The Encogen Station located in the industrial area of downtown Bellingham on the waterfront on Monday, Nov. 18. // Photo by Merrideth McDowell
The City of Bellingham has made huge commitments to reduce its carbon footprint, including being 100% reliable on renewable energy by 2045. While it is time to start working toward this goal, there are some roadblocks in the way.
Puget Sound Energy (PSE) is the largest electricity provider in Washington state. While most of the state’s electricity use reaps about 70% of their energy from renewable hydropower, PSE relies on a total of 60% of its energy output on the burning of fossil fuels –– 40% from coal, 20% from natural gas –– according to Western energy professor Charles Barnhart.
This needs to change if Bellingham is to begin making steps toward renewable energy. Renewable electricity means more renewable energy and a chance to reduce the region’s reliance on natural gas.
A PSE representative could not be reached in time for comment on this story.
“It’s easy to talk [switching from fossil fuels] but it’s hard to do, because it’s expensive and there’s a lot of capital invested in fossil fuel type things,” Barnhart said.
As a member of the Climate Action Task Force, Barnhart calculates avoided emissions from creating measures to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, along with how much it would cost to make these changes. The only way to achieve net zero carbon emissions is to stop all burning of fossil fuels, Barnhart said.
He said networking with PSE is important for his role on the Task Force, as PSE has representation within the group as well.
The Task Force meets once a month to discuss measures and their effect on Bellingham including social equity, effectiveness and justice.
Flyers for conversion cost estimates made their way around town last summer by mail and social media from Cascade Natural Gas Corporation (CNGC) and Building Industries Association of Whatcom County. It explains the costs that switching to an all electricity household has. These flyers include information on house updates that would be needed, the cost of solar panels, electric water heaters and other things like hiring professionals to execute these jobs.
A lot of people in the Bellingham community have raised concern over this information, saying that the overall cost of switching to renewable electricity would be between $36,000 and $83,000 for a “typical Bellingham home”.
“Our exploration of measures to eliminate emissions caused lobbying groups to drum up all sorts of uproar with the public,” Barnhart said.
He feels there are some factors that are misrepresented within these flyers, such as the cheaper cost of operation for electric heat pump water heaters, heat pump space heaters and the long-term savings that you can get from switching to electric.
Alyn Sptecor, Energy Efficiency Policy manager at CNGC, ensures that the company is doing their part in conservation. They are partnered with Sustainable Connections, and advocate that their customers use less of their product. Spector made it clear that CNGC is not opposed to the Climate Action Plan and Task Force, rather that they want to work with them to find the right economic solutions.
CNGC cares deeply about the community and the environment and firmly believe that energy efficiency is important. Spector emphasized their focus on workable solutions and finding the best path for the Bellingham through working with the City.
Spector said the company felt there was a predetermined conclusion to only work with electricity, but they want to engage and be a part of this process, decision and discussion. Overall, the company takes pride in their efficiency.
Since the establishment of the Climate Protection Action Plan in 2007, Bellingham converted streetlights to LED, purchased hybrid and electric vehicles, implemented the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan and introduced solar panels to some facilities, according to Mayor Kelli Linville. She said their next step is replacing the incineration at the Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant with anaerobic digestion to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Linville offered a statement regarding the switch to renewable energy:
“I believe what the state and federal government can do is give incentives to individuals to use alternative energies. The biggest regulations are likely to come from the state and federal level, and since we have economic and housing needs here locally, we want to be part of that conversation. The City will keep doing its part, but it’s going to take the efforts of everyone to address this critical challenge.”
“PSE has a tremendous business opportunity in growing their renewable assets and lowering carbon,” Barnhart said. By 2035, Bellingham is expected to double electricity use, according to Barnhart’s analysis, which is part of the state’s mandated path to 100% renewable electricity by 2045.
“If you have to move 10% of your consumers to something you have to move 100% of your consumers to ten years laters, it seems like if anything we are helping them,” Barnhart said.
It is not that these companies do not care for the environment or climate change, but also about the economic standpoint they hold as Bellingham approaches these major changes, Barnhart continued.
“My impression is that Bellingham voters want all these things, they want a clean community, they want a vibrant community, they want a healthy and growing community,” he said.
On the matter of continued burning of fossil fuels, Barnhart’s hope is that this is only a vocal minority.