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D.C. Council Passes Historic Climate-Change Legislation

D.C. joined Hawaii, California and several U.S. cities and towns Tuesday in furthering its commitment to environmental sustainability, as the city council approved one of the country’s most progressive climate-change bills.

In the moments leading up to the council’s unanimous vote, council members Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) received collegial accolades for their part in crafting a bill that reflected the input of environmentalists, local business owners and other relevant parties.

“We’re trying to do what we can on the local level to respond to climate change. It’s a moral imperative,” Cheh said moments before the D.C. Council approved the CleanEnergy DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018.

The sweeping legislation was introduced by Cheh in July, a year after President Donald Trump (R) withdrew from the Paris Accord. The new law mandates that all energy used in the District must come from renewable sources — some of which can be produced locally — by 2032.

“The federal government has abandoned us and unless we do something, we’ll leave this catastrophe to our grandchildren,” said Cheh, who chairs the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment. “This bill is a major achievement and I hope the people of D.C. can be proud.”

Other provisions of the law create an energy performance standard program for large and new structures in the District and incentivize the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles, all with the goal of the reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent within the next 32 years.

For some key players involved in shaping the bill, however, the real victory lies in the opportunity to expand access to renewable energy sources for low- and moderate-income families burdened by the increasing cost of living.

“Climate change is an important issue and has a real impact,” said Melissa Lavinson, senior vice president of governmental and external affairs at Pepco Holdings. “It’s important for the District to have a model that drives innovation and is more inclusive.”

Other provisions of the law create an energy performance standard program for large and new structures in the District and incentivize the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles, all with the goal of the reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent within 32 years.

Council hearings and working group meetings in recent months centered on the pathways to reducing carbon emission, improving modes of public transportation in that regard, and expanding the District’s presence in the energy efficiency arena.

Those discussions culminated in the introduction of amendments by McDuffie, chair of the council’s Business & Economic Development Committee, one of which lifts barriers utility companies may encounter in expanding energy efficiency options to needy residents.

Last month, all council members, except Robert White (D-At Large), who was absent, approved two measures, one that allows energy companies to provide cost-reduction programs to eligible customers unlike that offered by the District Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU), and another that requires the mayor to establish a transportation program geared toward fully eliminating commercial vehicle emissions by 2045.

Lavinson lauded the amendments as a step in the right direction for addressing inequities that preclude low-income communities from accessing energy efficient amenities.

“Some of the elements of the bill that Council member Kenyan McDuffie strengthened do that,” Lavinson said. “Advancing the bill will provide money to expand access to local solar and renewable energy to low- and moderate-income residents. This can serve as a model to make sure they’re realizing the tangible benefits of this great bill.”

Data shows that city residents in 27,000 households with median incomes at or below the poverty rate spend nearly one-third of their household income on utilities. Families that allocate significant portions of their budget to utilities often develop long-term health problems as a result of forgoing cooling and heating, and lack of healthy food options.

Residents who qualify for residential discount programs receive a monthly credit on their bill and exemptions for spending surcharges, including those referenced in the CleanEnergy DC Omnibus Amendment Act.

Lavinson also referenced two forms of a burgeoning solar energy program. Through the private rooftop solar program, customers save money and energy when they install solar panels on their roofs.

“The District agencies work hard to get outreach and help people understand there are local and federal programs that they should be taking advantage of,” she said. “This is something we do every day, which is why we’re excited that the bill provides us an opportunity to do more.”

The innovative pricing structure had been of great benefit for residents living in multifamily dwellings such as Jubilee Housing on Columbia Road in Northwest. Proponents of solar energy and other cost-saving measures have set their sights on spreading the word among low- and moderate-income residents who qualify for those services.

But for some, including People’s Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye, affordability remains an issue in discussions about the bill. At the bill’s inception, she stressed her concerns about how fee increases to fund the District Green Bank would financially burden residents. Another gripe involved the chance that, even with the passage of McDuffie’s amendment, Pepco and other utility providers would duplicate cost-saving programs over which SEU has sole authority.

On Monday, the day before the council vote, Mattavous-Frye maintained that the recent amendments to the bill wouldn’t prevent rate increases for low- and moderate-income customers.

“The bill as presently drafted allows Pepco and Washington Gas to propose energy efficiency programs, while the utilities are not precluded from submitting programs under the present system,” she said. “I am concerned that the utility programs will duplicate the efforts and programs offered by the Sustainable Energy Utility, which is the third-party contractor created to implement citywide energy efficiency programs. Duplicative programs will cause consumers to pay twice for the same program.”

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