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Bellingham looking for 100% renewable energy by 2035. Here's the plan

Bellingham Herald

Dec. 13--Bellingham officials are getting ready to take their "moon shot" -- an ambitious and controversial plan for the city to do its part to conserve energy and reduce pollution in the face of global climate change.

It's their version of the adage "think globally, act locally."

A volunteer Climate Action Task Force -- composed of academics, activists and industry professionals -- has been working for the past 16 months on recommendations for the City Council to consider.

Task force members presented their findings at a council committee meeting Monday afternoon, giving an overview of what's required for the city to achieve its goal of using 100% renewable energy in the next 10 to 15 years.

Council members voted to create a permanent council Climate Action Committee and begin discussing the task force recommendations at their Jan. 13, 2020, meeting.

"Our task now is to sell this to the citizens of Bellingham," said Council member Gene Knutson. "It's not going to happen overnight. This is going to be, probably -- in all my years here -- one of the longest things we have ever tried to undertake. A worldwide climate problem and what are we going to do here in Bellingham on our part? This is a real heavy lift and it's going to be hard on all of us."

Eric Johnston, interim director of public works, said the goal of 100% renewable energy is Bellingham's "moon shot."

COMING UP: The Bellingham Herald begins a series of stories looking at climate change impacts and solutions in Whatcom County on Sunday, Dec. 12.

Possibly contentious task force recommendations include what the committee calls "electrification," a gradual shift throughout the city to electricity for home heating, cooking and hot water.

But the panel's proposals don't require solar panels on every roof, they don't require new windows, foundations or roofs, and they don't require removal of gas stoves or fireplaces, said task force member Erin McDade of the nonprofit Architecture 2030.

Renewable electricity

McDade said that electricity can be produced from renewable sources like sun, wind and water and the recommendation is to use electrical appliances in new buildings and gradually convert old buildings.

"There's been a lot of discussion about natural gas being a bridge fuel because it's cleaner than coal," McDade said. "But recent robust scientific research indicates that because natural gas is methane, it is 28 times more impactful from a climate change perspective than carbon dioxide because of all the emissions that happen during fracking, during distribution and during combustion on-site -- natural gas is actually as bad if not worse for the climate than coal."

In a 90-minute afternoon presentation, members of the task force described steps that they said the city could take to create a more vibrant, inclusive and energy-efficient city. A copy of the report is available on the City Council website.

Task-force members focused on:

-- Transportation and related issues.

-- Buildings and land use.

-- Types of energy and clean-energy economics.

"The task force took this work very seriously," said Mark Gardner, legislative analyst for the council. "We took it literally as if you wanted us to try to do this and that's why you're seeing some very robust and ambitious measures to match the ambitions."

Bellingham joins cities such as Spokane; Bend, Oregon; Burlington, Vermont; Boise, Idaho; and Boulder, Colorado, in local efforts at addressing the global climate crisis, according to the report.

Gardener said the "100% is not a very forgiving number" and that more analysis and research would be required, along with funding and possibly new regulations to implement whatever plan the council approves.

"We did attempt to have as much public involvement as we possibly could given the technical nature of this committee and the speed at which we had to proceed," Gardner said.

Public comment

Council member Michael Lilliquist suggested a series of "listening tours" before ordinances are even considered.

Later, at its evening meeting, the council heard public comment that both praised and criticized the task force report.

Both the afternoon and evening meetings were packed beyond capacity, and the evening session featured nearly two hours of public comment.

"If Bellingham follows through with these recommendations no matter the cost, we will be setting a standard for cities around the world," said Tanner Rapp, a Squalicum High sophomore and an organizer of the Bellingham Youth Climate Strike rallies. "Bellingham will be a model city."

Alyn Spector, energy efficiency policy manager for Cascade Natural Gas, said his company was left out of the task force and urged an independent analysis of the recommendations' economic impacts.

"We've consistently partnered with the Bellingham community on its energy-efficiency goals, but instead of being welcomed to the table as an ally in sustainability it's been made clear that our participation was not desired," Spector said. "This is not a zero-sum game. The fight against climate change takes all of us working together."

A representative from Puget Sound Energy was on the task force, however. It provides natural gas service in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

Jacquelyn Styrna, government affairs director for the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County, said she was encouraged to hear that the council plans "robust public involvement" as the recommendations are considered.

"Going forward, I'd like to ensure that business, industry -- and particularly my stakeholder group the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County -- is engaged in the development of recommendations and implementation of policy," she said.

Building Industry Association of Whatcom County is a leader in green construction, Styrna said.

Cost of regulations

"We're concerned that the recommendations will impose costly regulations on a community that already is fragile," she said. "We really need to examine the affordability of some of the regulations put forward."

Markus Virta, managing director of Western Solar and a board member of the trade association Solar Installers of Washington, said small clean-energy businesses are thriving in Whatcom County.

"When it comes to climate change the science is irrefutable," Virta said. "Housing affordability is incredibly important and luckily renewable energy right now is the cheapest form of power worldwide. This is the defining issue of our generation. We need to show courage and leadership. We don't have a lot of time to act. The economically feasible measures here make sense, let's move on those and then let's really get down to the nuts and bolts and move on what's left."

Lance Calloway, northern district manager for the Associated General Contractors of Washington, was among speakers who worried that the expense of converting to clean energy will cost jobs or make housing even more expensive in Whatcom County.

"We need to make sure we don't create ordinances that increase the cost to our local community and potentially harm our economy, making Bellingham an unattractive place to live and do business," Calloway said.

Sunnyland resident Ted Clifton told the council that he lives in a net-zero-energy home, drives an electric car, and his company builds net-zero-energy homes.

"We can already do it now for market rate," he said. "Nearly all of our homes, unless someone railroads us into a gas fireplace or gas stove, would meet all the requirements of the task force. We can already do it now, for market rate."


(c)2019 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

Visit The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.) at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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