The City of Bainbridge Island Council’s discussions about public power and climate change represent a microcosm of what is being played out around the world. We’re like a Petri dish. A community experiment. Although we’re not your average participants as Bainbridge Island is known for having more than its fair share of scholars and environmental stewards.
However, corporate bullying from our current electric utility in the form of well-placed money (Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Business Association, as well as push-polling, ads, events, possible funding of candidates, etc.) has created an atmosphere of fear in the hopes of paralyzing the city government from taking action on one of the most defining issues of our time – climate change.
How can a city help to mitigate climate change? Many scientists along with the EPA list fossil-fuel generated energy as one of the nation’s leading causes of CO2 emissions, the primary cause of climate change and global warming. So, if the city could buy electricity that doesn’t emit as much carbon or pollution as fossil fuel generated electricity that could lower the entire island’s carbon footprint. What’s a city to do? Start its own electric utility? Sounds complex. Thankfully, we wouldn’t be reinventing the wheel, there are 62 other public power entities in WA alone, most get their power from the Bonneville Power Administration, where the Island Power initiative is suggesting Bainbridge Island get its power.
Whether we get on board or not, we’re in the middle of an industry shift. The energy industry is changing for the better but its fighting that change every step of the way. In my lifetime I’ve seen a number of radical industry shifts, you probably have too. Here are a few that have impacted my working life:
- Pre-press and typesetting industry segued into desktop publishing. Aldus then Adobe software were disruptive technologies and changed how we work.
- Film and photography labs disappeared with the advent of digital photography.
- Digital cameras have felt the pressure of a camera in every cell phone.
- Landline telephone use is declining as cellphone coverage and reliability increase.
- Use of printed maps have declined as GPS is readily available on cell phones.
Climate change will be completely disruptive to the energy industry if we decide to live more lightly on the planet.
Where is your money going? You might be surprised at how much coal-generated electricity Bainbridge Island buys each year. The average kilowatt hour (kWh) per year per house is about 15,000 and slightly more than half of that comes from fossil fuels, about one third from coal-generated electricity. In 2015 15,000 kWH cost about $1400/yr. So about $466, almost $500/yr to coal-generated electricity. If we multiply that times the number of households (9,709) we get about $4.5 million spent on coal-generated electricity a year – just for residences – that number does not include businesses.
In a capitalist society, what is our real leverage? Money and how we spend it, or don’t spend it. Most people want to live more lightly on the planet but changing light bulbs and recycling are not enough. We need to make system-wide changes to mitigate climate change — systems that people use daily. With cleaner energy, for example, people can continue to charge their devices, keep the refrigerator running and flick on the lights with substantially less of a negative impact on the earth and our environment.
System-wide changes need to be made through our political system. Our electricity vendor for Bainbridge is Puget Sound Energy (PSE). The city has a nonexclusive contract with them. We can’t change vendors (they are a monopoly) or buy our own power without going through the local government to change the contract. Politics is messy. It’s not as straightforward as bringing an idea to the local government for a discussion and a vote. In Nov 2015 the City Council voted to educate themselves and the community about public power before putting anything on the ballot. The city manager put together a task force to write a Request for Proposal then to interview the consulting firms who replied. They selected the consulting firm. The city manager brought the recommendation to the council in May. It was sent back to the task force for more consideration. Tuesday night (July 12th) there will be a vote on that study, whether to move forward with it or not.
Will the city council be bold and brave enough to take the first step toward cleaner energy? What if our grid was filled with carbon-neutral electricity? What if our cars were fueled by hydro power? What if airplanes were fueled by plants? (Alaska Airlines is starting to use biofuels!!) Are we the environmental stewards we think we are or will fear rule the day? We’ll find out Tuesday.