By Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and CCAN Action Fund.
Climate change has gotten so bad that any pause in the transition to a clean-energy economy will literally kill people. “Delay means death,” says United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He uttered those words after another blockbuster and depressing climate study came out last month.
But don’t tell that to Maryland’s biggest utilities – Pepco, BGE and Washington Gas. These companies still make millions selling dirty energy derived from oil, coal and methane gas. To them, delay means more profits.
Case in point: the companies ganged up in Annapolis this month to stop a bipartisan expert proposal to seriously fight climate change. That proposal, from a commission linked to the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan (R), would have required newly constructed buildings in the state to run on lower-cost electric systems for heating, cooling and hot water – NOT propane, oil or gas. But the utility lobbyists swarmed in quickly, convincing the state Senate to punt this critical policy idea several years down the road – in the form of an 18-month study.
Thankfully, with just 2 1/2 weeks left in this year’s legislative session, the Maryland House of Delegates can limit the damage. They can shorten the timeline of this redundant and unnecessary study and make sure the study produces accurate and credible information, not just whatever results the utilities want.
All of this began with a recommendation last November from the Maryland Commission on Climate Change. Controlled by agency heads within the Hogan government, the commission is not known for left-wing excesses.
After commissioning its own in-depth study, the commission found that by requiring all-electric new buildings statewide – starting in 2024 – the state could reduce climate pollution and lower construction costs for most buildings and reduce consumer energy bills. The study even included analysis of the grid’s ability to meet these energy needs.
“Electrify everything!” is now the mantra of the U.S. climate movement from coast to coast. We need all-electric cars, electric homes, electric offices. And we need to provide that electricity with wind and solar power. This is how we solve climate change.
So, Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) included the commission recommendation as a core part of his Climate Solutions Now Act, introduced in January. By mandating fully electric new buildings, Maryland would be joining New York City and a soon-to-be-long list of other states moving in this direction.
But again, what’s good for the climate and consumers is not always good for Pepco, BGE and Washington Gas. So the utilities – who together donate tens of thousands of dollars to state legislators each year – unleashed their lobbying barrage on the Senate and settled on the classic stall maneuver – a study.
And what a doozy that study is. It gives the Maryland Public Service Commission nearly two years to report back to the General Assembly in December 2023. So legislative action to fully electrify new homes is out this year, next year and almost certainly in 2024 (given the report will arrive right before the January start of the 90-day session).
To recap: A 2021 expert recommendation to electrify new homes probably won’t be adopted by the General Assembly any sooner than 2025. That mandate wouldn’t actually go into effect until 2027 or later. Delay, delay, delay.
Absent this electrification feature, the Climate Solutions Now Act that is headed to the House this week is still a good — but very modest — bill. SB528 sets a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 60% statewide by 2030. It reduces carbon emissions from state-owned vehicles. It sets pollution reduction goals for all large buildings in the state – but with a far-off deadline of 2035. It also creates a “Climate Justice Corps” and the beginnings of a state Green Bank.
Together these steps are a “climate down payment,” as one activist called them.
But the key feature of the bill – electrification of all new buildings – is in study purgatory. And what will the PSC study actually examine? Utilities claim the state’s electrical grid can’t handle so much electrification so fast – and that consumers would pay more. Never mind that the Maryland Climate Commission study concluded the opposite on both counts. Meanwhile, Public Service Commission officials have privately said the statewide electrical grid is 15% under capacity right now.
In other words, the state has a lot of room for electrification growth. Even with projected growth in electric vehicles and electric homes, major upgrades like new substations won’t be necessary till the early 2030s at the earliest.
Finally, Pepco itself commissioned an August 2021 study examining these same electrification questions in the District of Columbia. They found that the city’s climate policies – more aggressive than Maryland’s – could easily be handled by the existing grid, deep into the 2030s.
So why, in 2022, are we waiting in Maryland?
The House of Delegates must do two things over the next few days to strengthen the Climate Solutions Now Act. One, require the PSC’s study to arrive no later than June 2023, (not December of that year). This gives the General Assembly time to prepare binding legislation for 2024. And two, tighten the existing study language so it can’t be manipulated by the utility-friendly PSC. Chiefly, we should be assessing what investments and timelines are needed to “electrify everything” as soon as possible. We should NOT be asking whether full electrification is possible. It is. The Maryland Climate Commission has answered that already.
Every year we delay good climate policy, the U.N. says, means future harm to people and the planet.
The House of Delegates must stand up to the utility lobbyists and give the public a faster, better study on electrification.