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Progressive Voice: Choose Your Own Arlington Energy Adventure

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

By Claire Noakes

Remember reading those books, with choices every few pages? Now we live in one, where we have multiple decisions to make on clean energy policy that could lead to breakthroughs and a resilient community, or to dead ends. Choose wrong, however, and we fall into a trap that lulls us into believing we have made virtuous choices when we have in fact overlooked a huge variable. Let’s start the storyline.

It’s 2013, and you generate 12.9 metric tons (mt) of carbon dioxide emissions annually, which is unsustainable. You create a Community Energy Plan (CEP), with goals (but no budget or regulations) to lower that amount to 3 mt by 2050, and to improve economic competitiveness and energy security. Turn the page to the year 2018. You read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, which states dire consequences if emissions are not dropped further.

It’s 2019, and the County Board responds in the CEP Update, aiming for 100% renewable electricity for County operations by 2025, 100% renewable electricity for the community by 2035, and net zero emissions by 2050. Net zero is ambitious– if a resident uses a gas stove, there must be a carbon offset. If this draft CEP Update is adopted (and you can provide input during the July 13 County Board meeting), where will we choose for this storyline to go next?

Here’s a favorable set of possibilities:

We have chosen well at every turn.

Or the storyline may lead us to dead ends. The county forms a CCA, but Richmond bans it. The County uses Power Purchase Agreements for cheap solar energy from third parties, but Dominion Energy Virginia shifts its fees to thwart the savings. The County approves EV charging stations but the technology becomes obsolete before project completion. The County negotiates bonus density for developers for building envelope efficiency, but the expense raises housing costs even more. The County purchases carbon offsets, but their cost spikes, and fraud compromises their value. Pitfalls follow us at every decision point.

Yet here’s the storyline we may choose that worries me the most: let’s say federal and state policymakers get onboard and the County accomplishes its CEP goals. However, unlike Portland’s climate action plan, ours doesn’t include or even discuss those emissions that are generated outside of Arlington because of consumption of goods inside of Arlington. These consumer emissions often dwarf sector emissions.

So we focus on sector emissions and get them down to net zero, but overlook our consumer emissions altogether, which are not negligible in a wealthy community. Many of us (author included) fly for vacation, buy goods imported from abroad, order burgers, and have our wardrobe shipped overnight to our doorsteps.  Turn to the next page. Every few years, extreme rainfall destroys lives, contaminates our water, breaks bridges, floods the airport, and ruins property values- The End.

The 2019 CEP Update, while ambitious, may not be sufficient if it overlooks consumer emissions. Even though the County can’t directly control consumer emissions from imported food or DCA flights, it would be a valuable public service to start estimating and reporting on these sources of carbon, and to develop incentives to lower this overlooked factor. We must become informed of our actual carbon footprint to successfully navigate this energy adventure.

Claire Noakes participates on Arlington County’s Energy Committee, under the Environment and Energy Conservation Commission (E2C2). She is trying to reduce her beer carbon footprint by replacing imported Belgians with local brews. In cans, not bottles, now that glass isn’t accepted for recycling.

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