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Op-ed: The Facts About a Clean Energy Future for Washington

Adam Maxwell is the government relations director at Audubon Washington, the state field office of the National Audubon Society. He wrote the following op-ed in reference to SB 5116.


The Washington State legislature is approaching a historic vote. It’s been far too long since our elected leaders in Olympia have passed legislation that matches the magnitude of the climate crisis. But this year, legislators are poised to pass a bill that would make up for over a decade of inaction. SB 5116 would put Washington on a path to 100 percent clean electricity by 2045, while ensuring that workers and the most vulnerable members of our community are prioritized during the clean energy transition.

Last week, the Senate passed SB 5116 by a 28-19 vote margin. Now, the House of Representatives – which passed a version of the same legislation out of two committees – will take up the task of strengthening and passing the bill so that every Washington state utility participates in an orderly, affordable, and reliable transition to a climate-friendly electricity system.

Despite the tremendous upside of this policy, deep pocketed opponents of climate progress continue to stymie progress. Last fall, fossil-fuel interests spent over $30 million to defeat one of the largest citizens’ movements in Washington state history aimed at putting a price on carbon emissions. For years, these same industries have funded an army of lobbyists to block progress on renewable energy, using outsized influence and questionable data to sow fear about skyrocketing costs, lost jobs, and falling wages.

As we look ahead to passing one of the most significant climate policies in Washington state history, it’s important to understand the facts about clean energy.

Fact 1: Clean energy is very affordable and reliable. The most trusted cost analyses comparing different types of energy show that solar and wind are already competitive with, and in some cases cheaper than, fossil fueled resources. Meanwhile, fossil fuel energy markets continue to become more and more volatile. And that’s not even the end of the story – technologies that combine renewable energy generation with increasingly affordable energy storage systems are now outcompeting fracked gas peakers, which are quickly becoming an outdated way to provide capacity when the electric grid is strained. With the right policies in place, the cost of clean, renewable energy will continue to fall.

SB 5116 doesn’t just call on utilities to provide 100 percent clean energy – it also sets in motion planning processes and analyses that help identify potential impediments to a fully clean grid. Working in consultation with Washington utilities, the Utilities and Transportation Commission and Department of Commerce will identify transmission constraints, resource needs, and opportunities for participation in regional energy markets, all of which are necessary steps to help Washington state get to 100 percent clean and ensure that we’re working with other states to tackle the climate crisis collaboratively.

Fact 2: A clean energy future has economic benefits. Numerous studies show that clean energy consistently produces more employment per unit of energy produced than fossil fuels. With an energy portfolio that is already mostly carbon free, Washington is also one of the best positioned states in the country to demonstrate that the transition to a fossil fuel-free electric power system is technically possible, economically viable, and a key driver for new jobs and economic growth. With the climate crisis escalating and no prospect of constructive federal action, Washington must join California, Hawaii, numerous cities and municipalities, and a growing list of private sector entities committed to the clean energy transition.

Fact 3: Now is the right time. Data produced by the federal government and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that the impacts of climate change are worse than anticipated and coming faster than expected. SB 5116 takes a smart, incremental approach that phases out coal-generated electricity by 2025, leading to a carbon neutral electricity sector by 2030. It would phase in electricity generated from solar, wind, hydro, and other clean and renewable resources, reaching 100 percent clean by 2045.

A clean energy future doesn’t just help people. In 2014, the National Audubon Society published the first-of-its-kind Birds and Climate Change report which found that more than half of the bird species in North America at risk of disappearing by 2080 due to shifting and shrinking ranges caused by climate change. Included in the list of 314 were many found in Washington State, including the Bald Eagle, Mallard, and Anna’s Hummingbird. The report is the catalyst for Audubon’s leadership and involvement shaping public policy related to climate change, including our longstanding commitment to support policies that effectively reduce carbon emissions.

One of Audubon’s greatest strengths is its 35,000 bird-loving members in Washington state. This powerful coalition has supported Audubon’s efforts to pass climate policies over the past several years and has been advocating for a 100 percent clean energy future during this legislative session.

We know what’s at stake. The solutions are within reach. We must act now.