Councilmember Mary Cheh presenting Sibley Hospital with its LEED Gold certification. Image by Celina Suh used with permission.

On Tuesday, DC Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced legislation that would make DC a leader in moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. Her bill would make electricity in DC completely carbon-free and includes other measures to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

Though some environmental activists have expressed disappointment that Cheh did not introduce carbon rebate legislation, most acknowledge that if the bill becomes law, DC would have the most ambitious climate and clean energy law in the nation.

Announcing the bill in the DC Council chamber, Cheh, who chairs the Transportation and Environment Committee, said:

The fight to reduce the impact of climate change is the most important environmental issue of our time. The District has been a leader in this fight, but we need to do much more if we wish to achieve greenhouse gas reduction goals that we have set in our Sustainable DC plan and our commitment to the Paris accords on climate change. The bill I’m introducing today would put the District at the forefront of the fight against climate change.

… Based on the estimates in the Clean Energy DC plan, we estimate that these proposals are sufficient to achieve the District’s 50% greenhouse gas reduction goal by 2032. We will have more work to do to meet our ultimate goal of 100% greenhouse gas reductions by 2050.

Under current law, DC’s requirement for electricity from renewable sources (called a Renewable Portfolio Standard) is 16.5% this year and will ramp up to 50% by 2032. Cheh’s bill would accelerate the timetable and require 100% clean energy in the electric sector by 2032.

The bill funds efficient energy measures and helps low-income residents

Cheh’s Clean Energy DC Omnibus Act of 2018 would restructure a surcharge on utility bills that raises money to help DC residents and businesses use less energy and save money. (The current surcharge is 1.4 cents per-kilowatt-hour for electricity and 1.4 cents per therm for gas.) The money goes into DC’s Sustainable Energy Trust Fund (SETF).

Cheh wants to double the charge for electricity but exempt the electricity that comes from renewable sources. She also wants to triple the fee for natural gas, which unlike electricity cannot be decoupled from carbon dioxide, which causes climate change.

Image by JY O’Reilly used with permission.

The money from the SETF would continue to fund energy efficiency programs through the DC Sustainable Energy Utility. With more money in the fund, it would also capitalize DC’s soon-to-be established Green Bank. In addition, 20% of the money would be set aside for programs to benefit low-income residents, such as home weatherization (like improving insulation in doors and windows) and replacing fossil-fuel burning furnaces and water heaters with electric alternatives.

The bill would significantly strengthen the standard of what qualifies as renewable by mandating that Renewable Energy Credits come from within the wholesale market where Pepco buys electricity. This means additional sources of clean energy (such as solar and wind farms) would come onto the market.

The bill would also require Pepco to procure 80% of its electricity through long-term agreements to buy renewable power. That’s important because a long-term contract guarantees long-term revenue for providers of renewable energy, making them more likely to build additional renewable energy infrastructure, like wind and solar farms. Cheh says those long-term contracts would decrease electricity prices for consumers.

Taking on vehicle and building emissions

Cheh’s package tackles emissions from the transportation sector by tying vehicle excise taxes (currently based on the list price and age of the vehicle) to fuel efficiency. Fully electric vehicles would be exempt from the excise tax.

The bill also authorizes DC to join a potential future regional initiative to limit auto emissions. It allows DC’s mayor to establish a greenhouse gas fee on motor fuel – on top of the existing gas tax – if Maryland or Virginia institutes a similar fee.

Transportation is responsible for about 24% of DC’s greenhouse gas emissions, with 89% of that coming from passenger cars, according to the DC Department of Energy and Environment’s 2016 Climate and Energy Plan. However, buildings consume the most energy in DC — 73% of the total — with commercial buildings using 28% of all energy, followed by residential buildings at 27% and institutional/government buildings at 18%, according to the Climate and Energy Plan.

Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

Cheh’s bill would begin the implementation of mandatory building energy efficiency standards that increase over time. The standards would initially be based on Energy Star scores, but the bill would require an assessment from the Department of Energy and Environment of whether to move to a carbon-based standard.

The standards would apply to buildings of 50,000 square feet or more starting in 2020 (for reference, the White House is about 55,000 square feet) and to buildings 10,000 square feet or more by 2026. Buildings found not in compliance would have five years to meet the standards, after which they could be subject to fines and penalties.

How we got here, and what's next

The legislation came out of three months of working group meetings convened by Cheh’s staff between the business community, environmental organizations and the Put A Price On It coalition, which has been advocating for a carbon fee and rebate program.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson co-introduced the bill with Cheh, along with Councilmembers Charles Allen, Brianne Nadeau, and Trayon White. As Cheh introduced the bill on the Council dais Tuesday afternoon, Councilmembers Vincent Gray and David Grosso signed on as co-sponsors.

Cheh’s committee has jurisdiction over environmental and transportation issues as well as building standards. The Business and Economic Development Committee, chaired by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, oversees DC’s utilities. Because of the overlapping jurisdiction, Mendelson referred the bill to both committees.

With the bill jointly referred to two committees, both must take action before the bill comes before the full Council. The DC Council is about to break for its summer recess, and the committees are planning a joint hearing in the fall.

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