Seattle Mayor Unveils $150 Million Effort to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Published November 1, 2008

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (D) has unveiled a $185 million plan to promote compact fluorescent light bulbs, green buildings, and other energy efficiency programs for private and public buildings in the city. The plan will cost more than $300 per Seattle citizen and close to $1,000 per family.

Nickels claims the new program will increase energy conservation, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and create 1,000 “green-collar” jobs.

“We will not build a new power plant to fuel our city. Instead, we will reduce our power consumption using innovation, efficiency, and inspiration,” said Nickels at the announcement on August 20. The city will, however, add a few carrots to make sure residents are truly inspired.

Results Not Specified

While the costs are firm, the asserted benefits are speculative, analysts note. Nickels’ plan calls for a “pilot program” creating in-home energy monitors, a plan to “explore options” for in-home energy audits, and a program for “green home financing” that is “still in the conceptual phase.”

Additionally, the program would promote the use of LEED “green” building standards and mixed-use housing.

Seattle has had mixed results with LEED standards. The new City Hall, built using the standards created by the U.S. Green Building Council, uses more energy than the older, larger building despite projections it would use up to 30 percent less.

Green Mayor

Nickels is a founder of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ efforts to combat climate change, and his announcement is only the latest in a series of efforts to reduce Seattle’s carbon dioxide emissions. This summer the mayor unveiled a program to close down local streets to cars, encouraging people to walk or ride their bikes in the often-rainy city.

The new plan builds on another program unveiled by the city to promote the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) to reduce energy use. In July the city announced it had distributed one million of the bulbs to local retailers.

At the same time, the Washington State Legislature was considering new legislation to mandate recycling of CFLs by 2011, imposing a penalty of $1,000 for the first offense and $5,000 for each subsequent offense.

Heavy Costs

The costs of Nickels’ green energy program have raised concerns. Assuming the jobs created by the effort really are new, each will come at a cost of $185,000. The total program will cost the equivalent of $312 per Seattle resident.

No study has been done to assess the economic impact of the $185 million in new taxes, including job losses that will be caused by the tax hike.

While the city has promoted the notion of “green-collar” jobs, economists are skeptical of the ability of government programs and renewable energy mandates to create net employment.

Appalachian State University economics professor John Whitehead told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, “In the short run, there’s no way net jobs are going to be positive” from renewable energy programs. “More brown-energy jobs will be lost.”

Green Initiative Forced Hand

One reason the city is undertaking the program is its effort to meet the requirements of a voter-approved initiative requiring 15 percent of all energy used in the city be provided by “renewable” sources by 2020. The city expects overall demand to increase 1 percent per year, making it more difficult to reach the mandated target without an effort to constrain energy consumption.

Given the limits of the mandates, which exclude hydroelectric power from the definition of renewable power, city officials believe their only option is to promote conservation aggressively.

In a press release announcing the program, Nickels’ office noted, “More than wind, land-fill gas, or geothermal, Seattle City Light will meet its needs through conservation, which complies with Initiative 937.”

Exceedingly Expensive

The program’s primary goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions comes at a cost significantly higher than the alleged climate change threat justifies.

Proponents say the program will reduce one million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over five years, at a cost of $185 per ton.

That compares to an estimate of just $81 per ton for the impact of carbon dioxide itself on society—an estimate that comes from a pessimistic analysis, the British Stern Review. Analysis by Yale University economics professor William Nordhaus found the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions merits paying no more than $7.36 per ton to reduce CO2 emissions.

Seattle’s plan thus will require taxpayers to spend from two to 25 times the amount economists estimate would be appropriate to address climate change, assuming temperature projections made by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are accurate. Many scientists have questioned that assumption.

Todd Myers ([email protected]) is environmental director for the Washington Policy Center.