Environment and Energy

Seattle Wildfire Smoke

Climate change threatens both the world and Washington in particular. In my lifetime, I’ve seen Washington’s climate transform: our summers are hotter and longer, our winters colder with more frequent snow, our forests are drier. Wildfires now cover the skies in smoke most Septembers on both sides of the state, releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and destroying valuable carbon sinks. But what can we do that would actually make a difference, and at what cost?

I don’t believe the solution to climate change is social engineering—forcing people to not eat meat or have fewer kids will not work and is not a moral solution. I believe the solution to climate change is science and actual engineering—technology, innovation, and investment. Washington already uses the least carbon-reliant energy grid in the country thanks to our awe-inspiring dams. We must continue to push forward in both reliable and sustainable energy production, continue investing in ways to make green energy more cost effective and energy efficient, and rigorously prepare our electric grid for electric vehicles. But we must go further: no amount of reducing the rate of carbon addition will solve the problem—we must embrace carbon subtraction.

There are a million great ideas worth pursuing which don’t infringe on our rights and which could actually make a difference, and there are a million more waiting to be discovered.

Let’s embrace a serious, human-centric climate change policy which leaves no one behind:

Governor Inslee and the state legislature have pushed hard to promote electric vehicles. Democrats in the legislature, including the 44th District’s April Berg and John Lovick, went so far as to pass a bill banning the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles within the decade, although this provision was vetoed by the Governor. While electric vehicles are likely the future of personal transportation, this bill was short-sighted for two reasons: 1) electric vehicles remain prohibitively expensive for the working class, something which will not likely change in the near future, and 2) our electric grid is not yet up to the burden this mandate would place upon it, and forcing the matter will lead Washington into routine California-like brownouts.

Bringing our electric grid up to where it needs to be will require a very large investment, both in new generating capacity and in new lines to transmit larger amounts power across the state, especially from dams east of the Cascades to the Puget Sound region. Currently, three high-capacity (500 kV or higher) transmission lines cross the Cascades along with three mid-range lines. With an expected energy demand predicted to increase by 90% over the next thirty years, both of these numbers will likely need to increase, and mid-range lines need to be upgraded to high capacity.

As we upgrade our transmission lines, it is also imperative that we invest in moving our power lines underground. This should be done for two reasons:

First, high winds and falling trees regularly knock out power to large swaths of Snohomish County. Growing up in rural Kayak Point, we regularly lost power in the winter for days on end due to falling trees. If we are going to build a transportation system reliant on at-home vehicle charging (not to mention talk of banning gasoline home generators), we cannot allow rural and suburban areas to lose access to basic transportation.

Second, high winds and aging materials regularly turn aerial transmission lines into the spark for wildfires. We’ve seen the massive destruction caused by downed lines in California’s 2018 Camp Fire, the most destructive in the state’s history, and the 2021 wildfire in suburban Boulder, Colorado. These wildfires not only destroyed towns but also released enormous quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and destroyed invaluable carbon sinks. Burying electrical lines erases almost all of this risk.

This investment will not be cheap, but it will be necessary.

Washington has long maintained the least carbon-reliant power grid of any state, primarily thanks to our massive hydroelectric dams, but also due to nuclear power plants. These electricity sources are reliable, consistent, powerful, and do not produce notable amounts of carbon dioxide.

Wind and solar energy, while useful as supplements, are not viable substitutes for hydro and nuclear power. They are intermittent power sources which require quickly adjustable base sources to cover for them when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow. This is why every state and country, including Washington, which heavily pushes toward expanding wind and solar ends up heavily expanding backup natural gas utilization; when this comes at the expense of hydro and nuclear, the net result is frequently that expanding wind and solar as base sources means higher carbon dioxide emissions than before expansion.

Despite this, some environmentalists would like to see both done away with, or at least reduced. There is steady talk of removing dams on the Lower Snake River in order to help salmon at the cost of 8 billion kWh/year of electricity generation, threatening either a future of California-like brownouts or increased natural gas use and therefore increased carbon emissions. I am a strong defender of Washington’s dams and will never put the needs of fish before the needs of human beings.

Nuclear technology has improved by leaps and bounds since the first nuclear plants were built here in Washington, especially with regard to nuclear waste, which can now be recycled in Generation IV “fast breeder” reactors which utilize closed fuel cycles– turning waste into new fuel. Advances such as small modular reactors mean nuclear generation is much less capital intensive to set up, can be deployed strategically as demand changes, is less likely to run into delays and cost overruns, and presents much lower radiation leakage risk as the amount of radiation generated at any one given location is far lower. Nuclear power must be an important part in Washington’s energy portfolio going forward, especially if climate change leads to drier summers and faster snow melt.

Washington, and much of the rest of western North America, has seen a surge in large, uncontrolled wildfires in the past five to ten years– destroying homes and lives, removing vital carbon sinks, and releasing carbon dioxide equivalent to years of statewide vehicle emissions. These wildfires are byproducts of both climate change and deliberately forsaking proper forest management for attempts at total fire suppression.

Research from the University of Washington finds active forest management techniques critical to reducing wildfire frequency and severity. Investing in active forest management requires work and additional funding on multiple fronts:

First, let’s strategically plant millions of trees across eastern Washington to absorb more carbon dioxide. This will provide flexibility to thin existing forests prone to high-severity wildfires, especially in the eastern Cascades.

Next, let’s use targeted cuts which preserve large-diameter trees, controlled burns, and reductions to surface fuel levels throughout our forests to starve wildfires before they can grow.

Let’s found a university in Snohomish County dedicated to bringing together researchers and industry to advance carbon capture and sequestration, direct air capture processes, and ways to safely utilize captured carbon beyond simply burying it deep in the Cascades.

Let’s harvest carbon dioxide-consuming algae on an industrial scale for use in animal feed and plastic substitutes.

Let’s advance and subsidize soil carbon monitoring and capture techniques for use in agriculture.

While property taxes should be phased out in favor of land value taxes, our current property tax system punishes homeowners who install solar panels on their property by increasing their improved property value assessment. Washington exempts solar installation from sales taxes, but not from more costly increases in property taxes. We should ensure that individuals who wish to generate their own electricity, reducing the burden on system-wide energy sources, have as much help in doing so as possible.

Let’s provide tuition-free courses and degree programs in electric vehicle maintenance to current automotive mechanics and technicians through our state community and technical colleges. These programs would need to provide flexible night and weekend courses to accommodate these workers’ existing jobs.