A landmark climate effort in the nation’s capital cleared a crucial first vote on Tuesday morning, moving Washington, D.C. a step closer to enacting one of the boldest green measures in the country.
In a unanimous vote, the D.C. Council gave preliminary approval to the Clean Energy D.C. Omnibus Act of 2018, more commonly referred to as the Clean Energy D.C. Act. The bill, a carbon pricing effort, would establish what activists have called the strongest renewable electricity standard nationally, requiring 100 percent renewable energy by 2032.
In order to meet that deadline, the city would create building efficiency standards and raise fees on “dirty energy,” using the subsequent funds for renewable projects and to assist low-income city residents.
The vote on Tuesday came in the wake of a bleak report; the National Climate Assessment (NCA), released last week, found that climate change is wreaking havoc on the United States. According to the NCA, D.C. is projected to see sweltering summers, warmer winters, and an onslaught of rain as a byproduct of global warming, endangering many of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“We have all seen the beginnings of the catastrophic impacts of climate change,” Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), the bill’s lead author, said Tuesday.
The one non-voting member of the Council, Robert White (D-At-Large), was not present but is a co-sponsor of the bill. All other members present expressed support, as has Mayor Muriel Bowser. A second vote is set for December 18, at which point the final bill would head to Bowser for her signature.
Area green groups welcomed the vote but voiced caution over recent changes to the legislation. The bill is meant to encourage people to use less energy, but an amendment added by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) at the behest of Exelon-Pepco last week could undercut D.C. efforts to support independent efficiency efforts.
The changes to the bill allow D.C.-based Pepco Holdings to have authority over energy efficiency programs. That in turn could open up the potential for charging customers for lost revenue even as they consume less energy, while simultaneously undercutting D.C.’s Sustainable Energy Utility, which already runs low-cost energy efficiency programs.
In effect, it would allow Pepco to oversee the energy efficiency options available to customers, while at the same time having the ability to charge customers to recoup any lost revenue Pepco experiences as a result of people using less energy.
Moreover, a requirement that the company purchase renewable energy under long-term contracts appears to have been from the bill following lobbying by Pepco. Activists say the long-term contracts are key to keeping the renewable market stable and empowering companies to invest in renewables.
“The Sierra Club is happy the D.C. Council has taken the first vote in favor of what would be one of the strongest clean energy bills in the nation,” said Mark Rodeffer, chair of the Sierra Club D.C. Chapter, in a statement. “But our work for the climate isn’t done, and on the second vote, we ask that the Council restore a provision for long-term power purchase agreements for renewable energy.”
Pepco has argued that the bill’s provisions would help encourage the use of energy efficiency programs and that the company supports renewable usage.
Cheh has voiced qualms with the amendment but offered no alterations on Tuesday. Last-minute changes to the amendment were made by McDuffie on Tuesday, but Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) has indicated that he will have further questions before the second vote on the bill and that more changes are likely.
If the climate bill succeeds, it will put D.C. on the fastest timeline towards 100 percent renewable energy of any city or state in the country, according to the D.C. Climate Coalition. Under the bill, the city’s total emissions would be cut almost in half by the 2032 deadline. Similar efforts are underway elsewhere in the country, including in California, which recently passed its own bill aiming for complete carbon-free electricity by 2045.
State efforts have an advantage over D.C., however; the city, which lacks full representation in Congress, is largely at the mercy of federal lawmakers, who could hinder green ambitions.
But a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in January may bolster D.C.’s efforts, with at least 15 lawmakers currently signed on in support of a select House committee to establish a “Green New Deal.” That plan would see the United States on a swift path away from fossil fuels while also creating green jobs.