renewable energy sector and the number of jobs created in Washington state’s solar industry: 3,433 at last count. Right now, the city has 1,200 customers with solar panels. However, state incentives for new customers are mostly being phased out and federal tax credits will be phased out soon.
I added this issue as another challenge to switching to renewables.
Mr. Virta also discussed the topic Mr. Mills touched on in his presentation, that of community solar. This refers to a collective or sharing model for going solar. In community solar, “… a group of participants put up the money to build a larger solar array and then share the benefits among themselves as well as with the place where the solar is sited.” (1)
Brilliant! Community solar overcomes the barrier to participation for low- and moderate-income customers, renters, and people who live on fixed incomes. It speeds up the process of converting to renewables by making solar energy available to larger swaths of the community instead of the one-rooftop-at-a-time current market model. So, I mused, why aren’t we going full bore ahead with community solar?
We should be putting solar panels on the rooftops of all our big buildings: Bellis Fair Mall, the schools, downtown businesses, big box stores. We should be installing them on barn roofs across the county. Mr. Virta listed several barriers, among them that community solar administrators and investors are hard to find and “virtual net metering” is not available in Washington.
What is virtual net metering, I wondered? I followed up with a Google search. According to EnergySage, a company that provides information about solar power and that connects solar purchasers with installers, virtual net metering is “… a bill crediting system for community solar. It refers to when solar is not used on-site but is instead externally installed and shared among subscribers … you receive credits on your electric bill for excess energy produced by your share of a solar garden.” (2)
Eleven states permit virtual net metering, but not the state of Washington. Not yet. Another barrier to a rapid conversion to renewables went on my list.
The third speaker was Terry Meyer from Convivium Renewable Energy, who presented on wind energy. He stated that wind is now a mature technology and the most economical source of new energy. Concerns about bird strikes on turbine blades has spawned research and development of mitigation technologies with promising results. (3)
Mr. Meyer also stated building smaller turbines is not the way to go; in the world of wind energy, smaller is not better.
One of his PowerPoint slides showed a map of the county with 11 viable sites for locating wind turbines marked. Many of them are at higher elevations such as Queen and Galbraith mountains, but Cherry Point and Lummi Reservation would be good sites for turbines as well. The size of local sites is likely to be relatively small, with 1-10 windmills per site.
The current primary policy barrier to wind development is in areas under Whatcom County jurisdiction, but these barriers don’t apply within the city of Bellingham or on Lummi Nation land.
In 2018, the County Planning Commission recommended that a new wind ordinance be developed and adopted, but their recommendation still awaits County Council’s attention. Another barrier went on my list.
Among Mr. Meyer’s recommendations are these:
• that WWU investigate installing wind turbines. They exist on other college campuses;
• that Bellingham consider installing turbines on appropriate city sites;
• that Bellingham make an official request to the county to “… get a real wind ordinance.” (4)
Task Force Work Groups
After the presentations, the task force discussed how best to divide up their work, which had been rank-ordered in priority using the Triple Bottom Line (5) framework in an earlier meeting. They are starting with the transportation and buildings sectors, as these two create the bulk of greenhouse gases. In fact, transportation accounts for 28 percent (6), and buildings 39 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States! (7) The building sector was divided into two work groups, with industrial buildings separated out for its own focus. These work groups will come up with specific action plans for reducing greenhouse gases.
The sectors and task force member leaders identified for current work groups are:
• Transportation: Rick Nicholson and Christine Grant
• Buildings: Erin McDade and Mark Schofield
• Industrial Buildings: Don Goldberg
Note: the complete list of the city of Bellingham’s Climate Action Plan Task Force members is here: https://www.cob.org/Documents/mayor/boards-commissions/climate/climate-action-plan-task-force-member-roster.pdf.
The renewable energy sector, whose work is central to all the rest, was set aside this month. As electricity usage rises, so must the conversion to renewables to offset the demand. This task is the responsibility we citizens all hold.
Work group members were urged to begin immediately, invite other community experts to participate at their respective work group meetings, and be prepared to provide updates at task force meetings. City staff plan to attend meetings, coordinate, and assist with whatever issues arise in the work groups.
Lastly, task force member Jill McIntyre Witt expressed concerns about PSE’s and Cascade Natural Gas’ involvement and input to the work of this task force. She distributed a position paper, which she stated was written to “…1) Help Task Force recognize why CNG should not participate in Task Force process and 2) Help Task Force recognize CNG and PSE’s conflict of interest with respect to Task Force’s outcome.” You can find the document here: https://www.cob.org/gov/public/bc/climate.
I left this meeting, as I always do, inspired by the efforts of these fine professionals are making to identify what can be done about climate change, at least locally. I also left feeling hopeful and determined to understand what needs to be done by me. By us. We are all in this together.
So, dear readers, these are the four barriers to a rapid transition to renewables I gleaned from February’s task force meeting. I read them and think, what, if anything, can I do to address these challenges?
• Rapid development of battery technology would assist in rapid fossil fuel phase-outs. Battery technology hasn’t evolved sufficiently to be cost effective.
• State incentives for new solar power installations are mostly being phased out and federal tax credits will be phased out soon.
• Washington state does not permit virtual net metering.
• The Whatcom County Planning Commission recommended that a new wind ordinance be developed and adopted, but so far County Council is ignoring it.
1. Solar Washington, https://www.solarwa.org/community_solar
4. City of Bellingham Climate Action Task Force, https://www.cob.org/gov/public/bc/climate
5. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple_bottom_line
7. Architecture 2030, https://architecture2030.org/buildings_problem_why/
Betsy Gross is a retired mental health professional. In 2003, she retired from the County of San Diego and moved to Bellingham with her family. She is a grandmother, outdoor enthusiast, and political activist. She has devoted her time to several local causes over the years, primarily to environmental activism.