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Opinion A smart plan for protecting D.C. from the coming storm

Pedestrians cross 14th Street NW in the District on April 16. Early-morning downpours caused localized flooding and prompted flood warnings from the National Weather Service.
Pedestrians cross 14th Street NW in the District on April 16. Early-morning downpours caused localized flooding and prompted flood warnings from the National Weather Service. (Robert Miller/The Washington Post)

Hammad Atassi is chief executive of D.C.-based American Sustainable Business Council.

Business owners face plenty of challenges these days; one of them should not be the damaging results of climate change. But businesses are just as vulnerable as individuals to the extreme weather events made more frequent and more destructive by climate change. For example, one report found that up to 30 percent of small businesses affected by 2012’s devastating Hurricane Sandy subsequently failed.

That outcome points to the need for public-private solutions to minimize the risks to businesses from such disasters. After all, businesses are the engines of our local economies, delivering jobs and tax revenue that our communities depend on.

One strategy is to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Hundreds of mayors throughout the United States have taken up the challenge and pledged to transition their cities to 100 percent clean energy by 2035. Here at home, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has pledged to move the District to becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2050.

To turn both pledges into an action plan, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced the CleanEnergy DC Omnibus Act of 2018 in July. The council plans to debate the bill, which now has seven co-sponsors, on Monday.

No ordinary piece of legislation, the bill is the product of two years of advocacy and three months of working-group meetings involving local businesses, environmental advocates and utilities. The bill contains four key policy provisions to reduce carbon emissions and would make Washington a global leader on climate.

First, it would transition the District to 100 percent clean electricity by 2032. This ambitious timeline is achievable, as the bill would expand D.C.’s existing Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) — a proven method to ensure regulatory and market certainty.

The RPS, which applies to all retail electricity sales in the District, has already helped to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate job growth in the renewable-energy sector. Expanding the RPS is the route to more clean energy and clean-energy jobs — more contractors, more businesses and more installers — all needed to connect residents to the grid. The District is already home to about 14,000 jobs in the solar, wind and energy-efficiency sectors, and this bill offers great potential for many more jobs such as these.

Because the RPS applies only to electricity, the bill’s second provision would address the transition from fossil fuels to sustainable sources. It would slightly increase the current Sustainable Energy Trust Fund (SETF) fee placed on fossil fuels used in home heating, with the additional revenue funding local sustainability solutions, including the new D.C. green bank.

Established in July, D.C.’s green bank (Green Finance Authority) — one of more than a dozen already operational or in consideration in the United States — provides financing and incentives to expand solar, wind and other clean-energy technologies and infrastructure. Green banks leverage public and private dollars to reduce the typically high upfront costs that consumers and businesses often see as barriers to utilizing clean energy. Increasing funding to the green bank is a cost-effective decision: Analysis by the District’s Department of Energy & Environment projects that for every dollar of taxpayer money, our green bank would attract $5 in private investment.

To make sure low-income residents are aided in the transition, the clean energy act would allocate about 20 percent of the revenue raised from the SETF to help low-income residents through ratepayer assistance, weatherization and fuel-switching programs.

The bill’s third provision would lead the country with new building energy performance standards phased in over a six-year period for all District- and privately owned buildings 10,000 square feet or larger. Smaller businesses would be given additional time to adopt these energy-saving standards in their buildings.

Fourth, because passenger vehicles account for nearly 25 percent of energy use in the District, this bill would revise D.C.’s vehicle excise tax to encourage more fuel-efficient cars in the District.

These four provisions of the CleanEnergy DC Omnibus Act aren’t overnight solutions to climate change, but they are ways to swiftly encourage job growth and business innovation. The longer the council delays action, the more perilous the known risks of climate change will be to our hard-working businesses. Let’s get going and pass this common-sense bill. Our residents and businesses deserve no less.

Read more:

Letters: Ms. Cheh deserves credit for her leadership on global warming

Sam Brooks: A chance to tackle energy issues

Khalid Pitts and Roger Horowitz: A climate-change policy that grows the economy and benefits D.C. residents

Eugene Robinson: Our planet is in crisis. We don’t have time for Trump’s foolishness.

The Post’s View: Thankfully, Virginia and D.C. are taking climate policy into their own hands