Somerset Wind Farm by Jeff Kubina licensed under Creative Commons.

The District could halve its emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change if the DC Council passes clean energy legislation that was introduced over the summer, according to internal DC government numbers.

Preliminary modeling from the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) shows that by 2032, the Clean Energy DC Omnibus Act of 2018 would reduce DC’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by 5.3 million metric tons, or 49.4% from 2006 levels.

Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the Transportation and Environment Committee, introduced the bill on July 10.

“I am thrilled that DOEE’s evaluation has confirmed how dramatically this law will help to achieve our cutting edge, progressive goals for greenhouse gas reductions,” Cheh said. “It confirms that the path that we’re on puts the District of Columbia at the forefront of the nation in responding to climate change and also directly aligns us with the mayor’s even more aggressive goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.”

Electricity from 100% renewable sources

The greatest emissions reductions would result from shutting off the spigot of coal, gas, and other dirty fossil fuels for electricity in DC.

Cheh’s bill, the Clean Energy DC Omnibus Act of 2018, would require that all electricity in DC come from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2032. It would mandate more electricity generated from rooftop solar in DC. Cheh’s bill also directs electricity suppliers, like Pepco, to get most of their clean electricity from contracts lasting at least seven years. Long-term contracts lower prices for consumers, provide long-term financial stability in renewable energy markets, and allow wind and solar developers to borrow money to build new utility-scale projects.

Transitioning DC’s electricity mix to 100% renewable sources would cut emissions by nearly 2.5 million metric tons, or 25% below 2006 levels, according to DOEE’s projections.

Increased energy efficiency in buildings

Almost a million metric tons of carbon emissions would be saved — a reduction of nearly 10% from the 2006 baseline — as a result of new standards requiring privately-owned buildings to improve energy efficiency.

DC already has strong energy efficiency standards for new buildings. The clean energy legislation would require retrofits to existing buildings. Those retrofits — which decrease utility bills and add value to buildings — can be costly, but the bill would provide funding for them.

The legislation increases fees on non-renewable energy, and uses the money to capitalize DC’s new green bank and increase funding to DC’s Sustainable Energy Utility. Both offer financial assistance to businesses, institutions, and individual residents to make energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades. The Sustainable Energy Utility’s 2017 annual report shows the utility is missing some of its top energy savings targets. But DOEE says the extra funding in the bill would allow the utility to exceed those targets.

Solar panels atop Tenth Street Baptist Church in Shaw. Image by the author.

The building code would take effect in 2020 for the largest buildings, and they would have five years to comply. As a result, DOEE estimates no greenhouse gas emissions reductions from the building standards before 2025. After that, DOEE projects increasing annual emissions savings from buildings, rising from 543,000 metric tons in 2026 to 939,000 tons by 2032. Greenhouse gas emissions from buildings should continue to decrease in future years as more buildings become more efficient.

Bowser’s plan to reduce emissions

DC’s building codes are already slated to require greater efficiency. The updated Clean Energy DC plan the Bowser administration released in late August calls for net zero energy design standards for new smaller residential buildings by 2022 and for new commercial and large residential buildings by 2026. DOEE estimates those new codes will reduce emissions by 408,000 metric tons, or 4.6%. But those rules apply only to new buildings, unlike the requirement in Cheh’s bill that existing buildings also become more efficient.

“The mayor’s Clean Energy DC plan is a roadmap for meeting our sustainability goals. Mary Cheh’s legislation is a major implementation vehicle for the plan,” said DOEE Director Tommy Wells.

The Clean Energy DC plan also calls for electrifying Metrobus and the DC Circulator bus fleet. DOEE says that would cut emissions by 230,000 metric tons, or 2.6%. DC began the conversion earlier this year, purchasing 14 electric Circulator buses.

Electric Circulator bus. Image by DDOT.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest savings of dirty emissions projected in the plan – 626,000 metric tons, or 7.1% – is from increased auto fuel economy standards, which the Trump administration plans to reverse. But DOEE officials say the reductions won't completely vanish because some cleaner cars are already on the road and because California is battling to keep its own more stringent standards, which are followed by 13 other states.

DOEE also forecasts a 3.6% reduction – or 320,000 metric tons – from reducing reliance on cars. That’s based on an assumption that by 2032, half DC’s commuters will use transit, a quarter will walk or bike and a quarter will drive. Meeting those goals will require substantial investments in bicycle, pedestrian and transit infrastructure.

Leadership or rhetoric?

DC has made ambitious promises: Mayor Muriel Bowser’s order and a resolution from the DC Council pledging DC will uphold its share of the Paris climate agreement, Bowser’s commitment that DC will be carbon neutral by 2050, and the Clean Energy DC plan’s target of 50% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2032.

Promises and pledges are easy. Actually ending our addiction to dirty fossil fuels is harder. When the DC Council returns from its summer recess later this month, its members will face a choice between leadership for the future of the planet or empty promises.