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D.C. Council approves clean energy bill

November 28, 2018

A unanimous D.C. Council gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a major climate change legislation with some last-minute revisions that worry environmentalists.

The Clean Energy DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018 would require that all of the city’s energy be from renewable sources by 2032.

Activists, legislators and D.C. utility provider Pepco hailed the bill for setting a national example on combating climate change, but some expressed reservations over a new provision that could allow Pepco to charge residents twice for their electricity.

“It’s a really, really great bill, but at the 11th hour Pepco was trying to make back deals,” said Nikhil Balakumar, executive director of Coalition for a Resilient DC.

Mr. Balakumar and other activists have alleged that Pepco changed the legislation to make it easier for the electricity provider to roll out green “efficiency-energy” programs like building retrofits and solar panel installations. Such efforts are administered by the Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU), which is funded by a flat tax on Pepco utility bills and overseen by the D.C. Council.

Environmental groups and some council members have expressed concern that residents could have to pay the SEU tax and higher charges from Pepco to manage its own green energy programs.

Council member Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, chairs the Business and Economic Development Committee, which marked up the latest version of the bill. He said talk of double-charging was “incorrect” and that “the amendment clarifies that the electric and gas company programs will not duplicate programs created by the Sustainable Energy Utility.”

“I wasn’t even familiar with the changes until this morning,” said D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chair of the Transportation Committee, which first marked up the bill earlier this fall.

She said she would need “to have some assurance that taxpayers aren’t harmed” and that the SEU would not be outcompeted by Pepco before the next reading of the bill.

“It’s not double-dipping,” said Donna Cooper, Pepco region president. “It removes the disincentive as it relates to the electric utility to really invest and move forward with energy-efficiency programs.”

The District’s Public Service Commission oversees the city’s utility providers, and previously granted Pepco permission to carry out renewable energy programs.

Ms. Cheh said the problem is that while the SEU’s 4 percent profit margins are bound to benchmarks, Pepco’s are guaranteed no matter what, which makes it easier to invest risk free.

“They bare no risk,” she said. “Their shareholders bear no risk.”

The District’s overall goal is to reduce carbon emissions 50 percent by 2032. The Clean Energy Act aims to address 49.2 percent of that reduction by:

Requiring all energy to be renewable within 15 years.

Tightening energy standards for buildings larger than 10,000 square feet.

Raising vehicle excise taxes to encourage cleaner transportation options (like public transit or electric cars).

Increasing taxes on utility bills to finance renewable energy projects for all residents.

Ms. Cheh said she will introduce legislation that would require Pepco to default to offer renewable energy to D.C. customers, and require the utility to enter into 10-year contracts with clean energy companies measures that originally were a part of the Clean Energy Act but were removed in Mr. McDuffie’s committee as a concession to Pepco.

The Clean Energy Act is slated for a second and final vote on Dec. 18. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said that leaves “ample time” for revisions. If it passes a second vote, it will require mayoral and congressional approval to become law.

The aggressive goal-setting is a response to a series of reports from the local, federal and international governments indicating that climate change already is endangering lives.

“I just had a new grandchild,” Ms. Cheh said. “I don’t want to look into her eyes and say I could have done something about it, but didn’t do anything.”

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