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D.C. Council gives preliminary approval to ambitious clean-energy goals

A restaurant burns in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 8. Experts say the severity of wildfires and other natural disasters will increase with global warming. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The D.C. Council on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to legislation that would move the District’s power grid to entirely renewable energy sources by 2032, a goal that places the city in the vanguard of local governments seeking to tackle climate change.

The council voted unanimously to advance the bill, which must pass a second vote next month. The measure’s proponents say the District is making itself a model for cities and states seeking to reduce carbon emissions in the face of inaction at the federal level.

The legislation approved by the council retained provisions that some environmental activists have criticized — specifically, language that would allow electric utility Pepco Holdings to charge customers more as it enacts energy-efficiency programs as a way to offset revenue lost when ratepayers consume less power.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who leads the council’s committee on transportation and the environment and drafted the original bill, said she hopes to address those concerns before the final vote. However, Cheh said such points of contention should not distract from D.C. lawmakers’ unanimous support for an aggressive package of changes to the city’s energy policy.

“The essence of this bill, the importance of this bill, has not been compromised,” Cheh said. “And it’s extraordinary what we’re doing.”

Bill would move D.C. to 100% renewable energy sources by 2032

Under its current policy, the District aims to get half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2032.

The council’s action came four days after the federal government released a report detailing the devastating consequences of global warming caused by human activity, including economic decline and worsening hurricanes, heat waves and wildfires.

The report was at odds with the Trump administration’s relatively hands-off approach to climate change. On Monday President Trump reacted with skepticism to the report’s projections of climate change’s economic effects. “I don’t believe it,” he said.

“The federal government is literally not believing its own reports,” Denise Robbins of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network said, making it “all the more important for our local leaders to take the reins” in addressing climate change.

Robbins said that although her group had concerns about amendments that could benefit Pepco inserted late in the legislative process, Tuesday’s vote was a victory. “No matter what, in a few weeks this bill will become law and D.C. will have one of the strongest climate bills in the country,” she said.

If the council votes a second time to approve the bill, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) could sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without her signature.

Melissa Lavinson, senior vice president for government and external affairs at Pepco, said the company applauded the council’s bill. “We think climate change is an urgent issue that requires bold and aggressive action, and this bill does that,” she said.

D.C. climate bill’s provisions favoring Pepco draw scrutiny

Lavinson said the provisions that enable Pepco to make up for less power usage with higher rates are common across the country and ensure that utilities don’t have a financial incentive to make climate change worse by encouraging people to consume more electricity.

In a letter last week to council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), whose business and economic development committee also worked on the bill, Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council expressed support for such provisions, which he said create “incentives to deliver effective and efficient programs.”

McDuffie said in a statement that the bill’s language on Pepco’s ability to adjust its rates is similar to what already exists in D.C. law.

As federal action on climate change has stalled, many local governments are acting on their own. Experts say such initiatives, while better than nothing, are no substitute for national and international efforts to comprehensively reduce emissions that warm the Earth’s climate.

California is working to supply 50 percent of residents’ electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Beginning in 2019, San Francisco will offer consumers the option of receiving electricity from renewable sources but will not require it.

Virginia’s renewable energy goal, adopted in 2007, aims for 15 percent renewable sources by 2025. It’s a voluntary goal, intended to encourage utilities to switch to renewables.

In 2016, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation requiring the state to obtain 25 percent of its energy from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2020.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed the bill, saying it would lead to rate increases, but the Democratic-controlled legislature overrode his veto last year.

Gregory S. Schneider and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.