Energy and water issues do not galvanize the District’s interest the way schools and funding for new stadiums do, but perhaps they should. Without aggressive leadership, the city could become a laggard on climate change, clean rivers and other critical environmental issues.
Utility-related economic impacts are massive. For instance, every year, more money is spent to power District buildings (more than $2 billion annually) than all of the government’s property tax collections ($1.9 billion in fiscal 2012). Projects recently approved for taxpayer and ratepayer funding point to infrastructure costs that are equally enormous: $1 billion for Pepco to bury power lines; DC Water’s $1.6 billion to $2.6 billion to construct new tunnels for stormwater and sewage; $200 million over the next decade for the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU).
Energy and water infrastructure are extremely important — ensuring that lights stay on and enabling progress on cleaning our polluted rivers — and deserve significant public funding. These investments also create tangible returns because modernized infrastructure improves efficiencies and lowers costs.
Beyond economics, there is a particularly compelling rationale for action: climate change. Cities account for nearly three-quarters of the world’s carbon emissions and, with limited federal action, municipalities may be the country’s best hope to fight global warming. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment makes clear, “the atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.”
We are pointed in the right direction. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s Sustainable DC plan produced an outstanding long-term vision, and there have been areas of substantive accomplishment. For example, the District’s public facilities are slated to save millions through two of the largest government renewable energy purchases ever.
The D.C. Council also deserves tremendous credit. From per-capita leadership in LEED-certified buildings to the country’s first Energy Star benchmarking requirements, much of the District’s recent success is directly attributable to legislative action.
Unfortunately, there are problems and missed opportunities. For instance, while “green banks” have become an increasingly effective tool to leverage third-party capital for infrastructure projects, the District’s efforts have been muted. Through strategic lending and public-private partnerships, the government could catalyze high-impact projects without huge burdens on taxpayers and ratepayers.
There also is little movement to modernize energy infrastructure and regulation. A generation ago, telecommunication and utilities were in essentially the same place; now, the world of communication is high-tech but utilities have hardly evolved. Many jurisdictions are recognizing this and working to update an antiquated system, from Maryland’s Utility 2.0 to New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision.
Meanwhile, the District’s most notable grid-related effort is the $1 billion project to bury power lines. Improving reliability with fewer overhead wires is a worthwhile endeavor, but it cannot be the only one. Distributed generation (e.g. solar), microgrids and forward-looking regulations are just some of the cost-effective ways to create a more resilient and decarbonized supply. The District should not wait for a Hurricane Sandy-like event to take aggressive action.
Another concern lies with a foundational environmental issue: reducing carbon emissions. One of the centerpieces of the District’s climate effort is the SEU, charged with leading the city’s drive to shrink its carbon footprint. Yet, the entity is currently tasked with cutting electricity use by just 60,994 megawatt-hours (MWh) per year, a stunningly low figure in the context of the District’s annual load of more than 11 million MWh.
Even if successful, the SEU now anticipates reducing electricity use roughly 10 percent by 2032. The Sustainable DC goal, which mirrors most benchmarks around the world, directs the District to cut consumption by 50 percent in that time frame . How will the District make up this vast delta? There is no strategy.
Aspiration does not guarantee success. Setting goals is important, of course, but nothing gets done without real-world execution.
Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser (D) gives the city reason to be optimistic. She has indicated a desire to move forward aggressively on these issues, and her administration can stand on the shoulders of progress made in recent years.
There is an immediate opportunity. Exelon, one of the nation’s largest energy companies, is attempting to purchase Pepco. Such a transaction is a once-in-a-generation chance to engage vital stakeholders, set priorities and pursue dynamic modernization of our energy infrastructure. One can only hope that, in between debates on funding for new stadiums, this issue gets the attention it deserves.
The writer is a former director of the sustainability and energy division of the D.C. Department of General Services.