Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In the battle over clean energy and global warming, the District of Columbia rates barely a speck on the nation’s landscape, a tiny 68 square miles out of the nation’s nearly 3.8 million square miles.

“Yes, we are really small,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. But Cheh is proposing one of nation’s most far-reaching and aggressive clean energy bills that she says will benefit the District and provide a role model for other jurisdictions. “We want to be a model and a leader.” She also says that the District’s efforts—like those in California and other states—can be a rebuff to President Trump and his decision to drop out of the Paris Agreement on climate change and other international accords.

Cheh’s “Clean Energy DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018” would have the District reach 50 percent renewable energy by 2032 and 100 percent by 2050. To do so, it would impose new sustainable energy fees on electricity and natural gas to create a “Green Bank” that would fund millions of dollars for retrofitting private and D.C. government office buildings.

Cheh tells City Paper that 75 percent of the District’s energy use comes from buildings. “To have a reduction in the energy use of buildings is a key ingredient of bringing down our energy use and dealing with climate change,” she says.

It all sounds very green and good, but the ambitious timing and action plan is still on the legislative drawing table. About 80 witnesses signed up to testify, mostly in favor, at an Oct. 9 hearing on Cheh’s bill, one crafted, Cheh says, after months of conversations with business and environmental groups. Even so, there were warnings that low-income consumers already pay an exceptionally high “home energy burden.”

Attorney Sandra Mattavous-Frye, who leads the Office of the People’s Counsel, the independent agency that advocates for consumers on energy matters, cautioned that a new sustainable energy fee ($1.89 for electric bills, $3.15 for fossil fuel gas) would worsen financial pressures on low-income families. Mattavous-Frye testified that energy bills are considered “unaffordable” if ratepayers spend more than 6 percent of their gross incomes on energy-related costs. She said about 27,000 low income individuals in the District spend as much as 32 percent—more than five times the unaffordable standard.

Although Mattavous-Frye said her office supports clean energy and the new bill, she said low-income families need to be further protected. She also noted that when the city fines an energy company for failing to be more efficient, the cost of those compliance fees generally are rolled into rates, with consumers ultimately paying those costs, too. She added that the bill’s requirement that energy companies enter into long-term contracts also could cost consumers if energy prices drop.

Cheh says that she too is concerned about added costs for low income households, but that long-term contracts provide stability for energy firms to invest in more efficient delivery methods. Cheh also says that D.C.’s “Green Bank” would provide low-cost, extended terms for building retrofits that will benefit low-income renters.

The bill must now pass Cheh’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment and the Committee on Business and Economic Development chaired by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. Although the legislation calls for regulations to be written and enforced beginning in 2020, the bill itself may not face final passage until sometime next year, potentially delaying its effective date.

Under the current bill, buildings with more than 50,000 square feet would have five years to meet any new energy standards put in place by the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment. Smaller buildings of 25,000 square feet, 10,000 square feet, and 5,000 square feet would have longer deadlines. The goal is to go after the biggest and the most inefficient buildings first, Cheh says.

But again, the District is such a tiny speck in the global warming battle. “Specks add up,” Cheh says. “We [and other jurisdictions] are trying to fill the gaps left by the President’s negative and destructive approach.”