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Progressive Voice: Make Arlington a Leader in Renewable Energy and Fighting Climate Change

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Paul Ferguson

“Ready For 100” is a commitment to use 100% renewable electricity by the year 2035. Localities making this commitment send a signal to the nation and world that the United States is still moving forward with emission reduction plans that will mitigate the effects of global warming.

The International Panel on Climate Change tells us unequivocally that we have much less time than we thought to avoid catastrophic climate change. We will see rising sea levels taking away property in coastal areas, increased flooding, difficulty growing crops, increasing chances of superstorms, disease relating to heat, loss of animals and plants affecting our ecosystem.

The result of this warming eventually could be a planet that is not hospitable to human life as we know it. If emissions around the world are reduced, these disastrous effects will be reduced. That is why Arlington should join other localities in taking action now.

When Arlington’s Community Energy Plan was passed in 2013, it set a transformational goal for greenhouse gas emissions within Arlington. Yet the plan was developed when solar photovoltaic was more expensive than fossil fuels and the future of electric vehicles was an unknown. The economics and technology are now very different.

While Arlington is well regarded for its environmental commitment, other localities have taken stronger actions. Montgomery County, Maryland is committed to achieve 100% clean, renewable electricity by 2035, and Washington, D.C. by 2032. Atlanta by 2035, and Columbia, South Carolina by 2036. In Virginia, Floyd County committed by 2035 and the Blacksburg City Council by 2050.

Five cities have already achieved 100% renewable energy on their power grid — Aspen, CO; Burlington, VT; Georgetown, TX; Greensburg, KS; and Rock Port, MO.

What Would It Take to Make the Change?

Making the transition would be hard work. I acknowledge the power Dominion Energy has in Virginia. Dominion has repeatedly hindered efforts to increase the percentage of renewable power used. However, with environmental awareness growing in the state legislature and among our citizens, it is time to press for change.

Localities can drive markets/costs down for renewable energy. The county and businesses can buy green power options through Dominion or the private sector. This pushes the market and, if enough join together, it makes a difference.

Some examples of actions Arlington could take:

  • Add solar incentives for residents and businesses
  • Partner with Arlington businesses investing in large offsite renewable projects providing clean energy to Arlington and surrounding areas
  • Commit to future government and private sector buildings being Net Zero Energy Buildings like Discovery Elementary School (cannot mandate for private sector but can encourage through site plan process)
  • Transition ART buses and school buses to electric power
  • Add additional electric charging stations throughout the county for residents.

Arlington would need funding for any new clean energy initiatives. In general, I agree that funds should not be dedicated from a tax for one issue. However back in 2007, the County Board instituted a Residential Utility Tax (RUT) to fund the Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy (AIRE). This was specifically to encourage renewable energy use.

An up-to-$3 tax on electric and gas bills was designed to address problems caused by energy use. Arlingtonians who use 100 percent renewable energy through rooftop solar systems do not pay the tax. Those who use less energy pay only a portion of the tax on a sliding scale. Unfortunately, during the 2017 and 2018 budget considerations, the County Board allowed RUT revenues to be diverted for general fund items.

AIRE put us in good position to now participate in “Ready For 100.” And the residential utility tax (RUT) gave us a good tool to fund renewable energy projects.

When Arlington or other localities reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it doesn’t make things directly better for us. Climate change is a world problem. However, when hundreds of localities make Paris Accord-like commitments, this sends a signal that all the international efforts together are worth it.

I hope that the County Board will recognize the unique nature of the RUT revenue and reserve it for its intended use. I hope the County Board will adopt a commitment to use 100 percent renewable electricity by the year 2035 — and follow through with practical actions to bring it about. I know that a majority of County Board members believe in environmental stewardship. Please let them know that you are “Ready For 100”!

Paul Ferguson has served as the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Arlington and the City of Falls Church since 2008. He served as a Member of the County Board from 1996-2007.

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