Sierra Club Calls for Additional Measures to Reduce DC's Carbon Emissions

Testimony of Lara Levison
on behalf of
Sierra Club DC Chapter
before the
DC Council Committee on Transportation and the Environment
Performance Oversight Hearing on
Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE)
Thursday, January 16, 2020, 11:00am

Councilmember Cheh and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify on behalf of the Sierra Club DC Chapter at this DOEE performance oversight hearing.

Implementation of 2018 Energy Bill
Councilmember Cheh, we thank you again for your tremendous leadership in passing the 2018 Clean Energy DC Omnibus Act, and we thank all the councilmembers for their support for this landmark legislation.

The Sierra Club appreciates the efforts that DOEE is making to move forward expeditiously on implementation of the 2018 clean energy bill. We encourage the Committee to work closely with DOEE on implementation and to ensure the necessary funds are available, and we urge the Committee to push other agencies under your jurisdiction to implement the bill.

Transportation Electrification
The transportation sector contributes 23 percent of the District’s greenhouse gas emissions according to DOEE figures. One of the main ways to achieve reductions is to electrify the transportation sector, since the District’s electricity supply is provided increasingly by renewable sources.

The clean energy bill contains several provisions to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, including several near-term requirements. The bill requires the Mayor to establish – by the end of March – a transportation electrification program to require electrification of various vehicle fleets. The bill also requires DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) to prepare – by July 1, 2021– “a comprehensive clean vehicle transition plan outlining strategies that will encourage and promote the adoption of zero-emission vehicles by drivers in the District.”

DOEE is working with DDOT on these plans, but our understanding is that little progress has been made. For the plan due in March, as far as we know, little has been accomplished beyond planning an RFP requesting a consultant. The Sierra Club urges the Committee to obtain clear work plans and timelines from DOEE and DDOT on how the agencies will complete these important plans on time. And we ask that the agencies engage in aggressive public engagement with stakeholders on the transportation electrification plans.

The clean energy bill requires that “all public buses” transition away from fossil fuels, with 50 percent required to be electric by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045. The Sierra Club thanks DOEE and DDOT for ensuring that the DC Circulator will meet those targets well in advance of the deadlines. Unfortunately, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has made virtually no progress on transitioning its bus fleet from diesel to electricity. A Metrobus certainly qualifies as a “public bus,” so we ask the DC government to engage with WMATA to ensure it meets the bus electrification requirements in the law.

Building Energy Performance Standard
We applaud DOEE for the good work they are doing to implement the Building Energy Performance Standard (BEPS) required by the 2018 clean energy bill. BEPS requires improvements in energy efficiency in large buildings, both privately-owned and DC government buildings. These requirements are critically important to achieving the District’s climate commitments and must be vigorously protected and implemented. The law says that DOEE must set standards for each building type that are no lower than the median building, but DOEE will likely need to set the standards well above the median for most building types to be on track to meet the target of 50 percent greenhouse gas reductions by 2032.

Energy Efficiency and the DC Sustainable Energy Utility
The Sierra Club commends the DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU) for initiating a building decarbonization pilot program. Space and water heating in buildings accounts for nearly 20 percent of the District’s greenhouse gas emissions. The pilot study is an important first step in wider efforts for building decarbonization and will help the District develop its building decarbonization strategy.

If DC is going to reach its commitment of carbon neutrality by 2050, we must eliminate CO₂ emissions in the building sector by switching from fossil fuels such as oil and methane gas to heat pumps powered by renewable energy from wind and solar. Currently, DCSEU programs are structured such that fuel switching is effectively prohibited. For instance, when an old inefficient gas boiler is replaced with a highly-efficiency heat pump, overall carbon emissions fall but electricity usage increases. But because DCSEU has separate goals for reducing electricity use and gas use, switching from gas to heat pumps works against DCSEU’s electricity targets even though it is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In DCSEU’s next five year contract, this flawed accounting needs to be removed so that DCSEU is rewarded for reducing overall emissions. Additionally, the Sierra Club requests that the next DCSEU contract require it to actively promote decarbonization and fuel switching and end all funding for gas appliances.

The Sierra Club recommends that in the upcoming five-year DCSEU contract, a major focus be providing incentives for homeowners and other building owners to convert fossil fuel heating systems to heat pumps. The State of Maine, which has much colder winter temperatures than DC, has set a goal of installing 20,000 heat pumps a year, reaching 100,000 in 2025. To help meet that goal, the Efficiency Maine Trust doubled its rebate to homeowners who install heat pumps from $500 to $1,000. We suggest DCSEU similarly increase its rebates for all heat pump installations, and provide even higher rebates to people converting from oil or gas heating systems to heat pumps.

Utility-run Energy Efficiency Programs
The 2018 clean energy law allows utilities to administer energy efficiency programs to supplement the programs offered by DCSEU. The Sierra Club recommends that the DC Council set guidelines for energy efficiency programs run by DCSEU and efficiency programs administered by the utilities. We also suggest the Council fund a feasibility study to consider the appropriate alignment for energy efficiency programs run by each entity and the appropriate savings targets for each.

The clean energy law assigns the DC Public Service Commission (PSC) the responsibility for overseeing the creation of the utility efficiency programs. For this purpose, the PSC created a working group under Formal Case 1160, which DOEE participates in. DOEE staff’s involvement and input to this working group has been indispensable, and we appreciate their aggressive pursuit of large energy savings goals from utility energy efficiency programs.

However, there are outstanding issues being considered by the working group that could use further support and resources from DOEE. DCSEU’s energy savings goals are decided based on the funds available in the Sustainable Energy Trust Fund. Utilities will almost certainly use cost recovery from ratepayers, a potentially limitless resource that has to be balanced against ratepayers’ best interests. There is a natural hesitation to set overly aggressive goals as needed by DC’s climate commitments. DOEE has suggested, and we support, initiating a study on the potential of the energy efficiency market in DC and feeding this information into setting annual savings goals for DCSEU and utility programs.

Since the provision for utility-run energy efficiency programs was hastily added to the 2018 clean energy bill near the end of the process, the DC Council was not able to consider and provide clear policy direction regarding which types of programs should be managed by utilities versus those managed by DCSEU, so the legislation deferred to existing structures. This is likely to create inefficiencies moving forward. Specifically, utilities can leverage their existing relationships with customers, and DCSEU has the flexibility to fund programs that may not directly align with their funding sources. Programs that do not recognize these natural alignments will operate inefficiently. There is no unified decision-making structure when the PSC manages utility programs and DOEE manages DCSEU.

The DC Council has a responsibility to set energy savings goals and clear areas of responsibility, and we ask DOEE to work with the Council to design policies that create clear lanes of operation for DCSEU and utilities that will allow DC to achieve large quantities of energy savings. Due to the difficulty of setting up programs that do not interfere with existing programs, and despite other states setting and achieving aggressive energy savings goals (like New Mexico’s energy efficiency savings goals of 5 percent of sales per year), the FC1160 working group is only considering recommending a combined electricity savings goal of 2 percent of sales per year. An energy efficiency feasibility study should consider ideal alignments for energy efficiency programs between utilities and DCSEU.

On-bill financing for energy efficiency upgrades
The Sierra Club requests that DOEE and the Committee consider a pilot program to increase access to energy efficiency improvements for renters and people with low incomes, two groups that typically do not have easy access to home improvements that reduce energy use.

Missouri’s Public Service Commission last month instructed its electric utility to administer a one-year pilot program, called “Pay As You Save," which requires the utility to pay for efficiency upgrades with ratepayers incrementally paying back the cost on their monthly bills. The program is available to ratepayers regardless of income or credit history.

“Pay As You Save" programs are administered by about 15 utilities across the country, mostly small rural electric cooperatives. The Missouri pilot is in Kansas City. We believe a “Pay As You Save" program is worth exploring in the District, either through a pilot program mandated by the PSC or by the DC Council funding a feasibility study on the issue. The details of such a program would need to be carefully considered to ensure minimal impact on ratepayers and maximum impact on energy efficiency improvements and greenhouse gas reductions.

Climate stewardship at the Public Service Commission
The Sierra Club thanks DOEE and the Office of Attorney General for their stewardship of the climate before the Public Service Commission. Washington Gas has made several important commitments under its merger with AltaGas, including to develop 10 megawatts of solar in the Mount Vernon Triangle area of DC and to change its business to be consistent with DC’s commitment of carbon neutrality by 2050, which will require Washington Gas to stop selling gas. We have read many of the District government’s filings before the commission, and we appreciate the focus on holding Washington Gas to those commitments.

Transitioning public buildings off fossil fuels
The District government should lead by example on clean energy and local air pollution issues. Burning fossil fuels in public buildings is inconsistent with DC’s climate commitment to become carbon neutral. DOEE should work with the Department of General Services (DGS) to completely avoid any new fossil fuel infrastructure in measures undertaken as part of the energy management plan that DGS is required to prepare under the 2018 clean energy law.

Because DC needs to eliminate all fossil fuel combustion over the next three decades, it makes little sense for the DGS energy management plan required under the 2018 clean energy law to include new fossil fuel-fired appliances. Instead, the energy retrofit program (which the law mandates to occur between 2021 and 2024) should transition the affected buildings away from fossil fuels and toward clean sources such as heat pumps.

The Sierra Club calls on DOEE to work with DGS to include in the energy management plan a strategy to transition all public buildings off fossil fuels by 2045. The Sierra Club requests that this strategy identify priority buildings that are well suited for transitioning away from fossil fuels via electrification within the first five years after the plan is developed. The plan should also contain a timeline for the buildings that will be more difficult to transition off of fossil fuels. Seattle is developing such a plan and other cities have similar goals.

Building energy retrofits
The Clean Energy DC plan issued by the Mayor states that the District should provide the incentives necessary to operate a District-wide deep energy retrofit program for existing buildings. According to the plan, by 2020, DOEE should work with the DCSEU and the Green Bank to implement a package of incentives targeting deeper energy use reductions by 2020. We encourage DOEE to work expeditiously to establish such a program this year and begin funding the implementation of deep energy retrofits.

Federal energy decision that harms renewables and consumers
In late December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued an order in a party-line vote of two-to-one that will boost coal and gas electricity generation in our region at the expense of renewable energy resources. The new approach will also cost ratepayers more money, because electricity from coal and gas plants is now more expensive than electricity from renewables and nuclear. The dissenting commissioner said that a conservative estimate produced by his staff put the annual cost to consumers at $2.4 billion. There is an option for the District to work around this new policy (called the Fixed Resource Requirement, or “FRR,” Alternative). We encourage DOEE to explore this option with the PSC, Pepco, and the DC Council.

Solar in Historic Districts
DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) has repeatedly denied applications for solar panels in historic districts on the grounds that visible rooftop solar panels are a greater threat to the District than climate change. Given the global threat of climate change and the particular vulnerability of our city, parts of which are at sea level, the Sierra Club believes the HPRB’s conclusion is absurd.

In December, the HRPB approved new guidelines for solar panels that it worked with DOEE to develop. Unfortunately the guidelines are inconsistent, will increase the cost of solar installations, decrease solar panel efficiency, and allow the HPRB to continue to prioritize concerns such as the color and texture of shingles over the future of the planet. Because of the HRPB’s intransigence, the Sierra Club believes the DC Council should pass legislation stripping the HPRB of its authority to deny solar panels.

Stormwater & RFK Stadium Site
The District continues to expend considerable resources to remediate and restore the Anacostia River. Stormwater management in the watershed under the MS4 permit is making progress in reducing stormwater flows and pollution. The prospect of redevelopment of the RFK stadium site poses both a threat and a potential benefit to Anacostia water quality, depending on how it is executed. The Sierra Club notes that there was a stakeholders' meeting planned for the project, but it was canceled and has not been rescheduled. Any redevelopment at RFK is an important dimension of Anacostia water quality, and we request that DC agencies, beginning with DOEE, engage the public early in any planning process to establish water quality management best practices as a goal from the start.

Rock Creek Water Quality
While DC Water’s Clean Rivers program has achieved significant improvements in water quality in the Anacostia River and will reduce combined sewer overflows to the Potomac River, pollution levels in Rock Creek and its tributaries remain high. We applaud DOEE’s funding of citizen monitoring. DOEE should evaluate its own monitoring program to ensure that timely and adequate water quality data is available to decision makers. A significant amount of the pollution in Rock Creek continues to enter DC from Maryland. DOEE should redouble its discussions with Montgomery County and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission to reduce and ultimately eliminate this burden.

Revitalizing the Anacostia River
The Sierra Club is a member of the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative (APACC), a network of organizations working together to make the Anacostia River and its park system become the best possible resource for DC residents, especially those east of the river. APACC is developing comments on the proposed Anacostia River Sediment cleanup plan to reflect appropriate best practices to protect and improve Anacostia River water quality.

Zero Waste
DOEE is in charge of enforcing DC’s bag fee and ensuring that restaurants abide by the bans on foam food packaging and non-compostable straws as well as other food service ware requirements. The current enforcement team is two to three people who are responsible for enforcing these laws across the thousands of restaurants and stores that sell food and beverages in DC. As you can imagine, this small team is well beyond capacity and should be provided with additional funding to hire additional employees to enforce these laws and potential future laws to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics and other single-use food service ware.

Councilmember Cheh, thank you for introducing the Zero Waste Omnibus Act of 2019 with the support of seven of your colleagues on the Council. The Sierra Club is pleased with the bill, which will help the District make significant progress toward the goal of 80 percent waste diversion from landfills and incineration by 2032. Among other responsibilities, the bill would likely task DOEE with enforcing new food service ware requirements, including that accessory disposable food service ware is to be provided “on request only” and reusable food service ware must be used for on-premises dining. Laws only work when they are enforced, and given the scope of this legislation and the enforcement that would be required, we urge DOEE to begin plans to significantly increase its enforcement capacity now, so that this legislation can make a real difference.

The Sierra Club is the nation’s oldest, largest and most influential environmental advocacy organization. We have 3,000 dues-paying members in DC. On behalf of our members, thank you for the opportunity to testify on these important issues. We look forward to working with DOEE and this Committee to tackle the climate crisis, reduce waste, expand sustainable transportation and protect our rivers and our drinking water.

Sierra Club HPRB testimony, December 19, 2019
Coalition letter to the PSC on methane pollution, December 17, 2019
Sierra Club Zero Waste Omnibus testimony, December 16, 2019