Puget Sound Energy (PSE) provides power to our homes, schools, and businesses by burning coal from Montana. This is a problem. Currently, 37 percent of PSE’s electric power comes from coal-burning power plants, which are a major source of greenhouse gases as well as particulate pollution linked to cancer and lung disease. Because utilities are a monopoly, Washington State regulates them. The Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission is currently assessing Puget Sound Energy’s 20-year Integrated Resource Plan. The Integrated Resource Plan is essentially a plan for how power will be provided to PSE customers over the next 20 years. As citizens of Washington State, residents of King County and consumers of PSE’s power, we can appeal to the commission to only accept a plan for power in our communities that is based on renewable energy. This is in line with King County’s Strategic Climate Action Plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2030. To ensure this path forward, we must speak up now while the PSE plan is being assessed. Two opportunities exist to do so: written public comment is currently being accepted on the Integrated Resource Plan; and on Wednesday, February 21, a hearing of the Utilities and Transportation Commission will take place at 1:30 pm at the Renton Community Center.
Running the dishwasher. Turning up the heat. Leaving the porch lights on. These are just a few trivial actions from our daily lives. Currently if you live in the service area of Puget Sound Energy, much of your power comes from coal, so, these actions, whether you like it or not, contribute to human-caused climate change. Individually, they don’t really matter, but repeated daily all across the world, they bring about devastating changes: increased wildfires, higher flood risks, hazardous air quality, water shortages. The depressing list extends on and on in a dizzying fashion, forming a grim image of what our world and our region will look like if we fail to make immediate and substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. What's at stake? Nothing less than the future.
There’s a certain irony about climate change. With a fossil-fuel-based energy system, our daily actions contribute to a bleaker future for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Meanwhile, we continue to take these actions, because dinner must be made and dirty clothes must be washed. However, we must work to square our choices with the resulting consequences. As we emit greenhouse gases going about our daily lives, we are compounding national security risks, as well as the spread of infectious diseases. We are irreparably altering natural landscapes and animal habitats. We are exacerbating the divides in our society, since climate change’s effects will be most devastating to those already most vulnerable. These are profoundly high costs for running the dishwasher.
The worst, most self-destructive part of this crisis is that it’s unnecessary. As a group of women scientists with expertise in energy and climate science, we are well aware that alternatives to fossil fuels exist to power our daily lives instead. We do not need to move off the grid or take other unrealistically drastic steps to reduce our contributions to climate change. Rather, we need to power our communities with clean, safe energy sources. Fortunately, over the next few weeks we have an opportunity to change one of the power sources used in our region and significantly reduce our contributions to climate change as we go about our lives.
In crafting a plan, we specifically demand that PSE close all of its units in the coal-burning Colstrip Power Plant in Montana by 2025. We applaud PSE’s existing commitment to close two of its units producing coal-based power in Colstrip, but since alternatives to coal exist, the remaining units must be retired as well. Further, when these coal-based power sources are retired, they should be replaced with clean, renewable energy sources, not natural gas or other power sources that contribute to climate change. PSE’s existing hydroelectric and wind power are a strength which can be built on to move directly into a clean energy future. We should not drag our feet from one damaging power source to another.
The Utilities and Transportation Commission is charged with ensuring that customers aren’t getting price-gouged by this energy monopoly. Clean power from wind and solar not only reduce the costs to our health, environment, and future, but they also make sense for our immediate pocketbooks. Analysis from the Lazard financial firm shows the low costs of clean energy outperforming coal and natural gas.
As scientists, many of us think about the existential threat of climate change each and every day. We carefully assess the threats to vulnerable communities, human health, and national security. We spend countless hours trying to precisely predict increases in natural disasters. We worry constantly about how climate change could stall progress on building the more just and equitable world that we desire. It is a sobering profession.
But we are also not just scientists, we are people. We have lives to lead and families to care for. We cannot stop washing the laundry and turning the porch light on. This means the only way to stop contributing to climate change is to move as a community to an energy system with dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. By insisting that PSE transition to providing all power from renewable sources, we are acting not just as scientists, but as concerned and engaged citizens.
This change in our region alone won’t prevent the worst possible effects of climate change, but if these types of changes are made in each community around the world, they would. Such changes should be taken to put the Pacific Northwest into a position of leadership, both nationally and globally. Let’s speak up now about transitioning to renewable power sources, so that tomorrow each time when we turn on a light, we do not feel creeping guilt. Let’s advance to a world where we feel pride in our choices to reduce emissions and ensure a better future.
500 Women Scientists is an international organization composed of women scientists whose mission is to serve society by making science open, inclusive, and accessible. Our Seattle chapter has members with significant expertise in climate science, public policy, and environmental issues. A copy of our public comment on the PSE Integrated Resource Plan can be accessed here.