by Betsy Gross
At long last, the city of Bellingham’s Climate Action Task Force was scheduled to present their research and recommendations at Bellingham City Council’s December 9, 2019, Committee of the Whole meeting. These dedicated professionals donated over 1,000 hours of their time and expertise to this enormous task, a huge gift to our entire community. I arrived at City Hall feeling grateful.
My friends and I decided to come an hour early to ensure we had seats. Still, we weren’t the first to arrive, as council chambers was already starting to fill up. News about this presentation had spread like wildfire around the city and was receiving notoriety on social media, so we assumed this meeting would attract a large crowd. The City Council obviously did too, as they’d equipped additional rooms with remote TVs for overflow. By the time the meeting began, a standing-room-only crowd filled City Council chambers, occupying every available nook and cranny within the chamber and milling around outside its doors.
This wasn’t my first time to attend a Climate Action Task Force presentation. I went to most of their monthly meetings, eager to learn how we can transition to a carbon-free future. I became fascinated with the do-ability of this daunting task and the multiple pathways for how it can be accomplished. In my opinion, these meetings were the best show in town.
The task force also has its naysayers. A recent Valpak mailer included a coupon with Cascade Natural Gas (CNG), Building Industry Association (BIA), Chamber of Commerce, Whatcom County Association of Realtors, and Associated General Contractors (AGC) logos, claiming grossly exaggerated misinformation about the costs of converting to electricity. The social network service “Nextdoor” went viral with similar misinformation, scaring many of its users into believing the task force’s recommendations will cost us a fortune. BIA and CNG posted “Calls to Action” alarms on their Facebook pages, urging citizens to attend and speak in opposition at the City Council’s December 9 evening meeting.
The Times Are A-Changin’
This misinformation campaign succeeded in alarming many locals into believing we are in for extraordinary conversion expenses. OMG! New roofs, foundation upgrades, expensive solar panels, permit fees, and more would cost residents between $36,000 and $82,000! No wonder so many residents showed up at this meeting. Fear. Whose fear, though? I thought to myself before the presentation began. CNG is at the anachronistic end of a necessary and inevitable transition to a renewable energy future. Renewable energy is less costly already. The times, they are a-changin’.
City Council President Dan Hammill gaveled the meeting open, and the chatter in the room began to die down. I swiveled forward in my seat to pay attention. Councilmember Hammill provided a brief description of the City Council’s May 2018 Resolution 2018-06 … namely, to convene another climate action task force and charge them with the task of conducting a feasible analysis for achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. Specifically, the resolution called for the following:
• “Adopt a triple bottom line plus technology philosophy; and
• Determine feasibility, costs and impacts of the 100 percent renewable energy ambitions;
• Develop 100 percent renewable energy targets;
• Identify funding mechanisms and develop a plan to achieve the task force’s recommended 100 percent renewable targets;
• Develop accelerated greenhouse gas emissions targets for the council to consider for adoption;
• Identify policy considerations to attain accelerated targets.” (1)
This resolution was inspired by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report’s alarming 2018 update which made the case for dramatically increasing the transition to a carbon-free future or begin to pay catastrophic, globally inflicted consequences. (2)
Mark Gardner, Legislative Analyst for the city and one of three city staff who served as nonvoting members on the task force, introduced the work of this team that created the Climate Action Task Force Final Report. You will find it here: https://www.cob.org/Documents/council/Climate%20Action%20TF/Climate%20Task%20Force%20FINAL%20Report%2012_2_19.pdf.
Video of Presentation
The video of the task force’s presentation can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=15&v=1N011dvYrY8&feature=emb_logo
When you watch the video, you will notice partway through the presentation the PowerPoint slides that the speakers used to augment their presentations are no longer visible. The information on these slides is key to fully understanding each speaker’s presentation and are well worth viewing. I like to have them open on my computer screen as I watch the video. You will find the slides here:
The presentations covered overarching recommendations in the following categories:
3. Land Use
4. Energy Supply
5. Marginal Cost Analysis
My article provides only a brief description of the key findings and proposals in each of these categories. But, I am confident that you will be truly fascinated by watching the video with the accompanying slides and reading the Climate Action Task Force Final Report. You will feel hopeful, inspired by the incredible talent our fair city draws to it, and the generosity and compassion of these talented scientists as they help us move away from a catastrophic future. You will also be impressed with the superb analysis they’ve done to figure out how to make it happen.
This past year I have felt hopeful despite the pessimism about our climate future that surrounds us. To quote from the final report, “… the task force urges the community and its leaders to consider the opportunities associated with these changes — especially in terms of quality of life, public health, and costs of living. There are many opportunities for co-benefits if our community acts now. These changes may become imperatives and finally necessities if our community ponders the future too long.” (3)
Erin McDade of Architecture 2030, about whom I’ve written in a previous Whatcom Watch article, presented on buildings. She began by reminding us why targeting buildings is key: they represent over 40 percent of carbon emissions, and are the single highest emitters of greenhouse gas. In Bellingham, all commercial plus residential buildings total 43 percent of our city’s total emissions!
Ms. McDade conducted a building-by-building analysis of Bellingham’s entire building sector. The following highlights show what is needed to achieve 100 percent renewable energy:
• Both new and existing buildings need to be addressed. New buildings can be built using higher standards, but 83 percent of our building emissions come from those which already exist.
• Both large and small buildings must be included. Large buildings emit 35 percent of the carbon in our city, while 65 percent comes from small buildings, typically homes.
• The type of energy we use must be addressed. This is also mandated in part via the recent passage of CETA, the Clean Energy Transformation Act. (This key legislation was passed in Olympia this past year, and will require our state’s energy grid to be 100 percent renewable by 2045.)
• To address the transition to renewable energy, a four-pronged approach is required: implementing energy efficiency measures to reduce energy demand; electrifying all buildings; switching to renewable energy sources; and ensuring availability of good financing and technical assistance to grease the skids to make this transition successful, from both carbon and social-equity perspectives. Erin provided detailed proposals in each of these categories. I was especially impressed with her proposals on keeping costs down for low-income families.
• She covered co-benefits such as job creation, indoor air comfort, public health benefits, risk reduction, and lower energy costs.
• Erin also covered what is NOT being recommended. They are NOT recommending required solar panels on all rooftops, the update or replacement of existing roofs, the installation of new windows, removing gas stoves or indoor fireplaces, or replacing building foundations. I suspect this addition was inspired by all the false information being spread around the community.
WTA Director of Service Development Rick Nicholson presented on this sector’s recommendations. He highlighted these main points:
• 32 percent of Bellingham’s carbon footprint comes from the transportation sector and overwhelmingly from vehicles with internal combustion (ICE) engines. Therefore, the only way to reach carbon zero in the transportation sector is to phase out ICE vehicles and replace them with supporting the transition to EVs (electric vehicles), e-bikes, walking, transit, and mode share. This idea is not new. Many cities and countries have started phasing out ICE vehicles. The task force recommends “group buy” discounted programs to enable the switch to EVs and e-bikes.
• Incentives alone won’t get us there, nor will disincentives. A “carrots and sticks” approach, with both short-term and long-term targeted goals, is required. Reader, please see the report for detailed recommendations. They are grouped into the following categories: Transition to electric vehicles; recommit to the city’s mode shift goals; reform parking policies (parking meters don’t begin to pay for the cost of parking cars downtown); and identify funding streams.
• Mr. Nicholson’s presentation ended with these key takeaways:
Hope. There is no technological reason why the city can’t succeed in meeting the 2035 ambitions for transportation. Currently, we can already choose among 45 EV options, and charging stations are being installed at a faster pace;
Commitment. The challenges to meeting this goal are substantial, so our commitment to them needs to be equally substantial; and
Compassion. This is a social justice issue like no other, as the climate crisis affects low-income persons far more than the rest of us, even though their contribution to it is miniscule.
Don Goldberg, Director of Economic Development for the Port of Bellingham and Whatcom County, presented next. He began with the good news: our region is already benefitting from a green economy. Several solar companies are located here, and the refineries are already working on the next generation of energy supply. Our reality on the ground demonstrates that a green economy won’t cost us money or jobs.
Currently 44 percent of Bellingham is zoned residential. However, densification is the way of the future. Compact development is defined as 11-15 units per acre; currently Bellingham’s average is 6.3 units per acre. This needs to change, and the city has identified seven areas for urban villages, which are now being built.
Urban villages are beneficial in multiple ways, especially by shortening the amount of vehicle miles traveled and maintaining farm and forestland, both of which are good for carbon sequestration, public health, and local food! Fairhaven’s Urban Village, for example, has 20 units per acre. The overall goal is to zone for building a more walkable city where these densely built areas are located close to schools, commercial areas, grocery stores, and parks.
Mr. Goldberg also discussed pedestrian malls, which increase walkability and commerce in the cities where they already exist. He cited Boulder, Colorado’s Pearl Street and NYC’s Times Square as great examples of pedestrian malls supporting vibrant commercial districts. I thought of Railroad Avenue, a lively street that would be improved by the absence of cars. I must have been reading Mr. Goldberg’s mind, as he then cited one of their recommendations: to pilot a temporary closure of Railroad Avenue and turn it into a pedestrian mall.
PSE’s Lynn Murphy and Christine Grant, WWU energy policy professor, presented on this topic. Bellingham’s goal is to have our energy supply carbon free by switching to solar and wind generation, coupled with energy storage and decentralizing local distributed energy resources. The recent passage of CETA makes that goal mandatory by 2045, but Bellingham wants to get there by 2030.
Currently, the city of Bellingham purchases its energy from PSE’s Green Direct Program, which gets 100 percent of its energy from renewable resources. As we transition off of natural gas, there will be an anticipated increase in the demand for electricity. PSE therefore sees potential for expanding their Green Direct program to be able to offer it for the entire community.
Another important recommendation is to build community solar capacity. These solar arrays would generate energy for entire neighborhoods instead of just one rooftop at a time. This is essential for low-income households who cannot afford to purchase solar panels. The city of Bellingham has already identified three potential sites for community solar and is collaborating with PSE on this recommendation. The Port District has, as well.
Ms. Murphy also described a current effort underway to evaluate the potential for geothermal energy. Recently, the Bureau of Land Management notified the U.S. Forest Service of an interest in exploring and developing geothermal energy in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Snoqualmie PUD may be a resource for geothermal energy, should this be realized.
Christine Grant then spoke. She began by saying, “We were asked to chart a course to the moon.” Large scale renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuel energy, so we should be optimistic about getting there soon. The city can work with PSE to clean up our mix of energy sources or develop our own PUD to accomplish this goal. The latter has the added advantage of having local control over our electric utilities. The task force recommends conducting a feasibility study to explore creating a city municipal utility district, aka “municipalization.”
Ms. Grant also covered other key issues related to clean energy usage, such as demand response, energy shortage, microgrids, and distributed energy generation.
How to pay for this transition, and how much it will cost compared to doing nothing, are essential components of this task force’s work. The last speaker, Dr. Charles Barnhart, Western Washington University (WWU) physics professor, covered this topic. He analyzed how to get the most carbon reductions and as inexpensively as possible. Reader, I recommend you both watch his presentation and read this chapter of the report, as cost — and the misrepresentation of it — has become THE polarizing issue for moving forward. Much of what is being advertised as a costly transition is not accurate. In fact, Dr. Barnhart makes it very clear that NOT moving forward will be costlier not just financially, but healthwise and for the future of the earth.
Dr. Barnhart’s superb presentation was salted with humor. His slide showing the three-step solution to reduce emissions, for example, described fossil fuel as “ancient dead stuff” — his main point being to stop burning it. Dr. Barnhart displayed a few detailed mathematical formulas to show how he analyzed the cost of staying on our current course versus the cost of switching to renewable energy.
My eyes glazed over as he spoke, as I am not mathematically inclined, but he needed to show the math to demonstrate that he wasn’t just pulling numbers out of the air. He showed that switching to renewables will save us, not cost us. Some of his examples are that EVs are 3 to 4 times more efficient than ICE vehicles, heat pumps are 3 to 4 times more efficient, and so on. Dr. Barnhart concluded by stating we can achieve 100 percent renewable energy even with all this new demand growth, and WWU’s Institute of Energy Studies offers to help.
After the task force’ presentation ended, the City Council discussed what they will do with this report. City Public Works Director Eric Johnston proposed that city staff meet to begin the process of analyzing the recommendations within the issues of affordability and social equity and come back to the City Council meeting January 13, 2020, with a work plan on implementing these recommendations in the coming year(s). Councilmember Gene Knutson added, “Our task is to sell this to the city of Bellingham.” He moved to adopt this report, direct staff to do a technical analysis, bring their proposals to City Council’s January 13 meeting, and create a Standing Climate Action Committee. The council approved the motion unanimously.
The climate crisis proposals of this fine group of talented professionals are now officially launched. The huge crowds attending both the afternoon and evening meetings made it clear to the City Council that it would be unwise to ignore them.
I have mentioned only a handful of the 50 recommendations contained within the Climate Action Task Force Final Report. I suggest you start by checking out the Table of Contents, scan their 50 recommendations, and begin with those which grab your attention first. Are you sufficiently alarmed by the climate crisis to commit to transition us to a carbon-free future? Here is the good news: this is doable. The technology exists, and technological advances are bringing down costs with every passing year. What is needed now is intangible but all-powerful: public will. Begin by renaming natural gas as what it mostly is: methane. That fact alone makes you think.
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.