Following adoption of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, for more than a decade discussion of response to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions focused on sweeping national and international programs. The Obama Administration made responding to global climate change one of the key issues it intended to address. More than a year ago the U.S. House of Representatives passed a thousand-page climate bill that addressed a whole panoply of issues that are embedded in the Kyoto goal of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to below-1990 levels. But today it appears likely that national climate change legislation will be a long time in coming. The public simply does not appear to have the stomach to deal with the number and scope of major issues on the Obama Administration’s agenda. And so, into the vacuum of national inaction, local governments in the Northwest and elsewhere have been attempting to make energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction a local, incremental issue.

In that vein, King County just released its 2010 King County Energy Plan (.pdf).  Justice Brandeis told us in 1932 that under our system of federalism, local governments can be the laboratories of democracy. King County’s energy plan is an example of that sort of local experimentation with how a lot of modest scale efforts could combine to achieve much of what large scale legislation might hope for. It also shows that with the best of intentions, these are difficult economic times to achieve major societal goals.

King County has been working to reduce its energy use for at least a decade. Between 2000 and 2007 it completed some 60 electricity conservation or energy efficiency projects, at a cost of approximately $6.7 million (before utility incentives of $2.3 million), and saving 24.8 million kilowatt-hours and $1.3 million in energy costs per year in all years since. It adopted its first formal energy plan in 2007. Since 2007 it has initiated another 46 large energy-saving projects that are expected to yield more than $3.9 million in utility incentives and over $2 million per year in energy-cost savings. King County has also led local governments in testing and early adoption of new energy saving and renewable energy technologies, including purchasing the first fleet of efficient hybrid-electric transit buses and capturing renewable energy from sewage digester gas to displace traditional fuels.

But with that success, it has failed to achieve the goals of its 2007 Energy Plan. The 2007 Energy Plan sought to achieve a countywide 10 percent normalized net reduction in energy use by 2012, to utilize 50 percent of non-transit energy from renewable sources by 2012, and to utilize 35 percent renewable energy for transit by 2015 and 50 percent by 2020. Instead its stationary energy use has not fallen as quickly as hoped, its energy use by rolling stock has increased, and its use of renewable energy has gone down, not up.

Two obvious factors account for much of that failure. First, the County has expanded its transit service over the period 2007-2009, which necessarily increases its energy use for transit. Increased transit service presumably correlates to reduced use of personal automobiles, so that may be an example of where the County’s energy use should increase. More transit service is likely a net energy savings, even if it increases the energy used by transit. The County’s use of diesel for transit is high enough that meeting the goals for renewable energy for transit by buying biodiesel would necessitate transit service cuts. So the County has to choose between providing the transit service, with its attendant reduction in personal auto use, or meeting its goals for renewable energy in the transit it provides. Second, part of the County’s 2007 Energy Plan assumed that the County would purchase “green power” (renewable electric power). The County has also not met that goal due to financial constraints. At a time when it is eliminating all social services, it cannot pay extra for its energy demands, regardless of how worthy the motives.

The 2010 Energy Plan is based on five principles:

• Measure it to manage it – continuously measuring energy performance and GHG emissions to identify and prioritize opportunities.
• Efficiency first – continuously looking for ways to save energy, including energy audits of County facilities, reducing trips, and giving employees options to save commuting.
• Increase transit fleet efficiency and grow market share – increasing transit market share and ridership with as efficient a fleet as practical, will lead to a reduction in community-wide energy use.
• Consider use, production and procurement of renewable energy – King County produces renewable energy at its sewage treatment plants and landfill, and sells energy that is excess to its needs back onto the grid. It will look for ways to increase the opportunity to utilize waste heat or gas in all its facilities.
• Integrate goals and strategies for energy efficiency with goals and strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (This final principle gets short shrift in the body of the Plan. What exactly it means is unclear.)

For each of those principles the County plan sets forth implementation strategies. Some will be more achievable than others. For instance, while the County cannot immediately eliminate its diesel buses, when its rolling stock comes up for replacement, it can continue to be an early adopter of more efficient rolling stock. As the owner of a major fleet of non-transit vehicles, the County can encourage installation of the infrastructure needed for fully-electric vehicles. As the owner of large, energy-intensive and/or special purpose facilities it can focus on energy savings as a form of least-cost management. It has significant opportunities to recover waste heat and methane gas, and use that to generate electricity. On the other hand, the County is facing brutal budget challenges, and things like purchasing renewable energy credits are not likely to make it past the budget axe any time soon. Like most consumers of energy, how quickly it can move forward will depend on cost and on the incentives that are available. It will be difficult to make decisions that cost more, even if they come with significant energy savings.

Does all this matter? Possibly. Much in the County’s plan simply shows what good stewardship of assets looks like. Energy audits, measuring to manage, using purchasing power to become an early adopter of new technology – those are all things that any major enterprise or owner of assets can do, and which if all major enterprises and owners of assets did, would put us further ahead. Having the County do it will provide a track record that will help attract more major property owners to take similar steps. It will also show what strategies sound better on paper than in reality. That too is useful information. So if the County’s 2010 Energy Plan isn’t perfect, and if it certainly cannot make global impact on carbon use, it is nonetheless a worthy effort, at least meriting the conclusion that the glass if half full.