Future tense: Clearing the way for clean energy

Future tense:

Clearing the way for clean energy

The year was 2010, and the NW Energy Coalition soon would begin its 30th year as the region’s broadest alliance of groups, businesses and utilities publicly committed to a clean and affordable energy future.

It was a momentous time. Years of work with the region’s official power planning agency and a few whirlwind months of public pressure paid off: The Sixth Northwest Power and Conservation Plan in many ways mirrored the analyses and recommendations of the NW Energy Coalition’s Bright Future and Power of Efficiency reports.

At that point we knew that by 2030 – just across the Sixth Plan’s 20-year horizon – we would be able to:

  • Progressively shut down the dozen Western coal plants responsible, in 2010, for nearly 90% of the Northwest power system’s climate pollution.
  • Remove and inexpensively replace the power from the four lower Snake River dams or take equally effective steps to ensure not just the survival but the recovery of officially endangered salmon stocks.
  • Find and capture more than enough energy savings to cover any increase in electricity use (other than for electric vehicles).
  • Develop our available wind, solar and other clean renewable resources to team with energy efficiency in replacing dirty coal plants, fueling electric vehicles and creating a booming clean energy industry and job market.
  • Reduce the average household’s electric bill.

But the future was far from secure. We would have to settle disagreements within our own clean-energy community to get there.

Efficiency or renewables?

One challenge was ensuring that both energy efficiency and affordable new renewable energy resources would be fully developed. Saving energy is cheaper than building new generation and transmission, but we would need both conservation and affordable new renewable energy to meet growing demand, electrify transportation and close dirty coal plants.

Many energy efficiency advocates made the following argument:

“Clean generating resources are great, but how can we justify spending 10 cents per kilowatt-hour on them when we have an abundance of energy efficiency at one quarter to one half of that cost? Energy efficiency requires no new transmission through wild lands and presents no threat to migrating birds or other wildlife. It’s one reason to celebrate the invisibility of energy efficiency.”

Renewable energy proponents agreed on the need to find all cost-effective energy savings and to adopt policies to make those savings happen. But they also demanded policies ensuring development of a wide diversity of renewable resources. Only by getting both energy efficiency and all reasonable renewables, they argued, would we be able to retire old and dirty fossil plants, help achieve overall clean energy and climate goals, and boost the economy.

In the end, by continuing to work together, Coalition members found the right combinations of long-term planning and energy policies leading to optimal energy efficiency and renewable energy development.

Consumer issues

Still, utility investments in both energy efficiency and new renewables were sure to find their way into consumer rates. Even though those options – especially efficiency — promised long-term savings and heightened economic development compared to dirty energy sources, we had to make sure the short-term costs of clean-energy development placed no unfair financial burdens on struggling families.

Consumer advocates saw the real solution in reducing families’ power use through energy efficiency so much that rate impacts wouldn’t matter. They worried that wouldn’t happen, however, and noted high-profile utility conservation programs, such as rebates for energy-efficient appliances, that low-income consumers couldn’t take advantage of.

“Very few low-income households get to experience energy efficiency, but they all get to pay for it,” went the argument.

Others members were more confident. Many were encouraged by the Coalition’s then-30-year history of helping to ensure low-income households’ full participation in energy efficiency programs.

Working together, Coalition members and allies identified fair and effective ways to provide energy savings. We secured financial commitments from utilities and government agencies so low-income households would share the benefits not only of cleaner power but also of high-efficiency appliances, advanced weatherization and other conservation measures. And we made sure low-income consumers’ bills did not increase as clean-energy development accelerated

Coal plant jobs

The necessity of shutting coal-fueled power plants to avert climate disaster and make room for clean-energy development put the Coalition’s labor allies in a bind. Efficiency projects and clean renewable energy facilities promised more jobs than fossil-fueled power production, and 19th-century generating technologies were clearly on their way out. But those dirty coal plants employed real people. And labor leaders couldn’t be sure that new clean-energy jobs would come with decent wages, benefits and security.

It would come down to an open and fair process around coal plant closures, guaranteed funding for making workers whole and helping them transition to new occupations, and the long-term growth in permanent, family-wage clean energy jobs that support local communities.

In Washington state, for example, Coalition member Sierra Club pushed for removal of a huge tax break for the Centralia coal plant – by far the state’s No.1 single pollution source — and devoting that $4-5 million a year to worker transition and community economic development. In other places, allies demanded that worker and community concerns be addressed – and funded – as an integral part of the plant closure process.

And more …

The list of potential flash points didn’t end there:

  • Defending wildlife and wild lands sometimes conflicted with proposed construction of large central-station wind, solar and other new renewable resources or with building the transmission needed to bring their power to population centers. The Coalition had to make sure that all that construction was actually necessary to meet power and climate needs and would cause no more damage than it avoided or mitigated.
  • Member utilities had to serve the financial interests of their shareholders or customer-owners while spending money on conservation measures resulting in reduced sales. The Coalition would be deeply involved in finding fair and effective means of sharing the benefits of energy efficiency among bill payers, efficiency program participants and shareholders/citizen owners so that utilities could overcome barriers to energy efficiency investment and promotion

From 2010 on, the NW Energy Coalition would draw on its decades of success in bridging differences, harmonizing discord and finding common solutions to pave the way to the clean and affordable energy future for all of us.

The rest is history.