Free Market Environmentalism

The Key to Saving Energy and Money? Consumers–Not Politicians…

By Todd Myers

With the 2018 ballots tallied, Washington’s environmental activist community wants to call it a tie. Despite spending more than $15 million in support of Initiative 1631, which would have imposed a carbon tax, that initiative failed badly; it received about 43 percent of the votes, failing in 36 of 39 counties.

On the other hand, Democrats increased their margin in the legislature, giving environmental activists hope that what failed at the ballot box might pass when lobbyists have their say in Olympia.

Many Washington residents are willing to consider policies that reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but are wary of increased taxes and don’t trust politicians to spend money wisely. The environmental community already has indicated it did not learn that lesson. By way of contrast, there’s an opportunity to engage voters who rejected 1631 by offering practical tools that reduce CO2 emissions inexpensively and effectively.

The key feature of the environmental community’s legislative agenda is to require that 100 percent of Washington’s electricity becomes renewable energy by 2040. More than 80 percent of Washington’s energy generation now emits little or no CO2. Wind turbines are a relatively small portion of that amount, accounting for about seven percent of Washington’s low-CO2-emitting energy. Nuclear power is next at about eight percent. Hydro is the major power source, accounting for about 70 percent of our energy.

Despite praise for solar power from environmental activists, solar accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of our electricity generation (Source: State of Washington Department of Commerce), because it is expensive and Washington is one of the worst places in the United States for collecting solar energy (Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

Rather than simply replacing the small amount of Washington’s natural gas and coal energy with renewables, the environmental community likely will try to replace some of the reliable hydro and nuclear power with intermittent renewables like wind. If the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions quickly and effectively, this approach is nonsensical.

Wind and solar are still expensive, and replacing predictable low-CO2 energy with intermittent low-CO2 energy would be paying more to get less.

Instead of political mandates, all utilities and energy consumers should be given more control over their own electric bills. Existing electricity-rate structures are based on the decades-old assumption that residential consumers have no ability to react to daily fluctuations in electricity costs. Residential users don’t see the high costs in the middle of the day when electricity use increases and prices climb.

Utilities companies end up passing on those higher costs in the form of higher rates for all parts of the day. If public utilities could provide a way to conserve in the middle of the day, residential customers could save money.

The technology now exists to do exactly that. Nest thermostats created a voluntary system called “Rush Hour Rewards” that allows local utilities to provide rebates to consumers who allow Nest to automatically adjust home temperature when midday rates climb. Consumers save money and utilities increase energy conservation.

This consumer-driven approach is more likely to be successful and at lower cost than politically dictated mandates which, like Initiative 1631, too often are focused on appeasing special interests. It can also appeal to people across the political spectrum, rewarding users with both environmental and financial benefits.

Governor Jay Inslee was elected six years ago and promised to take action on climate change. During that time, his record is extremely poor, even failing to meet the CO2-reduction goals he set for himself. If the governor, legislative leaders, and the environmental community continue to choose dogmatism over environmental effectiveness, that string of failures will continue, increasing costs on Washington residents while failing to help the environment.

The better approach is to engage consumers with positive incentives to save and technology that empowers conservation. Trying to impose pain on Washington residents has failed. It is time to engage and empower them with technology and incentives.


Guest columnist Todd Myers at the Washington Policy Center took a controversial look at the environmental subject solar power, stating that Washington lags in it. He cited the following sources, with an afterthought:

“Washington is one of the worst places in the US for collecting solar energy” – National Renewable Energy Laboratory, https://www.nrel.gov/gis/images/eere_pv/national_photovoltaic_2012-01.jpg

“Solar accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of our electricity generation” – https://www.commerce.wa.gov/growing-the-economy/energy/fuel-mix-disclosure/

Myers said: “Solar actually accounts for 3/1000ths of a percent of aggregate fuel mix, but functionally there is no difference between 1/10th and 3/1000ths. People think solar is meaningful. It isn’t.”

Todd Myers serves as Director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center in Olympia. He is recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on free-market environmental policy, and author of “Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment.”

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