The Gristle

Dueling Data

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

DUELING DATA: Bellingham’s Climate Action Task Force held its final public meeting this month, completing the remaining chapters of a report the citizen’s advisory group will present to Bellingham City Council in early December. Drawn from a broad range of professionals, the nine-member task force was created in 2018 with a mission to develop recommendations to help the achieve accelerated renewable energy targets, with specific focus on the financial, technological and societal challenges resulting from such a transition.

The report has not even been completed and presented to City Council, however, and it is already being dismantled and disseminated in highly misleading mailers from building industry and carbon energy operatives.

Talk about trying to derail the train before it even leaves the station!

The Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) passed last session by the state Legislature creates a pathway toward a 100 percent carbon-free electrical grid in the state of Washington by 2045. The City of Bellingham proposes aggressive carbon-reduction targets by 2030.

The Building Industry Association of Whatcom County plans a luncheon this week to push back on those targets by releasing a highly dubious forecast of the cost of those transitions on local homeowners.  Those forecasts were included in a widely circulated mailer created by the BIA, Cascade Natural Gas, The Association of General Contractors, and the Whatcom County Association of Realtors that projected those costs as between $36,050 and $82,750 for a typical Bellingham home.

“For every $1,000 increase in the cost of a home, 113 local families are priced out of the market and cannot realize the American Dream of Homeownership. This conversion will price 4,068 to 9,266+ households out of the Bellingham housing market,” building industry lobbyists wailed in their flier that went out to thousands of Bellingham addresses earlier this month.

These are preposterous numbers, and not at all what the task force has projected or proposed.

“They have provided no citations for their cost data sources and no description of the methodology they used to derive their numbers,” observed Erin McDade, an expert who specializes in energy retrofits and decarbonized new construction. She serves on the task force. “Members of the task force have reached out multiple times to both Jacquelyn Styrna from BIAWC and Alyn Spector from CNG asking for details on their cost data sources and assumptions. Every request has been ignored,” McDade said.

In her own analysis constructed from cited sources, McDade estimated the conversion cost for a typical home would be on the order of $500 to $11,500, without the financing options the task force will propose. The energy savings of those retrofits over 20 years, she estimated, would be between $8,000 and $12,600 for a typical family home. Twenty years is the approximate expected life of space and water heating equipment in the average home, which mean these conversions can be coordinated with the anticipated replacement costs associated with homeownership.

“They have listed costs for things that would never be required for conversion from natural gas to electricity,” she noted. “Multiple HVAC and engineering professionals within Bellingham confirmed for the task force that no costs for these items would ever be associated with conversion.”

“Every iteration of the BIA and GNC contractors’ numbers appear to be inflated about four to five times the amount estimated by the task force,” Mark Gardner observed. Gardner is City Council’s legislative researcher who has worked with the task force to gather comparable numbers from other municipalities.

His research and that of the task force included energy conversion studies from California. The team recommends a comparable study for Bellingham and the Puget Sound region.

“Research and discussion with the industry experts who each pointed us to these studies indicates that the costs are likely to be even more favorable in Washington as equipment and electricity costs are typically lower here,” McDade commented.

“The leading paragraph of the flier states that the mission of the task force is to determine the ‘feasibility, costs, and impacts of the City’s 100 percent renewable energy ambitions.’ While true, this statement leaves out the other pieces of the task force mandate,” McDade noted, which are to establish feasible, non-disruptive energy targets, as well as identify funding mechanisms and develop a plan to achieve the Task Force’s recommended targets. Their document will identify policy considerations that may help Bellingham attain accelerated targets.

McDade helped create a flyer similar in appearance to the deceptive BIA mailer that puts more realistic numbers into perspective and provides actual sources for the data.

“In order to provide a more accurate breakdown of what conversion from natural gas to electricity might look like for a typical home, task force members consulted what industry experts collectively agree are the best available sources of such cost information,” McDade explained. Those sources will be included in the report they will present to Council.

Perhaps the most salient takeaway from the “dueling data” is that none of it has even been formally presented to city policymakers. This is the well-financed energy industry—fueled by dark cash from groups like CNG and Phillips66—working in tandem with the construction industry to smother climate change policy in its crib. These same groups were mercilessly at work to hijack recent local elections.

“How much money has this cohort has spent on the mailers, phone surveys, and door-knocking campaigns they’ve used to disseminate this information?” McDade wondered. “Costs incurred by utilities are typically passed on to their customers. Are CNG customers going to see any rate increases to offset the cost of this campaign?”

Let’s never forget that inaction on climate change also carries a cost.

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A Community of Color

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