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After some debate, Bainbridge opts to pay for green energy

Bainbridge Island has taken its first step in tapping green energy for its public utilities.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the Bainbridge Island City Council voted unanimously to make a $3,000 investment in Puget Sound Energy’s renewable energy program.

“This is a way of demonstrating with our public money, being responsible stewards of those dollars. And I like the idea of making that statement, reinforcing our belief in ourselves as an island and a community that supports environmentally sensitive and sustainable behavior,” said Mayor Anne Blair.

The opportunity to opt into the program came just after the city was awarded a $20,000 grant from Puget Sound Energy to install solar panels at the Waterfront Park Community Center. The grant was presented to the city in a short presentation earlier this month for the community’s success in promoting “green power” energy.

Bainbridge entered PSE’s Green Power Challenge against four other cities last year.

As part of the challenge, participating communities encouraged residents and businesses to purchase PSE’s renewable energy service, an option that’s been available to customers since 2002.

By meeting or surpassing its goal for new subscribers to the service, communities had the chance to win a $20,000 grant for a solar installation project in their community.

Bainbridge’s original goal was to enroll 1,250 new customers by the end of 2013. With support from Sustainable Bainbridge, the city exceeded their goal and ended the challenge with 1,326 new customers enrolled.

True to its promise, PSE will work with the city this year to install a new solar panel on top of Waterfront Park Community Center.

The opportunity to reduce the city’s carbon footprint didn’t stop there for council members.

Shortly after accepting the grant, city staff asked the council to make Bainbridge a role model by also purchasing green power. The purchase would exemplify the city’s public policy to promote sustainability, energy conservation, and reduce fossil fuel consumption and its carbon footprint.

Staff proposed that 100 percent of the city’s approximately 65 electrical accounts utilize green power at no more than $14,370 per year, in addition to the city’s current total electrical bill of $350,000 per year.

Because the Green Power Program is not the least costly energy service, the council must authorize the purchase.

Through the program, PSE works with independent producers in the Pacific Northwest to buy clean electricity.

These businesses offer wind, solar, methane from landfills and livestock and other green energy sources.

The purpose of the higher cost, Heather Mulligan of PSE told the council earlier this month, is to subsidize long-term renewable energy facility projects — an investment that follows the 2006 state initiative requiring all qualifying utilities to obtain 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020.

Since the facility projects are mandatory, all utility customers will be supporting the developments eventually, Mulligan said. Green power participants, though, will be contributing right away.

“The voluntary program is purely additional,” Mulligan said. “The voluntary program is for those who want to go above and beyond the requirements and help make sure more is coming into the system earlier.”

Currently, Mulligan said, 50 percent of Olympia’s utility load is met through the Green Power Program, as is Kirkland’s. Bellingham and Lacey meet 100 percent of their utility use through the program. And recently, Snoqualmie and Tumwater each signed on for purchases of more than 1 million kilowatt hours per year of renewable energy.

At the Feb. 5 council session, a move to authorize the purchase stalled after Councilman Roger Townsend asked for a vote but his motion died without a supporting vote.

While most council members had little to say, Councilwoman Sarah Blossom questioned why the city should pay more for the service when it could instead  outfit the city’s facilities with more efficient equipment to cut down on its power usage.

Some in the audience disagreed with that move.

“I just want to point out that what this is about is putting our money where our talk is,” said Planning Commissioner Maradel Gale.

“PSE gets a tremendous amount of its energy from one of the dirtiest coal plants in the country, in Colstrip, Montana,” she continued. “This is a way to encourage them to get away from that. It’s about everything we claim to be concerned about, in terms of what we want for our country, for our community, for our children — which is a future that doesn’t include things like burning coal.”

The council decided to push scheduling an authorization vote to this week to give absent council members a chance to weigh in.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Councilman Steve Bonkowski asked the council to consider participating at the same percentage that the community as a whole has committed to, instead of 100 percent.

“For me (100 percent participation) would say that the majority of the island would be supportive of this,” Bonkowski said. “And the data says that less than

20 percent of the island is supportive of this.”

Blossom agreed with Bonkowski.

“To me, this is kind of a luxury for people; it’s a feel-good thing,” Blossom said. “I know there are people who say the environment is not a luxury, but there are people in our community who consider it a victory every month to only stay 30 days behind on their power bill.

“This is choosing to make your power bill more,” she said.

Others on the council said that by purchasing green power at any level would exemplify environmentally sensitive leadership.

“I like the idea of aligning the support with the number of people who are also making that,” Blair said. “It becomes a way of making some sense of our contribution.

“I think that we need to be very aware of the fact that this is something we are doing collectively and have said collectively is a value to deal with responsibly and provide leadership, and take pride in our leadership on environmental issues. And I don’t think you get to do that and then step away when an opportunity comes forward.”

After Bonkowski’s proposal, the council voted unanimously to make a $3,000 investment in green energy out of the general fund. On an annual basis, the city will review the level of participation of Bainbridge residents to adjust the city’s participation as appropriate.

 

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