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Emissions control? We’re getting warmer

Tue., April 17, 2007

Not so much as a week seems to go by without another report on the dire implications of global warming. Monday, two new reports focused on the stress that will be put on world and national water supplies, and the regional conflicts that could result.

The findings should heighten appreciation of the Columbia River, its tributaries, and the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Aquifer. The Inland Northwest is incredibly fortunate to have the liquid resources it does.

Atmospheric warming, at least as best we can measure it today, directly affects those assets. As Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire noted in a February executive order, the glaciers at the head of many state watersheds are one-third smaller than they were in 1950. Runoff occurs earlier, decreasing flows available for irrigation, fish and hydroelectric generation during the summer. New reservoirs authorized by the legislature last year are an attempt to address those problems.

Gregoire’s order goes further by setting ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. She notes the existing policies that will help the state get there, and formed a new group to consider what additional steps can be taken to clean up our air.

Washington voters, in passing Initiative 937, had already done their part. The initiative requires utilities to acquire 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020. Thanks to the wind farms proliferating on Northwest hillsides, that goal is attainable, if a stretch.

Washington legislators this week will finish the climate trifecta with SB6001, which will require utilities to capture carbon dioxide and other byproducts of combustion, or offset those emissions in some way. Carbon dioxide, CO2, is the gas most associated with the greenhouse effect that traps solar heat. Burn fossil fuels, you get carbon dioxide.

The bill, like Gregoire’s executive order, sets aggressive goals for rolling back greenhouse gas emissions during the next four-plus decades. The bill suggests several possible ways of attaining those standards.

How, for example, might a market be created that would allow utilities to trade emissions credits? Could the gases be permanently injected into underground reservoirs, or the greenhouse effect be offset by planting trees? Some of these measures are already in effect in other places around the world.

The governor would also have to recommend potential tax incentives for upgrades of emissions-control equipment. An earlier version of the bill would have allowed utilities a higher return on investment in technologies that improve the efficiency of their transmission and distribution systems.

That requirement would have dovetailed nicely with another goal of the bill: the employment by 2020 of 25,000 Washington residents in jobs related to clean energy. Meter-maker Itron Inc., in Spokane Valley, and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, in Pullman, would benefit greatly from adoption of such incentives. SEL devices help grid operators manage their systems more efficiently.

Grid management will become more critical as utilities from Canada to Mexico introduce technologies that minimize emissions, but challenge system reliability as they juggle generating resources that, unlike conventional coal plants, do not operate 24/7 at a constant output.

Washington and other states re-examining their energy futures are undertaking radical changes in the energy generation and transmission model that dates back to the 19th century. The environmental costs of those technologies are starting to add up in an ominous way. More and more alternative technologies, notably wind, are proving economical. Even the unmentionable, nuclear power, is regaining advocates.

There is a justifiable sense of urgency about the damage caused by the emissions we spew into the atmosphere every moment. . But as the legislature finishes up its work this session, it will be good that officials, public and private both, will have some time before they have to come up with a more complete blueprint for our energy future.

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