100% Clean Electricity in Washington State: Everything You Need To Know

March 6, 2019 | 3:28 pm
Photo: Juliwatson /Pixabay
Mark Specht
Western States Energy Manager/Senior Analyst

Update May 8, 2019: Governor Inslee signed SB 5116 into law. The bill calls for Washington’s electricity to be 100% carbon-free by 2045, and the bill also requires utilities to phase out coal power by the end of 2025. Washington state follows Hawaii, California, New Mexico, and Puerto Rico in committing to 100% clean electricity.

Washington state’s lawmakers are contemplating the transition to 100% clean electricity. Fortunately, Washington’s grid is already one of the cleanest in the nation, with much of its electricity coming from hydropower. So what exactly does “100% clean electricity” mean for the state? How would this transition affect Washington’s economy? And why should Washington do this in the first place?

What “100% clean” means

The current electricity mix in Washington state is very clean already. Roughly two-thirds of Washington’s electricity comes from hydropower, but there’s still a problem. Nearly a quarter of Washington’s electricity comes from fossil fuels. Electricity generated from coal and natural gas accounts for a fifth of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions. With that in mind, 100% clean electricity means 100% carbon-free electricity. Carbon-free electricity will require ratcheting down the use of fossil fuels and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector. The state can do that by generating electricity from carbon-free resources (such as wind and solar) or reducing demand for electricity by investing in energy efficiency.

Roughly two-thirds of the state’s electricity comes from hydropower, but a quarter still comes from fossil fuels, namely coal and natural gas. Data is for 2017 from the Washington State Department of Commerce.

The transition will be easier for some electric utilities than for others. For example, Puget Sound Energy, Washington’s biggest utility, gets almost 60% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. Replacing all that electricity with energy from carbon-free sources will require a continued shift in investments.

On the other hand, some utilities, such as Seattle City Light and Tacoma Power, already get more than 95% of their electricity from carbon-free sources. These utilities will have less work to do to reach 100% carbon-free electricity. Instead, they will serve as examples, demonstrating that 100% carbon-free electricity is well within reach.

The clean economy

Transitioning to 100% clean electricity will have countless benefits, especially for Washington’s economy.

While the most common objection is that transitioning to 100% carbon-free electricity will cost too much, that is simply not true. Renewable energy from wind and solar is often cheaper than energy from natural gas and coal. Financially speaking, renewable energy just makes sense. To demonstrate this further, a study conducted for the Washington governor’s office showed that rapidly decarbonizing all sectors of Washington’s economy (not just the electricity sector, but also transportation, industry, etc.) could be achieved at reasonable cost. It’s very clear: 100% carbon-free electricity will not break the bank.

As Washington invests in new energy infrastructure – building wind turbines, solar farms, energy storage and transmission lines – many jobs will be created in the process. Research indicates that investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency create three times more jobs than investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. Furthermore, jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency are good jobs, built to last.

In short, working towards 100% clean electricity won’t cost too much, and it will bring more good jobs to Washington state.

Why should Washington do this in the first place?

Workers construct massive wind turbine in Colorado. Photo: US Department of Energy

If for some reason you’re not convinced by the creation of good jobs in Washington, there’s another important reason to make the transition to 100% carbon-free electricity: preventing climate change.

Climate change is already affecting Washington in numerous ways. For example, climate change is increasing the risk of record-breaking wildfires like those that have blanketed the state in smoke the past few summers, and it has acidified the ocean, threatening Washington’s shellfish industry. Unfortunately, this may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Carlton Complex Fire in north central Washington. Photo: US National Guard

This past year we saw a number of sobering new reports on climate change, including the Fourth National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report. These reports set off alarm bells, demonstrating the urgency of reducing our global warming emissions fast.

Transitioning to 100% carbon-free electricity in Washington would significantly reduce the state’s global warming emissions, and not a moment too soon.

What is Washington waiting for?

Luckily, Washington is not waiting. (And neither are many other states!) Senate Bill 5116 was passed in the Washington state Senate on March 1st, so it just needs to pass the House before it makes it to the Governor’s desk. This bill will phase out electricity generated from coal by the end of 2025, and it will set a goal for all electricity to be 100% carbon-free by 2045.

If all goes well, it’s only a matter of time before Washington takes another major step towards a carbon-free electricity sector, creating good jobs and preventing climate change in the process.